Last season, the Stanford football team ranked 114 out of 129 FBS teams in passing yards per game allowed. Improving on that number will be crucial to the success of this year’s team, and fair or not, the onus falls on the defensive backfield.
The crown jewel of the position group is junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, who was named an AP Preseason All-American alongside junior offensive tackle Walker Little. Last year, Adebo co-led the nation in passes defended (26) and snatched four interceptions.
At practice on Wednesday Aug. 21, the last media availability for the team ahead of game week, Adebo stayed for more than half an hour working on his hands off of the machine.
“Just trying to be better than I was last year,” he said.
“We have a chance to have a great player back there in Paulson Adebo,” said defensive backs coach Duane Akina. “To date, he has practiced how I expect a great player to practice, not live on what he did a year ago.”
While he said that nothing makes him uneasy about the season, Adebo emphasized the need to “stay focused” in order to accomplish his goals, both team and personal. “There’s a lot of things that go on that can make you be distracted,” he said.
Between preseason expectations and NFL draft hype, there is a lot of periphery noise that Adebo will have to sidestep, but his cool demeanor makes him a prime candidate to do so.
“I have higher expectations than anybody else has for me,” he said.
Although Adebo’s size and speed give him natural advantages, Akina emphasized that his intellectual approach to the game is what sets him apart.
Lining up on the other side of the field for the first time as the presumptive starter will be senior defensive back Obi Eboh. Eboh credits his experience for his heightened confidence, which allows him to play faster.
“Obi Eboh has done a really good job on the other side,” Akina said. “It’s unfortunate Ethan Bonner got hurt because they were really challenging each other for the starting corner job on the back side.”
After starting at the free safety position last year, senior Malik Antoine appears to have the position locked down heading into the 2019 season. Antoine, along with senior quarterback KJ Costello, junior tight end Colby Parkinson, fifth-year running back Cam Scarlett and fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill, were voted team captains for the upcoming season.
“At the safety position Malik has been doing an excellent job managing everything, making the calls, someone I can really trust and count on,” Akina said. “I can give a lot of information – gameplan information – to him and he can spread it throughout the game.”
While those three positions locked down, Stanford is still looking for its strong safety.
“We’re kind of finding who’s the next one,” Akina said. “Kendall Williamson has really come in and has performed well. Athletically, he’s kind of on the same page as Justin Reid.”
“I’m not saying that’s who he is right now, but he’s got a chance because of his physical ability,” Akina added.
The defensive backs coach also noted junior Stuart Head, senior JJ Parson and junior Noah Williams were in the mix.
“I think all the freshmen that came in we guessed right on,” Akina said. “I think they’re all outstanding players and they’re Pac-12 starting-caliber guys.”
He credits their success to the older guys showing them the way. “I’m impressed with the veterans – they just did a great job of teaching these guys,” Akina said. “They wouldn’t be so far along in camp if it wasn’t for Kendall and Malik.”
Until the bowl game last year, Stanford did not win once without forcing a turnover.
“A big emphasis on the team is being really physical,” Eboh said. “In practice there is more emphasis on really thudding, wrapping up and stripping trying to get turnovers.”
Under the tutelage of Akina, the entire group has also been working on hands, feet, vision and all of the other coaching tips one gives after thirty years in the business. This year, Akina added the wrinkle of getting to the quarterback, believing that his athletic players will be able to disguise packages in man coverage.
With nearly a month of solely intrasquad, it benefits both sides that Stanford’s wide receivers and secondary are elite. Adebo is able to line up against the top options of the Cardinal offense, most of whom exceed or at least match the skill level of this season’s opponents.
“I think we have a unique skillset of receivers as far as we have big guys, guys that can run, speed guys, guys that know how to use their body,” Adebo said. “I face a lot of different body types and that will help me throughout the season.”
Of course, they are still a team, and to Eboh, the wide receivers are some of his really good friends.
“I think this group, this team, is really special,” Eboh said. “The camaraderie is, not to knock the other teams, but probably the best it’s been in a long time.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.