Prior to the start of fall camp, Cardinal Sports Report analyzed some of the pressing questions facing the 2013 Stanford Cardinal. Now, days after Stanford's season ended last week with a 24-20 loss in the 100th Rose Bowl, we review how those questions were answered over the course of the season, and what those answers mean for the future of Cardinal football.
The first part of our season in review series focused on Kelsey Young, outside linebacker, the development of Stanford's young quarterbacks and the punter position. This article reviews the cornerback and running back spots.
Preseason question: How will Stanford replace Terrence Brown at cornerback? Nine of Stanford's defensive backs on its 2012 year-end depth chart (including nickelbacks Usua Amanam and Ronnie Harris) were back on The Farm in 2013. But along with little-used reserve Harold Bernard, the one member of the secondary who didn't return happened to be the Cardinal's best cover cornerback, Terrence Brown. Brown, who left The Farm with one year of eligibility remaining, would also have been the most veteran member of Stanford's secondary in 2013.
The competition to fill Brown's spot lasted well into fall camp and didn't feature a shortage of qualified candidates. Both Barry Browning and Wayne Lyons had played significant minutes at cornerback over the course of their careers, Amanam was the Rose Bowl game MVP and thrived at nickelback in 2012, and Devon Carrington was an experienced and versatile member of the secondary. Each of those players was involved in the competition for the vacant cornerback spot.
Lyons eventually won the job, and played the majority of snaps alongside Alex Carter at corner. Though Lyons was victimized by opposing offenses a few times over the course of the season and had a few misplays in the Rose Bowl, he put forth a solid 2013 campaign. Most notably, Lyons clinched a fourth-straight 10-win season by making two fourth-quarter interceptions against Notre Dame.
Next year, in Lyons' senior season, he and Alex Carter should form one of the best cornerback tandems in the conference and perhaps the nation. The depth at cornerback and the outlook at safety is less certain, however. Amanam, Devon Carrington and Barry Browning all graduate, and Ed Reynolds is likely to try his hand at the NFL.
If Reynolds does leave, only five members from the 2013 two-deep - Lyons, Carter, Ronnie Harris, Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir - will return to The Farm in 2014. Harris, who saw increasing time at cornerback as the 2013 campaign progressed, should provide depth at corner. Addtionally, Ra'Chard Pippens could finally break through the two-deep in his redshirt junior campaign. Freshman Taijuan Thomas could be in the mix to earn a spot somewhere on the depth chart if he's not moved to wide receiver. And one of Stanford's incoming freshman cornerbacks - if he's admitted and commits, Terrence Alexander is a good bet - could contribute early.
The potential vacancy at free safety is of perhaps greater concern, especially if Hoffpauir sticks at nickelback, where he seemed comfortable in 2013, next season. In that case, Stanford might need to rely on one of its incoming freshmen - say, Brandon Simmons - to provide immediate help. Dallas Lloyd, who took a few snaps at quarterback in 2013, was moved to safety at the beginning of bowl practices and could compete for playing time as well. But in any event, if Reynolds does turn pro, Stanford will need immediate contributions from several unproven safeties, barring the unexpected move of one of Stanford's corners to safety.
Preseason question: Who will form the running back committee to replace Stepfan Taylor? Before the season, Stanford coach David Shaw expressed a desire and plan for Stanford to implement a running back by committee approach to replace Taylor, a 6th round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2013 NFL Draft. On paper, such a strategy was logical. Tyler Gaffney was just returning to college football after a year playing minor league baseball, senior Anthony Wilkerson had yet to truly distinguish himself in his first three years on The Farm, and while talented, the team's younger backs (Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young) were unproven.
As training camp concluded and the season began, Stanford declined to name a single starter at the position; Wilkerson and Gaffney were listed as co-starters on the season-opening depth chart. But with the exception of Stanford's win over Arizona State in which both Wilkerson and Gaffney logged 18 carries, it was clear early on in the year that Stanford wouldn't need a committee to replace Taylor. Gaffney was talented and durable enough to do so by himself. Gaffney finished the season with 330 rushes for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns, leading Stanford in all three of those categories. Wilkerson and quarterback Kevin Hogan tied for second on the team with 84 carries each; no other running back on the roster had more than 20.
Along the way, Gaffney emerged as a legitimate NFL prospect and continued Stanford's run of tremendous production from the running back position. But with he and Wilkerson out of eligibility, the outlook for the Cardinal running back position will again be uncertain in 2014. Redshirt junior Remound Wright will likely be a significant part of any running back rotation and could emerge as the lead back. The same could be said for redshirt senior Ricky Seale. And expect the Cardinal to work Barry Sanders more into the rotation in 2014, as well as incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey, whose performance in the U.S. Army All American bowl made a compelling argument that he will be ready to contribute as a true freshman.