By Joseph Beyda
February 1, 2012: a day that saw Stanford assemble arguably the top offensive line class in college football history.
Seven offensive linemen — six of them earning at least four stars — joined the Cardinal on that fateful National Signing Day, bringing with them a much-needed air of optimism to a Stanford program that was just 30 days removed from Andrew Luck’s last hurrah.
February 1, 2012: a day that, for Brendon Austin, may live in infamy.
He won’t admit it — not even close. The Cardinal offensive lineman insists he was always excited about the new, highly touted additions to the Tunnel Workers Union.
“There wasn’t any type of jealousy at all there,” Austin said. “I was just happy that we were beefing up our offensive line.”
But lost in the live-television commitments by five-star offensive linemen Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy; lost in the ensuing staff room celebrations in the Arillaga Family Sports Center; lost in the recruiting class rankings and news articles, the blog posts and podcasts; lost in it all was the fact that the road for Austin, himself the top recruit in the state of Colorado a year earlier, had just gotten that much tougher.
Thirty-two months later, as he enters his senior season, Austin is still making that climb. And on a retooled offensive line that will need to continue the Cardinal’s dominance up front if Stanford wants a shot at a third straight Pac-12 title, Austin is fighting for the only starting spot that has not yet been won by a member of the recruiting class of 2012.
With the graduation of four of the most accomplished linemen in school history, the Cardinal has turned to the rising juniors that sparked so much excitement two years ago. While Peat will anchor the left tackle spot for the second straight year, the starting five will also include Murphy at right tackle, Josh Garnett at left guard and Graham Shuler at center.
The fifth and final spot is there for the taking, and Austin is likely the underdog after junior Johnny Caspers played with the first-stringers in the spring. Shaw also said on Wednesday that Garnett and Caspers had started fall camp like “gangbusters” after just “decent” spring performances, so Austin has his work cut out for him.
“The right guard spot is truly a battle,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how that sorts out.”
It’s not Austin’s first time competing for a starting job during training camp. Entering 2012, some considered the then-sophomore a frontrunner to start at left tackle before the coaching staff instead turned to David Yankey, later a unanimous first-team All-American and fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. And last fall, Peat won that job while Austin had to share backup duties with Murphy at right tackle.
Austin has since switched to guard, but that’s not all that’s different about this year.
“It’s a marathon,” Austin said of competing for a starting spot in camp. “Maybe in years past the maturity wasn’t there; I don’t think it was all the way where it could’ve been. But this year I know how to approach camp, I know how to take care of my body, I think I’m more prepared.”
A big part of that preparation is watching film — and Austin has been watching Yankey’s most of all. It’s not just that Yankey earned unanimous All-America honors last year; it’s also his versatility in switching from guard to tackle and, one year later, back to guard. Austin, of course, is trying to complete the latter transformation this fall.
Across the line at left guard, Yankey’s production will be missed, but Garnett has emerged as a potentially dominant puller in his own right.
“I think when you talk about the ceiling for a guy like Andrus, gosh, you’ve got to ask the question about Josh. ‘How good could he be?’” Bloomgren said. “He’s a heck of a vocal leader for our group right now, and because of what he does in the weight room and the way he grinds, our guys all look to him and listen to him. And now he’s got a chance to put it all on film on Saturdays.”
Garnett and Murphy, now roommates, earned a lot of playing time as the extra linemen in “jumbo” formations last year, yet the challenges are a bit different in a starting role.
“[At the] ‘jumbo’ position you don’t have to do as many plays,” Garnett said. “There’s not a lot of footwork; you kind of just come off the ball on people and be physical.”
When it comes to a physical presence, Peat is Stanford’s calling card. The 6-foot-7, 316-pound left tackle was part of a line that allowed the 11th fewest sacks (16) in the country last year, and head coach David Shaw said that though Peat slimmed up a bit this summer, the towering lineman also added muscle and remained the same weight. Add that to Peat’s relative speed, and the Cardinal’s left tackle may attract attention as an early-round pick after his junior year.
“The clay is so good,” Bloomgren said of Peat and the rest of the Stanford offensive linemen. “If I don’t screw them up as a coach I think they can be really good.”
Bloomgren’s coaching might be most critical at center, if only because Shuler is Stanford’s third starter at the position in as many years. But like Garnett and Murphy, Shuler played a part in the “jumbo” packages that saw the Cardinal bring as many as nine offensive linemen onto the field in 2013. Moreover, earlier this week Bloomgren voiced his confidence in Shuler’s ability to make the necessary calls, especially since he’s been part of the program for three seasons.
And that, really, epitomizes the guarded optimism surrounding an offensive line that was left only 20 percent intact by this offseason. Over the last two years, Stanford’s historic recruiting class has found its way onto the field, it has learned the system — it has grown up together.
“We’ve definitely developed a lot of camaraderie,” Garnett said. “[In the] summers we’re always doing barbeques, we’re hanging out all the time.”
“It will be fun to finally go out on the field next to these dudes and just gel,” Murphy added.
Brendon Austin may still have something to say about a juniors-only starting line before fall camp is over. But for the time being, the 2012 O-line recruits have the keys.
The drive is just three weeks away.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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