When you're sitting behind one of the consistently best units in college football, it's hard to get noticed. With a front seven that has a reputation for hosting parties in opponents' backfields in front of it, Stanford's secondary tends to get lost in all of the bright lights and noise. And this year could be the year that Stanford's once-inexperienced secondary breaks out of its shell and joins that party.
Last season, Stanford's secondary lost five starters, and was left with a fairly young group of regulars. Only two players, Kodi Whitfield and Ronnie Harris, had seen truly significant playing time. Talented but inexperienced players like true freshman Quenton Meeks and sophomores Terrence Alexander, and Alijah Holder were forced to step up.
The results were somewhat predictable: the unit flashed some signs of its play-making potential, but finished the season an almost perfectly middling sixth in the Pac-12 in pass defense.
One glimpse into the group's and its headliner, Meeks' potential probably ended up saving Stanford's season. With a perfectly timed interception late against Washington State, Meeks transferred Stanford's postseason plane tickets from El Paso to Pasadena.
With Stanford down 28-27 and the Cougars driving late in Pullman, someone had to step up. Meeks did just that, making a huge play that put Stanford inside Washington State's 40-yard line.
Washington State lined up in a fairly standard formation, with three wide receivers out on the right side.
But before Cougars' quarterback Luke Falk even had time to field the snap and drop back, Meeks already recognized that it was going to be a screen play, and started crashing in.
Unnoticed by Falk, Meeks blazed through both receivers and put himself right in their position, ready to haul in Falk's throw and save Stanford's season.
Meeks' instincts and anticipation on this play can't be taught -- a trait that this secondary as a whole has been gifted with as well. The play draws back memories of Shayne Skov's incredibly-timed jumped snap in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2013 -- special company for the true freshman.
Although Stanford finished 10th in the Pac-12 in interceptions last season, those play-making skills will remain. With more time for maturation after last season, Stanford's secondary's natural ball-hawking skills and football IQ should help them take the next step and turn this unit into one of the team's strengths.
They certainly don't lack the athleticism or talent needed to become a force to reckon with in the Pac-12. At 4.73, Meeks actually ran the slowest 40 time out of Stanford's corners, trailing Alexander (4.45) and Holder (4.46). Raw talent shouldn't be an issue for the Cardinal going forward -- they've already proven that they can light up highlight reels by making big plays. But that's not everything.
Stanford's secondary was exposed against more explosive offensive teams, getting burned by the likes of UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame. At times, these teams even seemed to get in their heads. Their speed gave the young Cardinal secondary little margin for error, exposing mental lapses and missed assignments. The consequence: big plays.
Part of these issues stemmed from a weak pass rush, but the issue still remained: despite their athleticism, the Cardinal were routinely beat in space by high caliber offensive teams.
Take this play against Vernon Adams Jr. and the Oregon Ducks, for example. The Ducks lined up with a receiver in motion on the right side, and ran a wheel on the left.
Stanford's corners locked down Oregon's speedy receivers, but the defensive line failed to get a push.
Somehow, the play ended like this.
How, might you ask? A missed assignment that probably earned safety Kodi Whitfield one of David Shaw's not-so-famous earfuls. He fell asleep on his only job, staying back to cover the deep ball, and let Darren Carrington run free. Carrington cut deep, but Whitfield hardly moved.
Against a team like Oregon, that won't fly. Instead of being aggressive against these receivers, Whitfield was on his heels.
As a unit, the Cardinal secondary struggled to defend in space -- perhaps because they were too passive. Another year of experience under their belts could give them the confidence to play like they own the turf. They have the athleticism to compete, but sometimes they seem to forget.
This passive mentality might have spilled out and created more missed assignments against elite teams.
Spot the issue here:
Sure, we don't know the exact play call here, but it doesn't take a Stanford degree to note that there simply weren't enough defenders here to stop three receivers.
Another issue that was exposed in the Oregon game: at times, Stanford's secondary struggled with run support.
On this play, a simple read option to the right side, Stanford's corners got locked down in space, unable to shed blocks and make the play.
Overall, this secondary certainly needs to improve in run support and making plays in space, but the outlook for an improved group from last year is positive. They had the physical tools to compete in a crowded Pac-12 North, but just needed a little more experience and coaching to take the pivotal next step.
With nearly nine months to bulk up and learn from last season, Stanford's secondary should become a point of fortitude. Defensive backs coach Duane Akina has proven that he can consistently shape raw talent and coach up players.
Accordingly, the smart man's money never goes against Shaw, Akina, and the Stanford coaching staff, and there's no reason to expect otherwise from this group.
Screen grabs: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akNkZ5Q2c7k, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoer8Ht_HYg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNikFp1ouBw)