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August 11, 2013

Camp Question: Offensive Line Dominoes

Stanford's offensive line is expected to be among the best in the nation in 2013. With David Yankey returning to his natural guard position, Cameron Fleming anchoring the right side of the line, sophomore Andrus Peat emerging at left tackle, and a host of talented young linemen waiting in the wings, the depth and talent of the Cardinal offensive line will be matched by only a select few college football programs.

Yet much is still uncertain about Stanford's offensive line in 2013. Four of the five starters from 2012 return, but several positions along the line are still in flux.

There are two primary scenarios that will determine the composition of the line. Each depends on which player wins the center competition: Conor McFadden, Khalil Wilkes, or Kevin Danser. Here's a look at the two possible outcomes:

Scenario One: McFadden or Wilkes wins the center competition. Kevin Danser starts at right guard

This won't be Khalil Wilkes' first time in a competition for the center spot. In 2011, he battled Sam Schwartzstein for the job but was beat out. Nonetheless, Wilkes has played a lot of football during his Stanford career. Last season, as a redshirt junior, Wilkes took the bulk of the snaps at left guard. But with Peat now ready to assume left tackle responsibilities and Yankey moving back to guard, Wilkes finds himself out of a starting job.

McFadden, meanwhile, was in the two-deep at center backing up Schwartzstein. The Minnesota native has outperformed expectations at Stanford.

"Conor McFadden was our backup center for the last two years and has always been ready to play," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "(He's) very smart, very bright. Knows the calls, knows the offense inside and out."

If McFadden or Wilkes win the job, Shaw said that Danser, who earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012, would return to right guard as the starter.

"Well it's Danser (at right guard) unless Danser wins the center position," Shaw said. "Danser has earned that spot. That's his spot. He really had an underappreciated year. And it's hard - we have so many guys that are so good that a lot of guys are deserving of their attention. But Kevin Danser played really well last year so if he doesn't win the center job he'll be our right guard."

Note: True freshman Thomas Oser and redshirt freshman Graham Shuler also play center, but neither is expected to be a major factor in the competition. If Shuler continues to add mass, he could emerge at the position sooner than later, however.

Scenario Two: Danser wins the center competition. Josh Garnett, Khalil Wilkes and Johnny Caspers compete for right guard.

If Danser wins the center spot, the three-man competition between Wilkes, Caspers and Garnett instantly becomes one of the most intriguing position battles of camp.

On paper, Garnett seems like the ideal choice. A consensus top-50 recruit out of high school who committed to Stanford over offers from a who's who of college football powers, Garnett played in various Jumbo packages as a true freshman. He has the pedigree and experience to earn the starting spot this year. But he struggled at times during spring and didn't take the massive leap forward that some expected. How Garnett spent the offseason, both from a physical conditioning and mental perspective could go a long way towards determining his success in 2013.

On the other end of the spectrum is Wilkes, who while lacking the physical abilities of Garnett, has experience and a thorough knowledge of Stanford's playbook. He doesn't have the upside in the power run game of Garnett (or Yankey, obviously), but is a reliable, predictable option.

The darkhorse of the competition - and one player who hasn't received nearly as much publicity as he should - is redshirt freshman Johnny Caspers. Caspers has put on more than 30 pounds of good weight since arriving at Stanford and was one of the standout performers of spring ball. He plays with a no-nonsense, nasty attitude which endears him to his coaches and fellow offensive linemen alike.

"Johnny Caspers is probably one of my favorite guys on the o-line," David Yankey said. "He's awesome. He was one of the scholarship guys that we had in that class that came in no one really talked about him. He's just impressed me since he's gotten here. He doesn't say anything, he keeps his mouth shut and just goes and hits people. He blows the d-line off the ball there. They all have an intense amount of respect for him because he comes to work every day, doesn't say anything, and keeps his head down. I think he came in at something like 260 pounds and now he's up to 295 and looks great, a lot of muscle. He's a guy that just works and I have an incredible amount of respect for him as well."

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