Stanford's meteoric rise from the depths of college football to nearly the peak in such a short period of time was certainly the result of talented skill position players like Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, Owen Marecic, and Chris Owusu, but the foundation of the offensive success was built around a powerful and athletic offensive line.
Nicknamed the Tunnel Workers Union because of their hard-hat approach to the job of clearing the way for running backs and keeping the QB clean, the O-line has been incredibly consistent over the last few years in producing 2,000 yards on the ground and they're among the national leaders in fewest sacks allowed. The coaching staff has done a great job at developing the talent and teaching the offensive schemes, and the staff is blessed this year with four players who have the ability to be high draft picks in the NFL.
Stanford fans will remember hauling in some of the most highly-touted recruits in the country, but the question remains of how quickly the group can mature and gel as a unit. The answer to that will be found when David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren find a suitable replacement for Sam Schwartzstein, a solid starter and underappreciated leader, at the center position.
- Left Tackle appears to be locked down by the mountainous Andrus Peat, who committed to Stanford in 2012 on signing day to become one of the most celebrated recruits in Stanford history, and he edged out fellow five-star OT Kyle Murphy to win the position. Peat's 6-foot-8, 325-pound frame reminds me of UCLA standout and recent NFL Hall of Fame inductee Jonathan Ogden. That is high praise and Peat still has a way to go to match Ogden's strength, but the tools are there and I really like what an offseason under strength coach Shannon Turley has done to his build.
Peat looks leaner but still has huge tree trunk legs, but what allows Peat to be a special player is his flexibility in the knees and hips. That's what gives him the ability to get low and drive smaller defenders off the ball. Once he develops a little more confidence, Peat could take his place among some of the Stanford greats like Bob Whitfield, Eric Heitmann, and David DeCastro. One of the things that separated those players was a certain nastiness and mental toughness; an attitude that allowed those guys to get the most out of their abilities. If Peat can harness that, the sky is the limit for him.
- Cameron Fleming and David Yankey are back and look poised to take another big step in their development as two of the best linemen in the country. Yankey received more national praise last year, earning All-American honors and due to his ability to shift from tackle to guard so seamlessly that it would sometimes happen in the same series. Yankey's athleticism and strength allowed him to not just play the positions, but dominate them both. With the tackle positions cemented with Peat and Fleming, Yankey should be able to feel a little more comfortable on the inside where he can be a devastating pulling guard on the power play, but more importantly, he can help out the center in pass protection.
Fleming is an absolute monster on the outside and his 6-foot-6 318-pound listed height and weight don't seem to do him justice. Because of the other standouts he has played with the last two seasons, Fleming has been flying under the national radar, but I am expecting that to change in 2013. The offense will need him a little more on their outside zone and read-option run plays, and he has looked up to the task in spring ball. Fleming and Yankey will be leaned on this year to establish a dominant run game, and I don't think there is a more talented duo in the conference to handle the task.
- The big questions coming into the season are the center and other guard position. Can Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes hold off talented youngsters Josh Garnett and Graham Shuler? Will another player emerge to compete for playing time between now and San Jose State? Spring practice seemed to settle those debates for now as Danser and Wilkes held onto their starting positions and worked the majority of camp with the starters.
Garnett has the highest ceiling and got work last year at guard, but mainly in situations where he was pulling and leading on the power run play. He excels at drive blocking and firing off the ball, but his pass protection could use some improvement. Garnett's play creates an "experience vs potential" argument that haunts coaches because of this dilemma: "Do I accept the occasional dominance and risk potential lapses, or do I stick with the steady performer?"
Shuler also looks like a future star, but missing the first half of spring certainly hurt his chances and he still needs to work on his size to become the starter at center. Danser and Wilkes both should continue to be solid performers, but any missteps could open the door for the younger players to earn more reps.
- Kyle Murphy and Dillon Bonnell will likely see some time at the 6th and 7th o-line positions when the offense calls for the heavy personnel packages. Murphy would also serve as the first one into the game at either tackle position in case of an injury, although we could see Yankey move out in order to get Garnett into the lineup on the inside. Murphy's upside was visible with great footwork and mechanics, but his size might be the biggest issue. I think he could become a Yankey-like player with the ability to play both inside and out. Connor McFadden also got some work at the center position in the spring and looks to be a valuable reserve.
There's no question in my mind that this unit has the talent to be one of the best in the conference and the country, but there is still much to be done between the end of spring ball and the start of the season. The time between now and then will determine how great they will be in 2013. This unit is lucky to have the advantage of going against one of the nation's best d-lines every day in practice - and the Stanford coaches always preach that iron sharpens iron. Stanford fans have many great years ahead of watching a superb group as the Tunnel Workers Union legacy continues.