Stanford 2013 season preview

Jim Harbaugh's first Bay Area red resurrection continues to thrive using the same formula of a dominant defensive front seven and punishing running game, but third-year head coach David Shaw did something not even Harbaugh could achieve by winning the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl last season. With standout performers at all three levels, the Cardinal has the defense to top those feats and push for a BCS championship.

The real challenge will be replacing key skill players such as running back Stepfan Taylor, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Arizona Cardinals, and tight ends Zach Ertz(a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles) and Levine Toilolo (a fourth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons), a trio that accounted for 25 of Stanford's 42 offensive touchdowns last season.

Recent history suggests that plugging in new players at key spots should not be an issue on The Farm for what has become an elite program, one that has proven capable of overcoming the loss of Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck.

Top senior prospects

OLB Trent Murphy: Murphy paced the defense with 10 of its nation-leading 57 sacks last season, adding another eight tackles for loss. Murphy showed great athleticism by tipping a pass to himself, intercepting it and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown at Washington. Used almost exclusively as a pass rusher from a two- or three-point stance, Murphy's coverage skills have not been tested.

ILB Shayne Skov: After missing most of the 2011 campaign with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, Skov returned to form with a team-high 82 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. The emotional catalyst of the defense, Skov elevated his play in Stanford's biggest games, including a crucial fourth-down stop in the upset win at Oregon. Skov is as effective an inside linebacker as there is in the game.

DE Ben Gardner: Gardner is a well-respected team leader who set the tone for the Cardinal by delivering maximum effort on every play. His physical abilities don't necessarily match up to his intangibles, but Gardner will benefit from participating in a draft in which character will likely be a valued at an all-time high.

CB Usua Amanam: In the age of spread offenses, the nickelback is now more a necessity than luxury, and Amanam showed it working against slot receivers. With 59 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and three fumble recoveries -- finishing among the top six on the team in each category -- Amanam has tremendous value moving forward.

OL Kevin Danser: Proving to be more than an adequate replacement for 2012 first-round selection David DeCastro, Danser started all 14 games at right guard. Danser is very cerebral, holding a 3.13 GPA in biomechanical engineering (second-team Pac-12 all-academic team). Danser played center in the spring and is in the mix to start.

FB Ryan Hewitt: Hewitt was a high-school tight end who moved to fullback because of a glut at the position, but is a naturally powerful lead blocker. He is effective but rarely used as a receiver, and will be lined up in multiple positions. The fullback seems to be going the way of the Dodo, but Hewitt offers enough versatility that some NFL team could take a flier on him.

OL Khalil Wilkes: Wilkes started 12 of 14 games last season at left guard, but is in a three-way competition at center coming out of the spring. Versatility to play an additional position is always a plus, especially for a player who is more steady than spectacular.

Top underclassmen

OG David Yankey: Alternating between left guard and left tackle the past two seasons, Yankey shows good footwork and athleticism when he pulls and blocks on screen passes. Pac-12 defensive linemen voted Yankey the winner of the Morris Trophy last season, presented to the conference's top offensive lineman. He joined a list of recipients that includes Matt Kalil, Tyron Smith, Ryan Kalil and Jonathan Ogden.

S Ed Reynolds: As a redshirt sophomore, Reynolds intercepted six passes and returned three for touchdowns. Reynolds is rarely found at the line of scrimmage because of scheme, and it can show at times in his tackling and angles in run support. Even if those issues are not addressed, his activity on the back end makes him one of the most effective centerfielders in the game.

OT Andrus Peat: This five-star recruit parlayed a year's apprenticeship as a backup into the left tackle job entering his sophomore season. Peat must continue developing upper-body strength, but possesses the innate flexibility that defines an elite blind-side protector. Barring injury, it would be a shock if Peat did not seriously challenge for All-America honors in the future.

OT Cameron Fleming: Fleming has started 25 games over the past two seasons at right tackle. He doesn't yet feature the kind of nasty disposition that sets the best linemen apart, but Fleming has all the athletic tools to become a premier player.

QB Kevin Hogan: Hogan went from occasionally executing a small package of zone-read plays to starting the final five games in 2012, defeating four ranked teams. A steady game manager -- completing 71.1 percent of his throws for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns against three interceptions -- his mobility on designed runs and plays when the pocket broke down were a difference-maker during the Rose Bowl run. He'll be asked to do much more this season.

RB Barry Sanders Jr.: Before you even ask, yes, that Barry Sanders. The son of the Detroit Lions legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee impressed onlookers while working on the scout team last season and should see carries as a redshirt freshman.

Check out the top 10 all-time NFL players from Stanford.

Three must-see games of 2013

Sept. 7 vs. San Jose State: David Fales, one of the more intriguing senior quarterbacks in the nation, gets another shot at Stanford after nearly guiding a massive upset to open the 2012 season. This shapes up to be a referendum on the draft stock of both Fales and a host of Cardinal defenders.

Sept. 21 vs. Arizona State: Scouts will be salivating for the first-ever clash between Yankey and standout Sun Devils defensive tackle Will Sutton, the clear highlight of an intriguing conference opener for two teams with BCS bowl aspirations.

Nov. 7 vs. Oregon: The Cardinal limited Chip Kelly's breakneck offense to only 14 points last season, the lowest total in Pac-12 play in his four seasons as Oregon head coach. Can Skov and the Stanford linebackers keep electric quarterback Marcus Mariota and all-purpose threat De'Anthony Thomas under wraps again?

Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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