As the elder statesman of the Stanford defensive secondary, fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris didn't feel extra pressure this season. On the contrary, the lone returning starter was excited about the unit's potential.
"Just trying to get on the same page," said Harris during the regular season. "I think we're going to be fine when it's all said and done. We're working to be better than we were last year."
Given that the Cardinal ranked second nationally in scoring defense and eighth in passing defense in 2014, and did not surrender a touchdown pass in five games, that could have been challenging. Especially with three new starters. But the talented group, that features converted safeties Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd, accepted the challenge.
"Coach (Lance) Anderson does a phenomenal job just making sure we're all comfortable in the system," Harris said. "Coach (Duane) Akina is the mastermind. He says run through a wall and we try to run through it and knock it down."
Harris, a 5-foot-10, 172-pounder, made three starts last year and collected 29 tackles, five for loss. He already has completed his degree in psychology and is currently finishing up with pre-med classes.
Whitfield, a 6-foot-2, 202-pound senior free safety, switched from wide receiver last year. Best known for making an acrobatic one-handed 30-yard touchdown catch between two UCLA defenders his sophomore season, he played in 12 games in 2014 and made five tackles. But in high school in Los Angeles, he was an All-CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division safety and made 57 stops and intercepted two passes.
The 24-year-old Lloyd (6-3, 207), the only married player on the team, came to Stanford as a quarterback. After serving two years on a church mission, he did not play as a freshman, rushed six times for 16 yards as a sophomore, and moved to defense last year, where he produced nine tackles in nine games.
"The transition has been a lot of hard work," said Lloyd, a science, technology and society major. "It's been awesome though, it really has. The time I switched could not have been better because of the defensive backs who were in the room. I have people to look up to like Jordan Richards, Zach Hoffpauir, John Flacco and Kyle Olugbode. A ton of people who were really smart, hard workers and set the bar really high."
Whitfield, whose father, Bob, was a two-time All-American offensive tackle on The Farm in 1990-91, has also benefited from the players who came before him.
"We always talk about the standard," said Whitfield, a product design major. "That's the big thing in our meeting room. Last year, our defense was great. We think about it as a revolving door. The next man up is the best man up. You hear about guys leaving and how we're not going to be good. Our mentality is that those guys are gone, so let's raise our standards and be a better defense."
Lloyd and Whitfield admitted there was a mentality adjustment moving from offense to defense.
"Just because you have to be more physical," said Whitfield. "On offense, you may get a hit in a safety when he's not looking, but on defense, guys are looking at you and you may have to take on those guards who are 300-plus pounds and give them a good licking. You have to think more about the game and overall concepts."
Added Lloyd, "I think probably the main difference is that as a quarterback, when you get frustrated, you have to settle down and relax. As a defensive player, you can take it out on someone else and just smack them."
Once Lloyd committed to the change, he sought advice from two former Cardinal standouts: John Lynch and Richard Sherman. Lynch came to Stanford as a highly touted quarterback and switched to safety, where he developed into a fearless, hard-hitting free safety, played 15 seasons in the NFL and was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times. Sherman started his Cardinal career as a wide receiver and converted to cornerback. He's now an All-Pro for the Seattle Seahawks and is arguably the best in the game as his position.
"They both said the exact same thing," Lloyd said. "They said the biggest key is understanding an offense's intentions. Where are they on the field, what formation are they in, where are the splits of the wide receivers, where are the running backs? All these little indicators can tip because offenses have tendencies. You just have to use your head."
Here's how Akina evaluates Harris, Lloyd and Whitfield:
Harris: "Very high energy level; very positive; tremendous work ethic; understands the standards that we are continuing to build; very prideful; technique-oriented; quick; very conscientious."
Lloyd: "Has started seeing the game much better; worked really hard on his footwork and hips; has done an outstanding job intellectually."
Whitfield: "Understands the game and sees the football really well; he can just feel the whole picture out there on the movement of people; playmaker; great hands; really transitioned from avoiding contact to running through contact."
Harris commended the secondary on jelling quickly this season.
"What I love about this defense is just a relentless effort to compete," he said. "That's definitely the first step. I think we're going to be faster than we have ever been before and we're just fine-tuning the details. It's just a matter of seizing the opportunities you get and playing with your hair on fire."