Football preview: Offensive line powers forward, seeks new center

Despite the graduation of center Sam Schwartzstein (second from right), the return of seniors Cameron Fleming (left), Kevin Danser (second from left) and preseason All-American David Yankey (right) sets the Cardinal up for 2013 with one of the best offensive lines in school history. (David Elkinson/isiphotos.com)

Despite the graduation of center Sam Schwartzstein (second from right), the return of seniors Cameron Fleming (left), Kevin Danser (second from left), Khalil Wilkes (right) and preseason All-American David Yankey (not pictured) sets the Cardinal up for 2013 with one of the best offensive lines in school history. (DAVID ELKINSON/isiphotos.com)

Kevin Danser takes a tiny step back, shuffles quickly to his left and gets a small piece of an oncoming linebacker. He’s run power left dozens of times before in game situations, and hundreds of other times in practice. But this play is a little bit different. Of the great Stanford pulling guards that have come before Danser — David DeCastro, who was picked in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft; Andrew Phillips, who fought through the death of his father during the 2010 Orange Bowl run; Chris Marinelli, who coined the Tunnel Workers’ Union’s name back in 2009 — none has set a block like this.

As Stepfan Taylor scampers past Danser for the first down, the Cardinal clinches the Rose Bowl.

It took years for the program to reach that moment, and during that arduous climb, outside observers were always keen to pin the program’s success on a few men: great coaches, great quarterbacks, great running backs and, occasionally, great linebackers. But as preseason No. 4 Stanford gears up for a 2013 campaign that invites perhaps the greatest expectations in school history, that last carry in the Rose Bowl still resonates as a reminder of what makes the Cardinal really tick.

For Stanford football, it all starts with the offensive line. And for the offensive line, it all starts with power.

“We like to put it on us,” senior center Conor McFadden said after the team’s first training camp practice on Monday. “We like to say, ‘When there’s two minutes left in the game…we’re going to run power. You’re going to know what’s happening, and we’re going to put it on the offensive line. We’re going to clear a hole, and we’re going to make this a no-question game.’”

No question, the Cardinal will have a pretty good pulling guard digging those tunnels this year. After starting at left tackle in 2012 to fill the spot left by second-round NFL draftee Jonathan Martin, senior David Yankey moves back to his natural left guard position this season. Despite changing starting positions for the second time in three years, Yankey has racked up first-team preseason All-America selections over the summer.

“Even last year, he played six different positions in one game,” noted Stanford offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren. “He played plenty of guard last year. He just played tackle in every pass situation, or most of them…[but him moving back] allows us to do what we hang our hat on and do best, in the power scheme, gap scheme, with people pulling.”

The move couldn’t come a moment too soon. Yankey’s veteran presence inside somewhat makes up for the loss of center Sam Schwartzstein, a fifth-year player and team captain in 2012.

McFadden is competing with two redshirt seniors, Danser and Khalil Wilkes, for the vacated spot in the middle of the line; that duo started opposite each other at right and left guard, respectively, last season. Though sophomore Graham Shuler is also in the mix, chances are that one of the three seniors will win the position, which requires a firm grasp of the Cardinal’s lengthy playbook to make the correct calls at the line of scrimmage.

The veteran centers are close friends off the field and fierce competitors on it — but according to McFadden, there are no hard feelings.

“What’s so cool about us is we all want to do it the right way,” McFadden said. “And so it’s a real positive experience, where if I do something wrong, it’s not like they’re going to not tell me or keep it secret. I mean, I know both Kevin and Khalil will take time out and say, ‘Hey Conor, you know, I’ve been using this technique, it’s been working real well.’

“Because that’s what it’s all about. Our goal is to win a Pac-12 championship, and we want to put up the best five offensive linemen. I want to be out there, but ultimately the goal is to put up the best five.”

Senior Conor McFadden is one of three veterans vying for the senior job. "He’s absolutely brilliant," says offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. "He probably could coach those guys better than I can.” (Jamie Schwaberow/ISI Photos)

Senior Conor McFadden is one of three veterans vying for the senior job. “He’s absolutely brilliant,” says offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “He probably could coach those guys better than I can.” (Jamie Schwaberow/ISI Photos)

Danser is the largest of the three competitors, coming into the position at 6-foot-6 and 296 pounds, but he has played his entire career at guard; Wilkes battled Schwartzstein for the center job two summers ago, but he is three inches shorter (and 10 pounds lighter) than Danser. McFadden, meanwhile, is known to have the best grasp of the playbook.

It all sets up for a battle that could stretch late into camp. Though Bloomgren is against reducing each candidate to a single strength, he can’t deny the obvious.

“I don’t know if that’s fair to each one of them,” he said. “Danser is the stoutest of the group, I think that’s probably true. They all know the playbook. Now, Conor McFadden is brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant. He probably could coach those guys better than I can.”

The center competition could also decide Stanford’s next right guard starter, likely to be Danser, Wilkes or sophomore Joshua Garnett. Whoever wins that spot will line up next to senior Cameron Fleming, who has quietly cemented the right tackle spot for the third straight season.

Protecting quarterback Kevin Hogan’s blindside at the opposite end of the line will be sophomore Andrus Peat, the Cardinal’s 6-foot-7, 312-pound left tackle who was the top tackle recruit in the country as a high school senior. Members of one of the best offensive line recruiting classes in college football history, Peat, Garnett and “jumbo” tight end Kyle Murphy all played as true freshmen; DeCastro and Martin, by contrast, took redshirt seasons to begin their own prolific careers. But as he enters his first season as a starter, Peat believes that playing right away was valuable.

“I just feel like I know the offense a lot better [this year],” Peat said. “I’m not really thinking as much. I’m out here playing… it was good for me to get experience on the field. I think it really helped me going into the spring, and then now.”

“He’s one of those guys who had such a monumental jump from last fall to this spring,” Bloomgren added, “and you don’t want to speak too soon, but he seems to have made a big jump this summer as well. And that’s so exciting.”

Excitement surrounds the offensive line as it enters the 2013 season; with Yankey and Peat anchoring the left side, three seniors competing at center and Fleming holding down the fort at right tackle, the Tunnel Workers Union that takes the field on Sept. 7 will be arguably the most promising unit to set foot in the new Stanford Stadium.

But the line has not lost the chip on its shoulder. Without Yankey pulling on many run plays, the Cardinal ranked 48th in rushing yards per game in 2012, even with Taylor, the most prolific rusher in school history, putting together a 1,530-yard senior season. That marked the first time since 2007 that Stanford finished outside the nation’s top 20 in that category.

“We didn’t finish games like we usually do last year,” McFadden admitted. “I think that’s one of our goals moving forward: that we have such an amazing defense and such great skill players around us, but as an offensive line, we still have that hunger to be the group that says, ‘When the chips are down and we need to get a yard… we know we’re going to run power and get that yard, no question.’”

“A price has to be paid,” he added, “and everyone has to pay that price every single year.”

Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.

The Daily’s football preview series will be back Wednesday, as we take a look at Stanford’s quarterbacks.

Rags to Roses Cover

Want to learn more about power? There’s an entire chapter named after the Cardinal’s trademark run play in “Rags to Roses,” available in the Amazon Kindle store now! Stanford Daily football beat writers Joseph Beyda, George Chen and Sam Fisher interviewed 30 current and former players and coaches to bring you the story of the Cardinal’s resurgence from 2006 to 2012. You can also check out the free excerpts here.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a senior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.