Richard Sherman is not only the elder statesman and leader of the Stanford secondary, he's an excellent symbol for the position that has shown the greatest improvement from last year to this. Let's consider Sherman's journey, beginning all the way back in 2006. He came to Stanford as a wide receiver, and his promising freshman season was one of a few shining lights in the darkness of the Cardinal's 1-11 disaster. In 2007 he made a critical catch on 4th and 20 to preserve the last-minute drive that ended with Tavita Pritchard's touchdown to Mark Bradford and the Biggest. Upset. Ever. After an injury cut short his 2008 campaign and allowed for an extra year of eligibility, Sherman asked to switch to defensive back in 2009 and started several games at corner.
His presence there probably said more about the secondary's weakness than anything else. The '09 defensive backfield was the softest part of a terribly soft defense, a statement that could have been easily made about the defense for several years running. But don't take my word for it, check the chart (interceptions listed are for defensive backs only).
Sure, there are lots of external variables affecting the passing yardage a defensive unit allows, and one look at the 2006 line will tell you all about that. When games are over at halftime, like many games were in 2006, teams simply stop throwing the ball. But in 2009, the year of Andrew Luck's debut and Toby Gerhart's Heisman campaign, the Stanford offense showed up every week, winning eight games and scoring an average of 27.6 points a game in their five losses. Every game was a shootout, and the Cardinal defensive backs were the rabbits in the shooting gallery.
Things were different in 2010. Richard Sherman might not have become a lockdown corner, but he led the team in interceptions, passes broken up, and passes defended. Johnson Bademosi, Michael Thomas, and Delano Howell filled out the rest of the secondary on most Saturdays, and as a unit they cut more than sixty yards per game off the '09 average yards passing allowed and almost doubled the interception total. (As a team, Stanford's 17 interceptions were good for second-best in the Pac-10 and eleventh in the nation.) There were slips from time to time -- against USC, for example -- but statistically speaking, this was the second-rated secondary in the conference, whether measured by interceptions or passing yards allowed. To be sure, some of this is due to the changes up front and the increased pressure on the quarterback, but what this group accomplished cannot be ignored.
Sherman will be gone in 2011, but the secondary should continue its improvement. The Cardinal coaching staff has shown an inclination to play true freshmen, especially on defense, and the defensive backfield has benefitted greatly from this policy. Seniors-to-be Bademosi (35), Howell (33), and Thomas (38) will enter next fall with a combined 106 games of experience, but they'll also bring significant talent. Howell and Thomas will take care of the safety positions, where strong safety Howell has developed a well-deserved reputation as a heavy hitter and free safety Thomas has turned into quite a ball hawk. Barry Browning started three games this season at cornerback as a true freshman and will probably fill the vacancy left by Sherman in 2011. Sophomore-to-be Devon Carrington will provide depth at the safety spot. We could also see the debut of Ricky Seale in 2011. Although he was recruited as a running back, Rivals.com gave him four stars as a defensive back. He redshirted this year, and the potential logjam at running back could push over to this side of the ball.
- 2010 Performance: B+
- 2011 Outlook: A
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