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Stanford football 2015: Offensive line preview

Reviewing Stanford's sturdy offensive line

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

(See previous post for pt 1: D-Line review)

Some love for the Tunnel Workers Union

For a variety of reasons, most football fans have no clue, nor that much interest it seems, in the battle of the behemoths that takes place along the Line of Scrimmage (LoS). Yet, in my estimation, whomever wins that battle, wins the game, at least 67% of the time, and probably closer to 80 or 90%.

But, let's face it, when it's one's leisure-time entertainment that's involved, for most fans it's, "More bread and circuses, please!" ..and nowadaze it's, "..make that aerial circuses, please.. (or else!)"

It's almost as if folks would rather watch their favorite team lose, as long as they get the chance to see some fireworks, some "high octane" revving of the engines. Who cares about winning!?

If you have to trudge thru the muck and the gore that's typical of life in the trenches to get it done, fuggettaboudit !

Pound the middle of the opponent's first line of defense til they start to crack? - Boring
But throw a long bomb deep into enemy territory, even if the bomb doesn't go off and falls incomplete? -- Whooopie-wow, now that was exciting!

No question about it, fans would rather see some canned whoopee, than open up a can of whoop-ass, while running the ball relentlessly down an adversary's throat. For me, personally, it's just the opposite. I relish games like, Nov 7, 2013, when the vaunted Oregon Ducks flew into town, when everyone in the stadium knew Stanford was going to run the ball, and our fine, feathered friends still couldn't stop it.  (With the score 23-0 in the 4th quarter, when the cameras panned the Oregon sidelines, and the all previously arrogant expressions were stunned, downcast, witnessing their own self-destruction.. Some players, were literally in tears! - Priceless!! Oh yeah, how sweet that was. Note - coming into that game the Ducks had been averaging 55.6 ppg !! in their previous 8 games !!! and EVERYONE considered them to be an unstoppable juggernaut. -- NOT!)

Meanwhile, as other players and teams get all the glory and notoriety, Stanford's offensive linemen themselves, obviously recognize that they are consigned to obscurity by the media and most fans. Their own choice of a name for their position group, the Tunnel Workers Union (TWU), shows that they know what time it is, that they are laboring in obscurity, deep underground as it were, in the darkness, in constant danger of severe injury from some cave-in or collapse, far from the adulation typically paid to golden-boy QBs, speedy, acrobatic WRs, and flashy, juking, high-steppin', ball-carrying RBs. Nevermind that teams who run the ball "in between the tackles" effectively, regularly, win way more often than not, and mostly, it's all thanks to the unacknowledged grunt-work of the men along the OL.

It's no coincidence that Oregon and Stanford have been the cream of the crop of the 4-yr old PAC 12, and that's because they've been THE 2 MOST effective run offenses in the league, focused around solid OLs and powerfully elusive RBs, for most of the past 4-6 years.

In Eugene, at least, it looks like that lineage will continue, as their OL returns several experienced vets, another previous starter returns from a torn ACL suffered last year, and they pick up a grad. transfer from Notre Dame to take over for the venerable, departed All-Everything-Center and 4-yr starter, Hroniss Grasu. With the departure of Marcus Mariota, look for much more of 5'11", 230lb (!) RB "Rolls" Royce Freeman running behind a quality, experienced OL.

"Holy doodle, grab the poodle, and get the duck outta the way!"

Back at the ranch ur.. uh.. farm, Stanford's slight slippage last year is DIRECTLY attributable to a drop-off in run production. And that decline appears to have been at least partially the result of a drop-off in OL effectiveness coupled with the lack of a power back capable of consistently running for 4 to 5+ yds per carry, between the tackles.

Success at running between the tackles means having a powerful, well-oiled, synchronized OL; plus having a RB who can break arm-tackles and administer punishing collisions upon defending LBs and DBs, until those defenders start to develop an aversion to such punishment.

Look at the numbers

Before we take a closer look at this year's TWU, here's some statistical evidence suggesting the vital significance of OL effectiveness and cohesion in relation to the phenomenon of winning football games at the highest college level :

In 2006 Stanford's W-L record was 1-11. They averaged a meagre 65 yds rushing/game, and a paltry, pitiful 2.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the OL allowed 50 sacks ! Yikes !!

Then, in comes Head Coach Jim Harbaugh with his Offensive Coordinator, David Shaw, the next year. Under their leadership, by 2010, Stanford's W-L record is 12-1, they avg 214 yds rushing/game, 5.2 yards/carry, and allow only 6 sacks ALL SEASON !!

Fast-forward to last year, when many, including myself, including Coach Shaw, thought Stanford would field it's best OL yet. Three out of the 5 projected starters were formerly very highly touted recruits, rating in the top ten of all OL recruits in their class. Andrus Peat, Josh Garnett, Kyle Murphy and their mates, on paper, appeared to be even better than the fabled, dominant 2010 OL that featured Chase Beeler@Center; David DeCastro@LG; Andrew Phillips@RG; Jonathan Martin@RT; and Derek Hall@LT.

