At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning — with just a fax to Stanford’s football office — new football signee Thomas Oser’s path to Stanford was finally complete.
In an academic sense, Oser seemed destined to end up at Stanford for a long time. For anyone with questions about Oser’s qualifications to be a Stanford student, look no further than the two schools Oser has attended over the last six years.
Oser comes to Stanford from Harvard-Westlake, an elite prep school in Southern California that is known for sending many of its alumni to every incoming Stanford class. But don’t let Oser’s time in sunny Los Angeles fool you — he’s an East coast kid whose New Jersey roots play a large role in his identity.
I first encountered Thomas Oser five years ago, during my sophomore year of high school and Oser’s first year on The Pingry School’s middle-school football team. I didn’t know much about him, but every time I wandered over to middle-school football practice from our high-school team’s warm-ups, I noticed Oser as the baby-faced, smiling kid with an infectious personality who was by far the biggest on the field.
Over the next two years, Oser became a familiar face. He kept growing — currently he is listed at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds — and we started to see that Oser could potentially become a very good football player.
This was the cause of a lot of local anxiety. Pingry is a prestigious school academically, but in sports besides soccer, many of the brightest middle-school stars leave for more promising athletic programs. In no sport is that more evident than football; the middle school team is consistently one of the best in its conference, but the high school team has just two playoff appearances since 2006 — this past fall and 2009, my senior year.
But Oser was ready to buck that trend. He was focused on academics, the good relationship with his class and a chance to help put Pingry on the map. However, late in his eighth-grade year, Oser found out his family was moving to Los Angeles.
“It was really strange,” Oser said. “We didn’t find out we were moving until April. I had to do the application process for high school later than everyone else.”
Oser chose Harvard-Westlake to maintain the level of academics he had grown accustomed to. The level of competition on the football field, however, was a big jump.
Back at Pingry, Oser was the biggest player on the field. As a freshman at Harvard-Westlake, he wasn’t so lucky.
“I got my butt kicked the first week and all year,” Oser said. “The game was much faster than I was used to.”
But Oser wasn’t as far over his head as one might expect. He became one of three players in his grade to make varsity, earning his first playing time midway through the season. By the time his sophomore year rolled around, Oser felt that he had the experience to make a big jump.
As it turned out, Oser’s coaches agreed. Though he was just a sophomore, they started him at left tackle, the offensive line’s most prominent position.
After a successful campaign, Oser came into his junior year expecting to continue in his starting role on the left side of the line. However, with Harvard-Westlake’s center out with an injury, Oser’s coach asked him to try taking a few snaps. Soon Oser moved to center, and hasn’t left since.
At first, Oser was a bit disappointed to make the move. Historically, the left tackle position is the where the most dominant player on the line plays. In the NFL, protecting the right-handed quarterback’s blind side is a valued service. On average, starting left tackles are the second-highest paid players behind starting quarterbacks.
But once Oser started getting into the action at center, everything changed. Oser grew to love the “close-combat” situations on the interior of the offensive line. “I’m right in the thick of it,” Oser said.
Oser would find out very soon that college coaches liked the move as much as he did. One day during his junior year, Oser got a surprise visit from Stanford offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren — recently named the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator — who invited him to the team’s summer prospect camp.
“I went up there and played my butt off,” Oser said of the camp, and head coach David Shaw was so impressed with Oser’s play that he offered Oser a scholarship. At the end of a recruiting process that saw Oregon and Vanderbilt join Stanford as the favorites, Oser decided to accept Shaw’s offer and join the defending Rose Bowl champions for 2013.
“Stanford was always a prospect of mine. It’s a school I’ve been interested in since even before football became a reality,” Oser said. “Coming out of Pingry and coming out of Harvard-Westlake, you’re looking to go to one of the top schools academically.”
With starter Sam Schwartzstein’s eligibility ending after last season, Stanford’s center spot is open to competition. As a true freshman Oser is certainly a long shot, but he might be closer than many think.
Many in the recruiting business have enjoyed referring to Oser as a “true-center.” Oser was in a rare position as a high-school center; most top offensive-line recruits are forced to play tackle in high-school due to a large talent gap, but Oser spent two years — with an estimated 700 shotgun snaps — in that center spot. That experience could give Oser a huge step up in his transition to the college game.
Shaw certainly liked seeing his success as a high school center. At his press conference announcing Stanford football’s signing class yesterday, Shaw sung praise of Oser.
“It’s a unique skill to be able to put the ball between your legs and be able to explode out and block somebody that’s in front of you,” he said.
And now, almost four years after Oser’s move to California robbed me of a chance to be his teammate for a year, I have the opportunity to cover his first season as a member of Stanford football. I’m just glad he doesn’t get to block me.
Contact Sam Fisher at email@example.com.