5 To Watch: Stanford Defense

A handful of key match-ups and Stanford defensive players to watch for in Saturday's contest against Notre Dame.

#11 -- ILB Shayne Skov
Skov is the unquestioned general of the Stanford defense who was sorely missed after suffering a severe knee injury during the third week of last season. The fiery senior has successfully rehabilitated after this devastating setback and is steadily rediscovering his trademarked quickness. He is the Cardinal's version of Manti Te'o, minus about 10 pounds.

Stanford head coach David Shaw says that Skov is almost back to his pre-injury self. The Cardinal will turn to their emotional leader for a top-flight performance against Notre Dame's productive running backs and Everett Golson's lateral scrambling abilities. No. 11 has yet to record a sack since his return, but expect that to change soon.

#49 -- DE Ben Gardner
Only a two-star recruit, the senior Gardner has developed his play to a five-star level on the edge. At 275 pounds, he's significantly lighter than his Notre Dame counterparts, but Gardner's motor more than makes up for that deficiency. He earned Pac-12 defensive player of week honors after Stanford's epic defensive effort against USC and has frequently rotated around the defensive line to pester several different offensive linemen during the course of one game.

The Cardinal pride themselves on their versatility on the defensive front: tackles can play end, and ends can play tackle. Gardner embodies this lunch pail mentality and should present a fascinating match-up with an Irish squad that also hangs its hat on physicality.

#6 -- CB Terrence Brown
Stanford fans knew that Brown was solid, but they didn't realize quite how important he really was until he suffered a concussion and missed almost all of the Cardinal's defensive debacle against Arizona. With true freshman Alex Carter and sophomore Wayne Lyons providing relief, Stanford was shredded by the Wildcats' spread passing attack.

This week, Brown is expected to be back in the lineup as the Cardinal secondary strives for a bounce-back performance. A lockdown effort on one edge of the field puts Stanford safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards in position to tee off. That formula has worked remarkably well so far this year: the Cardinal have intercepted eight passes after picking off only seven all of last season.

#44 -- OLB Chase Thomas
When Thomas announced that he was forgoing the 2012 NFL Draft to return to Stanford for his senior season, the Stanford front seven was immediately projected as one of the top units in the nation. A defensive end before the Cardinal transitioned to its 3-4 scheme, Thomas put on about 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason.

The extra physical work is paying off: he leads Stanford with 34 tackles, 6.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks. Thomas will charge off the edge aggressively, but perhaps his biggest challenge against Notre Dame will be keeping the speedy quarterback Golson contained within the pocket.

#8 -- SS Jordan Richards
The days that the Stanford secondary suffered from a lack of athleticism are over. Richards, who struggled as a true freshman last year, brings speed and 208 pounds of chiseled muscle to the strong safety position. His improved play has been responsible for several ball-dislodging hits over the middle.

It's possible that Richards will collide more than once with Notre Dame stud tight end Tyler Eifert. Keep your eyes peeled for that spectacle; it will be the focal point of the match-up between Golson and a now-healthy Stanford secondary that's looking to bounce back from a poor outing.

David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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