It was no coincidence that Stanford's defense broke the school record for sacks in 2012. Sure, the front-seven was among the best in program history. But the likes of Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner had plenty of help from one of the top Cardinal secondaries in recent memory.
And in order for Stanford's "Party in the Backfield" defense to operate at full efficiency again in 2013, the defensive backs must hold their own.
"If the secondary is sound in coverage that allows our front seven to really get after the run and get after the QB," Stanford coach David Shaw said at last month's Bay Area college football media day. "If we have to really take care of the secondary we might have to take some of the pressure off the passer but if we can keep the pressure off the passer and be sound in coverage, I think it allows us to play defense the way we want to."
Stanford's secondary in 2012 was sound in coverage more times than not. First-year starters Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards surpassed expectations at safety. True freshman corner Alex Carter flashed an NFL-caliber skillset. Redshirt junior corner Terrence Brown helped neutralize many of the conference's top receivers.
The depth was also strong. Though they weren't always starters, cornerbacks Wayne Lyons and Barry Browning were solid contributors. Usua Amanam was a pleasant surprise and a very productive player at nickelback. Safety Devon Carrington made one of the plays of the year tracking down Marcus Mariota in Eugene, and was a reliable contributor all year. Freshman Zach Hoffpauir showed plenty of promise. And that's not to mention Kyle Olugbode, who looked very good in spring.
All of the major pieces from the 2012 secondary return for Stanford in 2013, with one notable exception. Brown surprised many around the program by declaring for the NFL Draft with a year of college eligibility remaining. He didn't get the hype of some of the other defensive backs in the Pac-12, but quietly, Brown was a superb cover corner, and helped limit the production of the some of conference's best receivers.
Replacing him won't be easy.
There are plenty of candidates for the job, however. Lyons and Browning are probably the frontrunners - each has started games in the past and has accumulated plenty of experience. But there are also question marks with each. Lyons has never quite achieved the potential that he showed in his freshman season prior to suffering a foot injury. He was beat deep on several plays during the open practices in spring. Browning, meanwhile, missed most of spring due to injury.
Amanam is another player who figures to fit prominently into the competition. He'll get reps at corner during camp and will be given an opportunity to win the job. The program's other cornerbacks -- Ronnie Harris and Ra'Chard Pippens, as well as incoming freshmen Taijuan Thomas and Chandler Dorrell -- don't figure to be major players in the competition at this time.
The darkhorse of the group might be a player who has spent his career to date at safety: the senior, Carrington.
"Devon Carrington, he'll rotate in at safety and at corner also," David Shaw said. "That's the great part about not changing our system over years and having a guy that's a senior so he can actually rotate and help the communication. That's one thing about a guy moving to corner that's played safety, he's used to communicating so now we can get that communication going both ways. He's got the size and speed to play it."
Carrington took some reps at corner in spring as well. He would have excellent size for the cornerback position (if Carrington wins the job, the Carter/Carrington tandem would be among the conference's most physical), and he's shown good speed at safety, but it's uncertain how his athleticism would translate to the corner position and if he would able to stay stride-for-stride with the conference's top receivers.
Either way, while Alex Carter is well on his way towards becoming a college star, Stanford will need a second corner to emerge for its defense to reach full potential. Shaw said that he's not as concerned about identifying one firm starter as he is about seeing a sustained high level of play from the corners.
"Hopefully we'll rotate those guys in and I'm not worried about who the starter is, I just hope that as a group they play extremely well," Shaw said.