A program known for dominant offensive line play may have its best offensive line yet in 2013. A pair of returning All-Conference guards and future NFL talents at right and left tackle should pave the way for another year of successful power football on The Farm.
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At a minimum, the 2013 Stanford offensive line will be the deepest in recent program history. That's not something Cardinal offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren takes for granted.
"I'm really excited about the group as a whole and the depth that we have," Bloomgren said. "I remember when it was a real scary movie if we got to our sixth lineman and right now we have a two deep that has our trust. And that's so cool."
Here's a look at how Stanford's line is shaping up, position-by-position.
Center: Stanford has yet to name a starting center, but has effectively narrowed the candidates from three to two.
"We've got a great battle going on right now between Khalil Wilkes and Conor McFadden," Bloomgren said. "Then, really, like Coach Shaw alluded to the other day, we're at a place where we'll really comfortable with Kevin Danser at right guard. It's just hard for us to step away from that there. He's such a security blanket there. He's such a great player. So we're really leaving the competition between those two at that spot."
This isn't Wilkes' first time in a center competition. In 2011, after Chase Beeler graduated, Wilkes competed with Sam Schwartzstein for the vacant position. Bloomgren said that Wilkes' mastery of the Cardinal offense is more advanced now than it was then.
"You talk about a guy like Khalil Wilkes and why Sammy (Schwartzstein) beat him out two years ago," Bloomgren said. "Although they were similar in what their production was, Sammy simply could drive the ship better. And that's not true today. Khalil has been unbelievable with his Mike points and understanding how things fit together and the communication part of it."
Bloomgren added that Wilkes outplayed the other centers during Stanford's scrimmage last Saturday.
While it's unlikely he'll crack the starting lineup at the beginning of the 2013 campaign, the Cardinal's center of the future might be a player who has yet to take a snap on a college field. Redshirt freshman Graham Shuler has drawn rave reviews during camp.
"The nice thing is we have kind of a new entry in the competition in Graham Shuler," Bloomgren said. "He's really getting comfortable making the calls and he's playing incredibly, incredibly well. What a bright future we're going to have with Graham Shuler."
Though true freshman Thomas Oser will likely be redshirted this season, Bloomgren is pleased with his development as well.
"Thomas is doing well," Bloomgren said. "Center's a little harder than playing guard or tackle in this offense just because of what we put on them. Where we were to where we are now, man, I'm sure glad that he's made those strides. We were having trouble getting center/quarterback exchanges, which as you know is a pretty fundamental part of this game. Now he's making calls and doing the right thing. He had some reps in that scrimmage on Saturday where you were like, gosh, this is really exciting to have those two young bucks step up and do some of those things, talking about him and Dave Bright. He's got a lot of work to do in terms of complete mastery of the playbook, but he knows it pretty well on the board. Bringing it out here with bodies flying around and Shayne Skov up in one A-gap, it's so tough for these guys."
Tackle: Two-year starter Cameron Fleming will be joined by first-time starter Andrus Peat at the tackle position. Expectations are sky-high for Peat, a former five-star recruit, and Stanford head coach David Shaw hasn't done anything to lower them.
"This year, I'd be curious how many better tackles there will be in the nation," Shaw said. "I don't know for a fact so I couldn't say. Having an early second round pick in Jonathan Martin and then David Yankey who will be a first round pick at tackle or guard, we haven't had any body with the athletic ability that he has. There's no ceiling right now. We're talking about special. Different category.
"(He's) six (foot)-six and a half, 315 pounds, and he moves like a tight end. Fast, quick, explosive. The guys can't get around him. He's too athletic. He's big but he moves. He's still learning he's still growing but I think he's special."
Added Bloomgren: "From last fall he's just so many leaps and bounds. Spending a lot of time beside David Yankey hasn't hurt him. That's been pretty beneficial. I think Yankey really gave him some of the tools that you need. The best we could do is letting Yankey share those experiences with him and us continuing to harp on him with the techniques. He's gotten so much better and so much more confident in his punch in pass protection, and just his combos and his strength, everything. He's a year better."
Though he worked primarily at right tackle during Saturday's open scrimmage fellow sophomore lineman Kyle Murphy is still working at both left and right tackle. He will likely also see time at tight end in certain offensive packages.
"(Kyle playing right tackle on Saturday is) not a permanent thing in any way," Bloomgren said. "He's playing both tackle positions as well as the Jumbo 'Y'."
Though many -- including his own high school coach -- expected him to play guard at the college level, freshman Dave Bright is playing tackle. Bloomgren said that Bright has taken to the position well.
"You look at Dave Bright and his body composition and the fact that he has such long arms," Bloomgren said. "Coach Shaw thought all along he could play tackle and I said, 'Yeah, let's give this a try.' And man, he's done a great job. I think he has the kind of position flexibility like a David Yankey that he can play guard. He pulls well, he does those things well. So I think he can do either, but I'm really liking what he's doing at right tackle, and his knowledge of the playbook for a guy that's been on campus for three months is astounding."
Guard: In David Yankey and Kevin Danser, Stanford has a legitimate claim to the nation's top guard tandem. The depth at the position isn't too shabby, either.
Class of 2012 recruits Joshua Garnett and Johnny Caspers have had solid camps and emerged as the clearcut backups. Additionally, each second-year player is vying for playing time at the Ogre position in the Cardinal's Jumbo packages. (The Ogre is off in the wing set; it's the spot where James McGillicuddy played a few years back.)
"They both clearly stepped up as the backup guards at both spots," Bloomgren said of Caspers and Garnett. "In addition to that, they're both fighting for that Ogre spot. They're doing a great job in the Ogre spot. Dillon Bonnell of course has been hurt so he hasn't been in that competition much, but these two are really starting to get the hang of it, coming down and doing some of that nasty stuff that we like. They're doing a really nice job."