When Jim Harbaugh left the program he had built to join the San Francisco 49ers on January 7, 2011, Stanford football stood at a crossroads. Most observers believed the program would crumble and that the assembled recruiting class would splinter in the four weeks that remained before National Signing Day, but that didn't happen. This series will take a closer look at some of the players from that landmark class who are poised for greatness in 2013.
When I was analyzing the 2011 signing class two and a half years ago, I wrote that cornerback Wayne Lyons was the most important member of the class, and not just because of his obvious talent and intelligence. Lyons made his verbal commitment to Stanford on January 8th -- the day after Jim Harbaugh jumped to the 49ers and five days before David Shaw took the helm.
Why was this important? Lyons was a dynamic four-star recruit out of the state of Florida -- just a short drive from the U -- with more than thirty scholarship offers from a list of schools that included Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, USC, and all three Florida schools. He could've chosen to play football anywhere in America, and he chose Stanford, even though there was no head coach in place at the time. His announcement came as a vote of confidence and ended any fears that recruits might be listening to the Chicken Littles in the media who were sure the sky was falling on the Stanford football program.
A few months after Shaw took the job, I had the opportunity to ask him about Lyons and the details surrounding his commitment. I asked him if he was surprised, either at Lyons's choice or the timing of his announcement, and his response was quick. "Not at all. He didn't tell anyone about it, but he actually gave us his verbal commitment more than a year ago." Lyons didn't commit to Harbaugh or Shaw, he committed to Stanford.
Coach Shaw has a tendency to heap praise upon his players, especially on Signing Day. He famously predicted that Lyons would eventually develop into one of the best cornerbacks in America, and early in his true freshman season, Lyons looked to be heading in that direction. It was clear almost immediately that he was one of the most physically talented cornerbacks Stanford had ever seen, fast enough to turn and run with the Pac-12's fleetest receivers but physical enough to shed blockers and help out in run defense.
But Lyons suffered a foot injury in just the second game of his Stanford career, and he missed the remainder of the season. He played all fourteen games last season, but he never appeared to be completely healthy, and some wondered if he would ever reach his full potential.
This could be the year. All reports indicate that Lyons is completely healthy for the first time since before his injury, and he's currently projected to be the starting right cornerback, across the field from another young corner, Alex Carter. You'll read lots of stories about the Stanford defense this fall, and most of them will focus on the front seven -- and rightfully so. But if Lyons can develop into the type of cover corner that all the experts projected him to be two years ago, we could be looking at a defensive secondary (Lyons, Carter, free safety Ed Reynolds, and strong safety Jordan Richards) that would be easily the best in Stanford history and -- along with Oregon's -- the best in the Pac-12.
So can Lyons rise to this challenge? Can he match what Carter has done on the other side of the field? Can his ascendence elevate this defense and make it one of the best units in the nation?
Yes. Yes he will.
Previously in this series: