Fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris will be one of nine new starters on defense when the 21st-ranked Stanford football team takes the field Saturday morning against host Northwestern at 9 a.m. (PT) in Evanston, Ill.
Three other seniors also open the year as full-time starters: wide receiver-turned-free safety Kodi Whitfield, quarterback-turned-strong safety Dallas Lloyd and defensive end Aziz Shittu.
The senior group has plenty of experience, just not at the position they'll be expected to master this year. Whitfield has appeared in 39 games with the Cardinal (8-5 last year), the first 27 as a receiver. Shittu has 20 games under his belt, though he missed the final eight games of 2014 due to injury. Lloyd has played seven games as a quarterback and nine in the defensive secondary.
Harris is the veteran of the group, seeing action in 42 contests, including three starts last year.
"You look at any school in the world and they all lose players," Harris said. "It's a testimony to the program and the coaching staff that has this team replenished and reloaded. This might be the most athletic group we've had since I've been here. We're hungry to learn and we're approaching this season with a sense of urgency."
Combined with the seven senior starters on offense, Stanford just might become a surprise Pac-12 title contender. It's no surprise that's how the Cardinal views itself.
"Every year the first goal is to win the Pac-12," said Palo Alto High grad Kevin Anderson, now in his fifth year with the program and one of the two returning defensive starters with fellow linebacker Blake Martinez. "That goal never changes."
Whitfield last played safety in high school and, in a position that rewards instincts as well as technique, he should fit right in. Lloyd should be in a similar situation with his experience.
Harris figures he's gotten more than enough experience just going against the Stanford offense over the years, including the likes of QB Andrew Luck and TE Coby Fleener. He can take lessons from Luck and Kevin Hogan, in his fourth year as a starter.
"What makes those guys great are their short-term memories," Harris said. "They don't flinch. For me the challenge is to respond, react, refocus. I love that challenge. It's a feeling of 'I'm getting you the ball back.' "
In the high-flying, high-octane Pac-12, the secondary will face plenty of challenges aerial and otherwise.
Harris pointed to sophomores Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy a key players in the secondary. One will start and both will play. Sophomore Terrence Alexander and freshman Quinton Meeks will be featured in the nickel package. Senior Ra'Chard Pippens, sophomore Brandon Simmons and freshmen Justin Reid and Ben Edwards also figure to be in the mix.
The Cardinal is in good hands with Anderson and Martinez anchoring the front seven. Juniors Kevin Palma and Peter Kalambayi help give the linebacker position some depth.
Kalambayi saw plenty of action last season and made the preseason Butkus Award watch list. He played in all 13 games and became the first Cardinal to record three sacks in a game in three years.
Palma appeared in 11 games and recorded 18 tackles, including one in Stanford's 45-21 victory over Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Senior Craig Jones, junior Mike Tyler and sophomores Joey Alfieri and Jordan Perez will be in the linebacking rotation as well.
Sophomores Solomon Thomas (6-3, 271) and Harrison Phillips (6-4, 278) earned starting spots next to Shittu (6-3, 279) on the defensive line. Both players earned praise from teammates.
"They put their heads down and work," Harris said. "The linebackers can feed off the line."
Cardinal coach David Shaw had some concerns about his defense, which allowed an average of 16.3 points a game the past two years, at the beginning of camp. Most of those concerns have been assuaged.
"It's always tough with the turnover we have here," Shaw said. "It's not until midway through that first game when you get a better idea of who you are and who you're playing."
Shaw can feel a lot better about the offensive side of the ball, where Hogan is one of eight returning starters.
Through the first three years of Hogan's career, Stanford averaged more than 27 points a game. The Cardinal won the first 10 games he started, which included a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
He effectively took over quarterbacking duties on the final play of the first quarter of the ninth game of the 2012 season, which would make him 11-0 to begin his career.
Hogan also won his first 10 games against ranked opponents, and then went 0-5 against Top 25 opponents before beating UCLA in the regular-season finale last year. Three of those losses were by three points, one in overtime.
"We don't apologize for an eight-win season," Shaw said. "We didn't reach our goal, but we earned what we got."
Nor should anyone be asking him to apologize. He's 42-12 through his first four years, which include a
pair of trips to the Rose Bowl and one to the Fiesta Bowl. Stanford has recorded six consecutive winning seasons, the best in school history since an 11-year stretch between 1968-78. The Cardinal opens the year in the Top 25 for the fifth straight time, another school mark.
Hogan enters the year 45 yards shy of surpassing Luck (957) for most career rushing yards by a quarterback and is second to Luck in completion percentage (.670-.652) and passing efficiency (162.8-148.3).
"We have a lot of guys returning on offense and the coaches have figured out how to use them most effectively," Hogan said. "You'll see guys in different positions and different formations, though we'll run our core concepts."
With the exception of Ty Montgomery, Hogan has virtually his entire receiving corps back. Devon Cajuste, a fifth-year senior, caught 34 passes, six for touchdowns, last year but won't be starting. He's been limited in camp due to injury.
Senior receiver Michael Rector, fourth on the team with 24 receptions last year, will also start on the bench, though Shaw refused to comment on whether it had anything to do with Rector's suspension.
Fifth-year senior Rollins Stallworth makes the start in place of Rector and junior Francis Owusu will line up ahead of Cajuste, who is expected to play.
"I feel great with all the receivers," Hogan said. "Cajuste just started practicing and for Rollins, he's finally getting an opportunity. For me, the greatest thing is he catches everything and runs great routes."
Stanford also returns its top to tight ends in Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada and veteran Kyle Murphy replaces Andreas Peat, now in the NFL, at left tackle. Joshua Garnett, Graham Schuler, Johnny Caspers and Casey Tucker anchor the offensive line.
One of the more intriguing positions is at running back, with a pair of dynamic athletes on the verge of something special. Sophomore Christian McCaffrey opened some eyes last year and senior Barry Sanders has shown flashes of brilliance. They will also share kick-returning duties.
Senior Chris Harrell and sophomore Daniel Marx will share the fullback position.
Senior Conrad Ukropina and freshman Jake Bailey will both get a chance to kick off and/or placekick. Bailey and junior Alex Robinson could handle punting duties.
2015 STANFORD FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Saturday at Northwestern 9 a.m.
Sept. 12 vs. UCF 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 at USC 5 p.m.
Sept. 25 at Oregon St. 7 p.m.
Oct. 3 vs. Arizona TBA
Oct. 15 vs. UCLA 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 vs. Washington TBA
Oct. 31 at WSU TBA
Nov. 7 at Colorado TBA
Nov. 14 vs. Oregon TBA
Nov. 21 vs. Cal TBA
Nov. 28 vs. Notre Dame TBA
Dec. 5 Pac-12 championship*
* at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara