This is the fourth of a 12-part preview of the 2016 football season.Part 1 focused on the running backs and fullbacks. Part 2 featured a roundtable on the offense. Part 3 focused on the tight ends and receivers.
In a nutshell
Christian McCaffrey gets all the headlines and magazine covers, and Ryan Burns gets all the media buzz as Stanford’s newly minted starting quarterback, but everyone around The Farm knows the universal truth that football games are, first and foremost, won and lost in the trenches.
Blue-chip dominance on the offensive line was a huge part of what spurred Stanford’s rise to national dominance in the last decade, and we saw in 2014 just how badly things could go wrong with shaky offensive line play from the Cardinal. It’s no coincidence that Stanford’s surge back to the Rose Bowl last season and one of the best offensive seasons in school history coincided with the maturation of the program’s best offensive line recruiting class ever.
With that in mind, the major “if” that could trip up a Stanford offense returning most of its skill players from last year’s legendary campaign concerns the fact that the Cardinal will have to replace three of their offensive linemen from last season. And those are pretty significant losses: Along with two-year starting center Graham Shuler, they lose Josh Garnett — the winner of the Outland Trophy (awarded to the nation’s best interior lineman) — and Kyle Murphy, who should make the Green Bay Packers’ roster this season.
In their absence, the Cardinal will ask junior center Jesse Burkett to assume a starting role after seeing limited action last season in garbage time, while versatile veteran David “Salty Dave” Bright isn’t yet locked into a position but appears locked into a starting role. Bright’s position will likely depend on the outcome of the battle between juniors Brandon Fanaika and A.T. Hall for the final vacancy.
That trio will join fifth-year senior Johnny Caspers, a team captain that will start for a third straight season at right guard, and junior Casey Tucker, who will flip to protect Burns’ blind side at left tackle after steadily maturing at right tackle for the Cardinal last season.
It’s unfair to immediately expect the new-look 2016 offensive line to have growing pains before they’ve even had a chance to prove themselves on the field, but Stanford fans should absolutely be prepared for the possibility that a brutal gauntlet of Kansas State, USC, UCLA and Washington to open the season could result in another shaky transition for Stanford’s new starters up front.
Of course, there’s also the chance that they might hit the ground running and not struggle at all — they’re certainly talented enough for that — but it’s impossible to tell what the strengths and weaknesses of the new-look Tunnel Workers’ Union will be until they’ve had a chance to step onto a real football field and face real opponents. Until then, we can only speculate.
What’s not speculation, though, is that the success of Stanford’s offensive line will be one of the most pivotal factors in determining whether the Cardinal will knock on the door of the College Football Playoff or limp into another Foster Farms Bowl this season.
Casey Tucker (LT) — The former four-star recruit out of Arizona was the youngest of Stanford’s starting offensive linemen last season, and that certainly showed at times over the course of 14 starts at right tackle. But by the end of the year, Tucker had developed into a experienced, well-rounded tackle that formed the final piece of Stanford’s clockwork offensive line, and Stanford will ask him to take the next step by moving him across the line to defend the blind side of the team’s shiny new starting quarterback. Kyle Murphy made a similar transition from 2014 to 2015 and didn’t miss a beat, and Tucker, who played primarily left tackle in high school, reportedly didn’t take long to adjust back to the left side over the course of the offseason. He’s focused his work on pass protection this offseason and, as a true junior, he’s ready to anchor the left side of the line in 2016 and could continue to develop into one of the best in the conference in his senior season.
Johnny Caspers (RG) — Voted a team captain by his peers a week ago, Caspers was part of the last offensive line facelift in 2014 and will be tasked with leading his position group through another such transition in 2016. Although he was overshadowed by left guard Josh Garnett last season, who was quite literally the best in the nation at his job, David Shaw would always remind the media that Caspers was quietly developing into a stellar offensive lineman and a respected leader on the roster — not quite as vocal as Shuler and Garnett, but impactful nonetheless. He was named to both Phil Steele’s and Athlon’s All-Pac-12 preseason second teams for the 2016 season and should provide a welcome oasis of consistency amidst a (literal) ton of moving pieces, though it remains to be seen if he will reprise his role as the short-yardage center. By the way, ask him about his research with worms.
David Bright (LG/RT) — “Salty Dave” is bigger than you, he’s stronger than you, he’s angrier than you, and he’s smarter than you. The biomechanical engineering major was Stanford’s go-to extra offensive lineman last season and saw significant action in the Cardinal’s heavy sets and goal-line packages playing both on the line and in a sort of H-back blocker position. He has the technique and the know-how to start (and excel) at both guard and tackle, and he’ll likely start at left guard if junior tackle A.T. Hall wins a starting job, or at right tackle if junior guard Brandon Fanaika instead comes out on top. If you need a reminder of what he’s capable of, just remember last season’s Oregon State game, when he entered at left tackle to replace an injured Kyle Murphy, and played well enough that a large chunk of Stanford fans didn’t even realize a change had occurred.
