Replacing your two best players - or at least the two players that clog the stat sheet the most - will not be an easy task, but the talent is capable of stepping up the challenge. AJ Tarpley is an excellent player and a superb athlete, so he might be the perfect fit to slide into Skov's spot as a general purveyor of mayhem... but then someone has to step up and handle his old role. Kevin Anderson did a very nice job at outside linebacker - his pick-six in the Rose Bowl showcased his athleticism - and Joe Hemschoot had a couple of superb plays over the course of the season, so they might be able to split duties to handle Murphy's role. Meanwhile, James Vaughters played reliably in Chase Thomas' old spot a year ago, so he might be a candidate to flip sides and try and replicate Murphy's production. Noor Davis and Peter Kalambayi might be names to watch as well, as the youngsters should get significant time to prove their abilities during the offseason.
2. What's going to happen at safety?
Losing Ed Reynolds to the NFL turned this position into the biggest question mark of the spring, as the depth chart looks paper-thin at first glance. Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield have transitioned to the defensive side of the ball to help out here, and some have even suggested that corner Wayne Lyons could move back to safety, the spot he was recruited to play. One way or another, someone is going to have to earn the spot across from Jordan Richards, because having a liability on the back end would be a serious problem for the Stanford D going forward.
3. Is the defensive line deep enough?
Last year there was a brief moment of panic when Ben Gardner's injury sidelined him for the rest of the season, but the Cardinal didn't break along the line at the end of the year. Luke Kaumatule switched from being an ineffective tight end to the d-line, helping out with depth, and Aziz Shittu and Jordan Watkins played well enough in the sparing moments they saw. However, the Cardinal coaching staff will need to extract some more impactful plays from that crowd this season so that David Parry doesn't have to play every snap in the fall. Having Henry Anderson return was a big gain for this unit, but after a good spring a year ago, it'd be particularly nice if Shittu and Watkins could emerge as forces up front.
4. Who's going to break out and become a star?
Opportunity abounds for playmakers this year, unlike a season ago when everyone knew what to expect from Skov, Murphy, Reynolds, Mauro and company. Each year we hype a different player - usually a top-tier recruit like James Vaughters or Wayne Lyons - but it often happens that the breakout player that year is someone a bit more unexpected, like Alex Carter or Ed Reynolds in their huge 2012 seasons. There's too much talent (particularly at linebacker) to dismiss anybody outright, but there's still star status to be earned on the defense.
5. Who will be the d-backs coach?
It's been reported that former Texas DBs coach Duane Akina has been offered the job - and that Stanford is willing to wait for his decision. Akina is probably shopping around to see what kind of offers he can get, but he'd be a pretty awesome fit and a major coup for the Cardinal. After losing a defensive mind like Derek Mason, it'd be a huge victory for Stanford to get Akina - a guy who has put Quentin Jammer, Nathan Vasher, Earl Thomas and Kenny Vaccaro into the NFL - to fill that position. He's a brash, firey guy, but his defensive mind is too bright to be ignored, and he would definitely challenge the talented Cardinal defensive backs to reach a whole new level. However, if Akina decides the Farm isn't right for him, David Shaw might have to wait until the 2nd session of spring practice to install his new d-backs coach.