By Jose Saldana
In a nutshell
Anyone watching the Stanford offense the first half of games last year saw a regressed running game and inaccurate quarterback play. Fans would be quick to point out that All-Everything running back Christian McCaffrey might be reverting to normal McCaffrey after an incredible and irreproducible year as he failed to hit 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games played or quarterback Ryan Burns couldn’t hit the intermediate and deep throws. However, the biggest reason for the horrible offense: awful offensive line play.
The offensive line came into the 2016 season with plenty of question marks. Three starters from the superb 2015 line left which included a two-year starter at center (Graham Shuler) and two current NFL linemen (Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett). Obviously, Stanford had an uphill climb to replace the talent of those players, but it was shocking at how bad the line played last season.
Want to know why Burns only managed five touchdowns to seven interceptions in the games he started? The offensive line ranked 100th in sacks allowed (34 sacks allowed) and Football Outsiders had Stanford ranked 125th in adjusted sack rate. There are only 129 FBS teams! No wonder Burns couldn’t even be a game manager – he didn’t have any time to throw and would get harassed by rushers constantly. The offensive line shouldn’t get the total blame as Burns had a tendency to hold the ball causing sacks, but even with factoring all that, the offensive line failed in pass protection for most of the season.
The run blocking was better but it didn’t really help out McCaffrey. According to Football Outsiders, the offensive line ranked 48th in adjusted line yards. Adjusted line yards tries to separate the line’s play from the running back’s play and states the amount of yards gained by the offensive line for the running back adjusted for opponents. Other top college rushers in McCaffrey’s draft class Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon had offensive lines which ranked 5th, 7th and 12th in adjusted line yards, respectively. Could you imagine the year McCaffrey would have put up with Fournette’s line? Fortunately, for McCaffrey, the offensive line became better midway through the year with the insertion of true freshman Nate Herbig at left guard and McCaffrey exploded.
Even with all the doom and gloom of last season’s offensive line, there is a lot of optimism for the 2017 iteration. The line developed by the end of the season when senior Keller Chryst took over for Burns, and only one lineman from last year, right guard Johnny Caspers, will need to be replaced. There are many returning lineman with ample game experience under their belt. Senior center Jesse Burkett will man the middle and did a good job last year as he started every game. At the left guard spot, true sophomore Nate Herbig, the best surprise of last season, will start as he did well there for the final four games of the 2016 season.
David “Salty Dave” Bright, A.T. Hall and Casey Tucker will battle for the tackle positions which has been the source of concern when it comes to pass protection. Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren have placed on emphasis on protecting the quarterback this season. Whoever shows better pass protection will probably start at the tackles.
The final position that needs to be filled is the hole left by Johnny Caspers at right guard. Guards Brandon Fanaika and Nick Wilson will compete for the starting right guard position. Fanaika has more experience starting than Wilson as he started five games at left guard last season. Sophomore Devery Hamilton is also in the mix at guard with his athleticism and technique, he might be able to make the switch from tackle to guard.
The 2017 recruiting class included the two of the best recruits in the nation – and arguably the top two offensive lineman – tackles Foster Sarell and Walker Little. Freshman don’t start on the line (or really anywhere under coach Shaw for that matter) and last year was an exception as injuries and bad play forced Shaw and Bloomgren to start Herbig. However, Sarell and Little have incredible talent and potential. If they can develop fast, then expect them to be in the mix for a tackle spot.
The Stanford offensive line was disappointing last season. The talent was there but it didn’t work out as well as most hoped. Under Shaw, where the offensive line goes so does the offense. If the talent and experience already on the line can meet positive production, then the Cardinal might find themselves near the top of the rankings at the end of the season.
David Bright (RT) – Bright is a fifth-year senior and was named a team captain. A “swing lineman”, Bright can and has played at both guard and tackle positions. The biomechanical engineering major’s versatility and toughness allow him to move around the line when the Stanford offense needs to churn a couple yards the hard way.
In the 2016 season, he began at left guard to shore up Ryan Burns’s blind-side with Casey Tucker. Bright only played four games at the left guard spot before alternating with Tucker at right tackle before finding a home there for the final four games of the season. If Tucker entrenches himself at one of the tackle positions, then Bright and A.T. Hall will battle out at the other tackle spot. If the line struggles again this year, look for coach Shaw or Bloomgren to move Bright around as a solution.
A.T. Hall (LT) – Hall won the starting right tackle position last season after a successful offseason. After Stanford’s second game against USC, Hall switched tackle positions with Casey Tucker and stayed there for the rest of the season. He, along with Jesse Burkett and Johnny Caspers, were the only offensive lineman to start at the same position for at least 10 games. But given the emphasis on pass protection heading into this season, it would not be surprising if Hall didn’t start this season and was brought on during extra offensive lineman sets.
