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May 27, 2013

Spring Review: Stanford Q & A




UDUBNation.com's Kaelyn Sayles had a chance to catch up with publisher of the Stanford site, Andy Drukarev, to talk about the upcoming season and what we can learn about the Cardinal from spring football practice.

Washington plays at Stanford on October 5. The last time these two teams met in 2012, the Cardinal lost to the Dawgs 17-13 in Seattle.

Q: What was a major theme of spring practice?

Drukarev:
With nearly the entire defense returning intact from a year ago, much of the focus this spring was on the offense, specifically replacing NFL draftees Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Stepfan Taylor. And while Stanford has plenty of talent at running back, tight end is a concern; the returning tight ends on Stanford roster have a combined zero catches. The wide receiver position was also an emphasis. Two of the Cardinal's top three receivers from 2012 (Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson) exhausted their eligibility, and beyond Ty Montgomery, there isn't much in the way of proven talent at the position. However, spring did show that there is, in fact, talent at the receiver spot. A number of receivers, including Michael Rector, Devon Cajuste, Kodi Whitfield and walk-on Jeff Trojan impressed. Beyond that, the return of Tyler Gaffney from a year away from football (Gaffney played minor league baseball in 2012), the improved health of linebacker Shayne Skov, the continued development of quarterback Kevin Hogan, and the maturation of some of the talented young linemen in the program all received attention.

Q: Who were some standouts on offense? Any breakout performers?

Drukarev:
In addition to the usual suspects (i.e. All-America offensive lineman David Yankey and rising junior receiver Ty Montgomery, among others), several players made major strides this spring. Former five-star offensive lineman Andrus Peat, who was included in a number of Stanford's offensive line packages as a true freshman, emerged as the frontrunner to start at left tackle. Freshman wide receiver Michael Rector -- a onetime Washington commit -- also impressed, and is line to receive major playing time opposite Montgomery and a few other receivers (Kodi Whitfield, Devon Cajuste, etc...) for the Cardinal. Freshman tight end Luke Kaumatule did endure some growing pains and is still adjusting to playing tight end (Kaumatule was mainly recruited as a defensive end), but showed plenty of flashes. Along with senior Davis Dudchock, Kaumatule is the frontrunner to start at tight end.

Q: Who were some standouts on defense? Any breakout performers?

Drukarev:
It's harder to list standouts on defense because the opportunities for younger players to break through the two-deep were more limited. Stanford has very few holes on the defensive side of the ball, and returns nearly the entire two-deep from arguably the best defense in program history. There were a few breakout players who enjoyed solid springs, however. The two players vying to replace Chase Thomas at outside linebacker, former Rivals 250 recruits Blake Lueders and James Vaughters, were superb. Lueders is the better run stopper and Vaughters the better pass rusher, but there's a strong degree of confidence that the dropoff from Thomas, one of the most productive defensive players in program history, will not be significant. Beyond that, freshman defensive tackle Ikenna Nwafor wasn't as highly recruited as some of his counterparts from the Cardinal's heralded 2012 recruiting class, but is probably the furthest along of that defensive line group. (Stanford signed three defensive linemen who earned four-star rankings by at least one recruiting service in 2012, and one, Aziz Shittu, was a five-star per Rivals.) Nwafor won't start over the program's established and veteran defensive line talent, but should contribute situationally in 2013. Similarly, although he did miss the second half of spring ball due to injury, freshman linebacker Blake Martinez has also showed signs of being a big-time player. It seems unlikely that he'll make a dent on the established rotation at middle linebacker of Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster, but Martinez should see spot playing time in 2013 in reserve duty.

Q: What areas still need work before the season starts? Some weaknesses?

Drukarev:
There aren't a ton of weaknesses on what some observers consider the most talented Stanford team in recent memory, but there are several areas of concern, mostly on offense. First and foremost, the tight end position is a significant question mark. While Stanford does have three touted incoming freshmen tight ends, the experienced depth at the position is virtually nonexistent. The aforementioned Kaumatule and Dudchock could prove to be productive players (Kaumatule in particular has plenty of upside), and the Cardinal could always move fullback Ryan Hewitt to tight end (where he played in high school), but considering the importance Stanford has placed on the tight end position in recent years, the position will be a focus heading into fall camp. With the recent announcement that onetime starter Josh Nunes took a medical retirement, the backup quarterback situation beyond Kevin Hogan is also a bit shaky. Class of 2011 signee Evan Crower figures to be the primary backup, and while Crower had an impressive spring and might be the most accurate quarterback on the roster, he doesn't have great arm strength, and is unproven.

Q: What are some strengths for this team as a whole?

Drukarev:
The unquestionable strength of the 2013 Stanford football team is its defense. Stanford returns essentially 5.5 starters (nose tackle David Parry split reps with the graduated Terrence Stephens until the final three games of the season when Parry was the full-time starter) from one of the best front-sevens in the nation. The Cardinal secondary, long a weakness of the team, should also be a strength. The Cardinal has a pair of future NFL safeties (Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards) and a true sophomore cornerback (Alex Carter) who has first-round type talent. The depth at cornerback isn't great, but it's hard to quibble with much of anything on Stanford's defense. On offense, the Cardinal run game should be an imposing force. Stanford goes five-deep at running back, but the two projected starters -- Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney (who returned to Stanford after a year playing minor league baseball) -- are very good players, and should flourish behind a superb offensive line, which could have the talent to rival the Card's 2010 and 2011 lines.

Q: Any injuries that can be talked about?

Drukarev:
Aside from Josh Nunes and fullback Geoff Meinken, who both took medical retirements this spring, Stanford figures to be pretty healthy heading into fall camp. Offensive lineman Cole Underwood should be fully recovered (or close to it) from a torn ACL. Cornerback Barry Browning (who will compete with Wayne Lyons for one starting cornerback spot) was held out of parts of spring, but should also be good to go in the fall. A few other players missed time during spring with minor ailments, but all are expected to be healthy come camp.

Q: How has the team responded to getting back on the field after wins at the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl?

Drukarev:
Since Stanford has yet to play a game since winning the Rose Bowl, it's hard to know if there will be any sort of letdown. But major bowl games are not a new experience for the Cardinal -- the Rose Bowl marked Stanford's third straight appearance in a BCS contest. And by all indications, spring practice was productive for the Cardinal. As such, while there are a handful of question marks facing the 2013 Cardinal, I don't see complacency being one of them, not with the senior leadership on the roster, nor with the National Title aspirations that Stanford possesses.

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Andy Drukarev is the publisher of Cardinal Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter @StanfordRivals.

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