But, the sobering reality is, total rush yards per game dropped to 159yds, and yds/carry dropped to 4.3 ypc, both those categories recorded the lowest output since 2007. Furthermore, sacks allowed increased to 1.77/game, and TFLs (tackles for loss) allowed, increased to 4.62/game, both categories again being the worst for over 5 yrs, in this case since 2008. The dropoff in ALL four crucial categories showed that the problem was not JUST the result of smaller, less talented power backs who were not in the mold of Gerhart, Stewart, Taylor, Wilkerson and Gaffney.

So what gives? Who or what is responsible for the decline? It sure doesn't seem to be for a lack of raw talent. Was it a lack of O-Line cohesiveness? Was it poor coaching? Or poor play-calling, as some fans have alleged? Is the vet, OL Coach Mike Bloomgren, out of his league as an OC? Does HC Shaw need to "open up the playbook", as many fans moan and groan, more or less incessantly?

"It's a team game." "It's a team game." "It's a team game." - Beast Mode.

In other words, the causes are intensely inter-related and are usually very hard to identify, unless one has access to the locker room AND the specific type of game film (that coaches use) to focus closely on the brutality and bruising action that goes on along the interior of the LoS, in the tunnels, and in the trenches. It is really only in such film-room sessions that one can accurately identify missed assignments, poor technique, a misstep in the necessary footwork, or what is often just excellent play by opposing players and defenses.

Remember too, that last year, Stanford was coming off two straight years as league champs, 2 straight trips to THE Rose Bowl daddy, and four straight seasons of double-digit wins and high-profile bowl appearances. If you don't think other teams were marking their calendars and getting psyched outta their minds to face the Tree, bringing their A-game to try and cut the Tree down to size, week in and week out... well, you're mistaken.

So what's the status of Stanford's all-important O-Line this year ?

The TWU loses "only" Andrus Peat (27 starts, 40 games played), and although that's literally a HUGE loss, Kyle Murphy is slated to return to his more natural LT slot where he's reportedly more comfortable. Meanwhile, another very highly regarded top 10 recruit, true Soph, Casey Tucker, who saw action as a back-up in 5 games last year, seems slated to take Murphy's spot on the right side. While Peat's departure is significant, the OL overall (LT Murphy, LG Garnett, Center Shuler, and either David Bright, Johnny Caspers, Brendon Austin or perhaps Brandon Fanaika@RG, plus RT Tucker) does return 57 starts, and the combined experience of having played in 183 games.

Compare that to last year when they came into the season having graduated at least 82 career starts and returned just 26.

Equally significant, are reports that guys like All-American candidate, RG Josh Garnett (6'5",325 !) are taking on more of a vocal leadership role. When i approached Josh at the OL table after the offense had sputtered in the spring game, it was clear that Josh was NOT a happy camper, not happy about the OL's play presumably. I had a couple of beautifully fragrant crimson and white roses, which i had offered to all the players to take a whiff, to "smell the roses". Garnett was not having any of it. The look on his face was like, "Get that s#!+ outta here !".. But he didn't have to say anything, and i meekly mosied along to the next table. Haha... I mean, dude outweighs me by nearly 200lbs.. well, 150 at least, and i gotta say, under the circumstances, i like it that the guy's gotta mean streak. Especially after the questionable, losing performance by the offense, eh?

What about depth?

It is absolutely vital that the starters are able to take a breather at sometime or other during the course of most games, not to mention the need for quality replacements, in the case of temporary or long-term injury. Thanks to it's improving reputation as a football powerhouse, Stanford has been able to recruit some of the best O Linemen coming out of high school.

If David Bright, who played in a back up role in all 13 games last year, is indeed this year's starter at RG, as he was in the spring game, that will prob'ly leave Johnny Caspers free to be a versatile back-up at either Center or RG where he has started before, and Brendon Austin to back up either guard position. While Nick Davidson, who may still be dinged up at the start of the season (?), will probably be the main back-up with experience at Tackle.  It appears that the only position up for grabs, at this point is at RG. That's a good thing, since cohesion and continuity usually pay dividends in the long run.

In addition to the vital depth mentioned above, the Tree has 8 promising underclassmen who will fill out the 2 and 3-deep.. that is, incoming Freshmen, rs Freshmen and rs Sophmores, in terms of eligibility, who should be able to contribute quality minutes if called upon. OT Lucas Hinds (6'4",277), OC Jesse Burkett (6'4",295), OT A.T.Hall (6'5",275), and OG Brandon Fanaika (6'3",300) have all been in the program, including on the practice squad for 1 or 2 years, and should be more than capable, if and when necessary.

I expect, the talented incoming class of Frosh recruits to be red-shirted, unless there's some emergent urgency : OT Jack Dreyer, OG Austin Maihen, OG Nick Wilson, and C Brian Chaffin.

Now, it's time to remember, while most fans watch the QB take the ball from center, then as he drops back they watch him scan the field, then they watch the flight of the ball to the WR.. or, they watch the RB take the hand off, following him as he sprints to the edge of the defense along the sidelines..

While all that's taking place, the real tectonic earthquake grinds and hits in the pits, along the LoS, and it's there you usually find the KEYS to winning and losing football.