Casey Tucker (RT) – Former four-star recruit and senior Tucker disappointed last season. He wasn’t able to make the same transition from right to left tackle as well as Kyle Murphy did in 2015. His sloppy play and footwork forced Shaw and Bloomgren to put him back to right tackle starting Stanford’s third game. Injuries forced Tucker to miss games and he ended up playing in only eight games last season.
Tucker’s talent is undeniable – he came in as a highly rated offensive tackle. In 2015, he was able to play well at right tackle after being inserted into the starting lineup as a true sophomore. However, he needs to show that his talent can provide tangible results in pass protection and run blocking in order to start at either tackle spot.
Nate Herbig (LG) – The number of losses the Cardinal had after, then true freshman, Nate “The Big Island” Herbig was inserted into the starting lineup: 0. Of course, football is a team sport and Stanford played weaker competition but having a good left guard helps a lot. Herbig started his first two games at the right guard spot after Johnny Caspers suffered an injury before settling at left guard for the final four games of the season. In his games at left guard, he helped Stanford average 344 rushing yards! Every game he started seemed to have the [insert top ten ranking]-most rushing yards in school history. Although McCaffrey did a lot of the work, a running back’s best friend is a lineman who can run block well. That’s what Herbig provided.
Herbig wasn’t even expected to start in 2016 but the lack of production from the offensive line forced him to start, and he took complete advantage. He was only the second freshman to start on the offensive line since 2000 and first since 2012.
Herbig should hold down the starting left guard position for this season barring injury.
Jesse Burkett (C) – Senior Burkett was the only offensive lineman to start every game at the position they started with. He took over the center position after Graham Shuler retired from football with one year of eligibility left. His rapport with the quarterbacks and his intuition on pre-snap calls helped the center position be the most stable in the whirlwind that was the 2016 Stanford offensive line.
His play wasn’t just noticed by fans of Pac-12 offensive line play as Burkett was named to the 2017 Preseason Rimington Trophy Watchlist for most outstanding center in college football. Fans should expect stability at the center position again this season with Burkett starting.
Brandon Fanaika (RG) – Fanaika wasn’t able to earn to the starting nod at left guard over David Bright coming into 2016 and after playing in 13 games in 2015. Once the offensive line problems ensued, Fanaika started five consecutive games at left guard but injuries and the play of Herbig caused Fanaika to lose the starting left guard position.
As in 2016, Fanaika will have to compete in order to earn the right guard position this season. Even if he doesn’t start, Bloomgren has used him in the past as an extra lineman so Fanaika should find a way to play in every game.
Nick Wilson (RG) – Wilson didn’t start last year at any offensive line position but he still managed to play in all 13 games as many linemen under Bloomgren often do. Shaw and Bloomgren didn’t think Wilson was ready as a sophomore to start at any of the guard positions last season. However, this season he will have the opportunity to battle for the right guard position against Fanaika and Devery Hamilton.
Newcomers to watch for
Devery Hamilton (OT) – Hamilton, who redshirted last year, was a four-star recruit out of Baltimore. He committed to the University of Michigan but changed his commitment to Stanford. Hamilton seems to be in the running for the right guard position even if his preferred spot is at tackle. His size (6-foot-7 and 301 pounds) and athleticism will allow him to operate the “swing” lineman position that David Bright has ownership in.
Foster Sarell (OT) – The nation’s second-best recruit by Scout last year and five-star recruit by the universe, freshman Sarell will still have a hard time making a starting tackle position. Again, freshman do not start on Shaw-coached teams. Herbig was an exception due to the bad offensive line play and if the same thing happens this year, then Sarell could see himself starting in the middle of the season if he is able to adjust to college-level competition. His talent is obvious from his time at his high school Graham-Kapowsin in Washington.
Walker Little (OT) – The other jewel of the Stanford 2017 recruiting class, Little has incredible potential. Sarell and Little would change places in the top recruiting sites for offensive tackles, so ideally Sarell and Little would bookend the Stanford offensive line in the near future. But like Sarell, Little is a freshman and would only start if the line had injuries, played badly at the tackles and if Little shows advanced maturation. Don’t expect to see Sarell and Little this year starting, but if their rankings show any indication of their future, then everyone will hear about Sarell and Little soon.
Johnny Caspers (RG) – Caspers was a team captain last year and started all but two games at right guard. The games he did miss were only due to injury and allowed Herbig to flourish. Being only one of two linemen who stayed in their initial position last season showed the good job Caspers did at right guard. After swirlings that Caspers could be selected in Day 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft, Caspers decided to retire and not pursue a career in the NFL.
Projected Depth Chart
Others: Dylan Powell, Drew Dalman, Austin Maihen, Jack Dreyer, Henry Hattis, Walker Little, Foster Sarell
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.