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March 31, 2013

Spring Ball Session Two: What to Watch

After only seven spring practices (and only two open periods), it's hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about some of the question marks Stanford faces heading into 2013. Several Cardinal players did garner consistent praise from the coaches during spring's first session, however, including Andrus Peat, Michael Rector, Evan Crower, Blake Lueders, James Vaughters, in addition to some of the returning stars like Trent Murphy.

Who will emerge in the second session of spring ball? Here's a look at some of the storylines we'll be following.

Reinforcements arrive: Stanford's roster for the second session of spring ball will look very different than it did in the first session. Tyler Gaffney, Shayne Skov, Patrick Skov, Graham Shuler, Kevin Reihner, Keanu Nelson are all expected to return from first session absences.

Gaffney's progress will be particularly interesting to follow. He missed the 2012 season playing professional baseball, and will re-enroll in classes in time for the second session. If he's able to pick up where he left off in the 2011 season, when Gaffney amassed 449 yards and seven touchdowns (on a 6.1 yard per carry average), he'd be a good bet to receive major playing time at running back, though it's likely the running back rotation will resemble 2010 and 2011, when several players received major carries, and not 2012, when Stepfan Taylor shouldered the load.

Shayne Skov's return will also be intriguing, but not because he'll be competing for a starting position; Skov has one of the middle linebacker spots squared away. Instead, the focus will be on his health. Skov's knee responded well to the four week break between the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl - if it shows similar improvement in the three-month break between the Rose Bowl and the start of spring ball - it will certainly bode well for Skov being able to play at 100 percent health in 2013.

The return of Shuler and McFadden will provide additional depth to a center competition which still has a long way to before completion. Shuler, a onetime Army All American who missed the first session of spring ball due to disciplinary reasons, has the talent to be the Card's center of the future, but needs to add more mass. Reihner, who will return from injury, doesn't figure to be a major player in the center competition, but is still a young player in the program.

Pat Skov, who missed the first half of spring ball to attend to a family matter, could take on an increased role in 2013, particularly with the possibility that Ryan Hewitt could be needed more in the passing game with the lack of experienced tight ends on the roster. Nelson will be in the mix to replace some of what Drew Terrell brought as a slot receiver. He's also probably the leading candidate to assume Terrell's punt return responsibilities.

Receiver needs: It's no secret that Stanford's passing game is one of the major unknowns of the 2013 squad. The Card doesn't have a single proven tight end on the roster (though Luke Kaumatule played well during the first session of spring ball and is expected to have a major role in the offense), and only one returning receiver (Ty Montgomery) who has received consistent playing time. And even Montgomery will have to shake off a disappointing 2012 season.

The good news is that there are talented options. Michael Rector has garnered plenty of praise, both publicly and privately, and has positioned himself to be a starter. Montgomery also had a very strong first session. Devon Cajuste and Kodi Whitfield garnered praise by the offensive staff. Walk-on Jeff Trojan might be the sleeper of the group. And that's not to mention veteran Keanu Nelson or freshman Conner Crane, who has showed some flashes during the first session.

The starters probably won't be identified until fall camp, but receivers could begin to separate themselves from the pack during the second session.

Offensive line puzzle: There's little question that Stanford's offensive line will be a strength of the team in 2013. But who, exactly, will man several of the offensive positions is uncertain. Sophomore Andrus Peat established himself as the front runner for the left tackle spot with a strong showing in the first session, but it's too early to completely rule Kyle Murphy out of the competition.

Khalil Wilkes received praise for his performance during the first practices of spring, but the return of Shuler and Reihner will liven up the center competition, as will Kevin Danser, the incumbent starter at right guard, who took reps at center during spring ball's first session. If Danser can learn the intricacies of the center position, he's a superior physical presence to Wilkes, who struggled at times as the primary starter at left guard last season.

Whether Danser commits full time to center will likely depend on the maturation of sophomore guard Josh Garnett. A top recruit out of high school, Garnett received regular playing time in Stanford's various "Jumbo" packages last season.

Cameron Fleming is the clear frontrunner to earn the right tackle spot, but it's not quite a forgone conclusion. Murphy is a better athlete than Fleming and probably has a higher upside than the native Texan. If Murphy is able to put on some weight and maintain his elite movement skills, he could push Fleming for the right tackle spot.

Vaughters vs. Lueders: Stanford has a win-win situation on its hands at Chase Thomas' old outside linebacker spot in a competition between redshirt junior Blake Lueders and true junior James Vaughters. Both were top-100 recruits who have played well at times during their Stanford careers. With Lueders now fully healthy and Vaughters playing what seems like his natural position (he played inside linebacker in 2012), it's likely the winner of the competition will be performing at a high level. Both players had a strong first session, and it seems likely that both will receive major playing time regardless of which player earns the starting nod, but the competition will be one of the most heated on the roster.



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