Newcomers to watch for
Jesse Burkett (C) — Burkett will be pressed into action one year earlier than expected after Graham Shuler decided to forgo his fifth year and retire from football, but he appears ready for the spotlight after beating out sophomore Brian Chaffin for the starting job early in an impressive training camp. Burkett is a naturally quiet guy, but his keen intellect has reportedly helped him grasp the cerebral center position quickly, in which he will be responsible for not just blocking, but also reading opposing defenses and making pre-snap calls on the line. As has been tradition with previous Stanford backup centers, Burkett developed the mental part of his game in high-pressure situations with the “whiteboard” role on the sideline during game days, in which he helped diagram what was going on the field to aid the Cardinal’s coaches in making quick in-game adjustments as games unfolded.
A.T. Hall (RT) — Hall appears to be the favorite in the competition for the final starting spot on the offensive line after taking the majority of the snaps with the first-team line in the last few practices. The former three-star recruit out of Arizona primarily saw action last season in Stanford’s field goal packages (and would often be the first one off the sideline to jump into celebrations on the field after touchdowns, since he’d be needed for extra points) and played with the second-team line during the Cardinal and White Spring Game before making a strong progression over the course of the offseason to push guard Brandon Fanaika into a competition for the starting role. Even if he doesn’t win the starting job, he’s sure to see a huge workload this season given Stanford’s propensity to use extra linemen early and often — and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren has said that Hall is among the six linemen that have stood head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in fall camp.
Brandon Fanaika (LG) — Fanaika seems to be on the cusp of losing his grasp on a starting role that appeared to be his after the end of last season, but as is the case with Hall, he is one of Bloomgren’s six preferred linemen, and so will see lots of action regardless of whether he ends up starting or not. If he earns the starting job, it would likely be as Garnett’s replacement at left guard, where he played in the Cardinal and White Spring Game with the first-team line and also saw game action in garbage time situations last year, though he was primarily used as an extra fullback in Stanford’s short-yardage “hippo” package. He is a former four-star recruit and was the ninth-best offensive guard in the nation as a high school senior in 2011 before he took a two-year mission prior to his Stanford enrollment.
Nick Wilson (G) — Although Bloomgren says there’s a significant gap between the Cardinal’s top six linemen and everyone else, he also says that Wilson, a sophomore, is the first man out and could factor into the playing time discussion this season. He redshirted last season but played right guard with the second-team line during the Cardinal and White Spring Game. He is likely a year away from seeing significant snaps, but could eventually be a candidate to hit the field as Stanford’s “ogre” lineman.
Nate Herbig (G) — The final lineman that Bloomgren pointed out as having impressed during fall camp has been true freshman Nate Herbig, who lives up to the “big” in his name by being listed at a whopping 350 pounds (that’s not a typo) on the Cardinal’s official roster. The Hawaiian has reportedly proven adept at moving other large human beings out of his way (really, no surprises there) and might see some time on the field as early as this year if Bloomgren can find situations to work him in.
Joshua Garnett (LG) — Stanford will sorely miss heavy Josh Garnett, a five-star recruit who struggled with his technique when he first broke through as a starter in 2014 but quickly developed into the best guard in the nation as a senior in 2015 and being awarded an Outland Trophy for his troubles. Garnett got some time in the spotlight last season when he launched Washington safety JoJo McIntosh into low-earth orbit with a hellacious block in space, and though most of his plays weren’t so flashy, his elite blocking helped make McCaffrey’s historic season possible. Not only was he a great lineman, but Garnett was also one of the most vocal presences in Stanford’s locker room and a team captain before Chip Kelly’s San Francisco 49ers wisely snatched him up in the first round of the NFL Draft. He’s actually in the race for the Niners’ starting left guard spot, so keep an eye on that as the season draws closer. His true finest hour in a Stanford uniform was undoubtedly in the 2012 Lawry’s Beef Bowl, when he ate upwards of 10 pounds of beef in one sitting.
Kyle Murphy (LT) — There were concerns that Kevin Hogan’s blind side would be more vulnerable after Andrus Peat declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season, but those concerns were quickly put to rest last season when Murphy flipped from right to left tackle and made a seamless transition from being a second-team All-Pac-12 selection as a junior to being a first-team All-Pac-12 selection as a senior playing a tougher position. The discipline and consistency he brought to Hogan’s blind side were second to none, and the Green Bay Packers, who snagged him in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, saw Murphy make a solid preseason debut after having been sidelined with a concussion for a few weeks.
Graham Shuler (C) — Shuler never really got showered with the accolades that his teammates on the line received last season, but he was a solid center and just about the best teammate anybody on the squad could ask for. The candid, outspoken Tennessee native became almost an unofficial spokesman for his teammates (there was no such thing as a bad Graham Shuler quote) and was particularly close with Christian McCaffrey. He elected to step away from football after the 2015 season in order to have time to pursue his passions off the field.
Projected depth chart
Others: Dylan Powell, Matthew Gutwald, Austin Maihen, Nate Herbig, Lucas Hinds, Clark Yarbrough, Devery Hamilton, Jack Dreyer, Henry Hattis
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.