Stanford's heralded 2012 offensive line class will now have its time in the spotlight.
A group that David Shaw once said could be one of the best in "modern football history" is expected to hold all five starting spots for the 2014 Cardinal. (Johnny Caspers hasn't officially won the right guard competition, but he does have an edge over Brendon Austin.)
And Shaw isn't changing his tune about the unit's talent.
"People have reminded me about my comments from that class and I stand by them," Shaw said. "I haven't seen a recruiting class like that. Because you're going to look at this group and Andrus Peat, (he's) arguably the best tackle in America right now. Kyle Murphy is going to be one of the best tackles in America. Josh Garnett, you're going to be talking about him as one of the best guards in America. You're going to be looking at Graham Shuler as one of the best centers in America in the next few years. And I think Johnny Caspers is going to surprise a lot of people because he's the guy in the class that nobody really knows about. Johnny Caspers is playing great right now.
"So you're looking at a group of guys that in my opinion are all NFL players. You're going to have an entire line of NFL guys, and once again, we're still working through a lot. They're still growing a lot. There's still a lot to learn. They're not perfect yet. I don't know if they'll be perfect at all this year. But looking at talent wise, from tackle to tackle, it's very impressive."
The quality and quantity of players in Stanford's 2012 offensive line class should ease what could have been a challenging transition from 2013 to 2014. The Cardinal lost four of five starting offensive linemen from the 2013 squad; such significant personnel losses at a position as critical as the offensive line generally do not bode well.
"Usually when you have to replace four, it's really, really scary," Shaw said. "Very, very scary. But thankfully, with Coach Bloomgren we recognized that three years ago we were going to have this and we made a concerted effort. This class had to be that good because they were all going to play. We couldn't count on a couple of those guys coming back for their fifth years because knew how good they were - the David Yankey's , Cam Fleming's. We knew this was going to be the year. So three years ago we hit it hard. We sold it hard. And thankfully we found these guys that are great students, really good football players, tough kids and good guys, all in one class. It's probably been our best recruiting job we've done in a while because we saw a need and we actually filled it. I think we've done a good job putting some bodies behind it now so that hopefully we won't have this four guys leaving at one time anymore. But thankfully we have the guys that we have."
At the time, the highest-rated (according to the Rivals rankings) of the group was Southern California native Kyle Murphy. Rivals ranked Murphy as a five-star recruit and the No. 19 overall prospect in the 2012 class. Murphy has been somewhat overshadowed by the rare talents of Andrus Peat, but he is a top NFL prospect in his own right and could be in line for a breakout season.
"Kyle is doing great," Shaw said. "Kyle's up to 300 pounds and ridiculously flexible for a man that big, over 6-6, 302 pounds. It was fun, Andrus had a class the other day, and it was fun to watch Kyle flip back and forth between left tackle and right tackle like it was no big deal. We still think, just like when we recruited him, the sky is the limit for Kyle. I think he gets lost in the shuffle just because Andrus is a freak and a phenom. When you really look at Kyle, Kyle is really, really good. Kyle is also going to be in that conversation when his time comes, down the road a couple of years we'll be talking about one of the top tackle in the nation. And if they're both back next year, I don't imagine you'll see two better guys on a team."
And while there's no guarantee that the 2014 Cardinal line will gel and flourish as a unit sooner than later, the group's chemistry could help expedite that process.
"This is a group that's really been tight since the recruiting process," Shaw said. "So you're really talking about four years of these guys getting to know each other, being around each other, communicating with each other. So there are a lot of times where they walk into the room, including Nick Davidson, all six of them walk in at the same time just because they're hanging out talking to each other. I think with an offensive line that is a strength because you need that group to operate like a unit, like a cohesive unit. They already have some commonalities, some familiarities, and they get along really well, so I think that is an advantage."
Aside from the four offensive linemen, the other major loss Stanford suffered in its run blocking was that of Ryan Hewitt, the Cardinal's former starting fullback. Lee Ward is expected to be named Stanford's starter at the position in 2014, but redshirt junior Patrick Skov will also receive significant reps.
"I think Patrick is going to play and play a lot," Shaw said. "I think there are things that Patrick can do that are going to help us out so Patrick is going to play more this year than he has in the past. But Lee has shown what he is. There's a reason why we rotated him and Ryan Hewitt last year. Lee Ward is a downhill, physical fullback. He showed that last year and I anticipate he'll show it this year also."
Skov might be the better receiver of the two, however.
"I think (receiving is) one of Patrick's strengths," Shaw said. "I think Patrick is very athletic. He can make tough catches, difficult catches, very similar to what Ryan Hewitt has done for us in the past. But Lee Ward catches the ball well also. I think both of those guys do a decent job of there. Hewitt was special in that regard but I think both of those guys can fill that role and we need more than one fullback to play, so I anticipate both of those guys are going to play a lot this year."
Shaw does not think either of the Cardinal's primary fullbacks will fill the role of short yardage rushing specialist. Though both Ward and Skov have had their moments carrying the ball, Shaw doesn't expect that Stanford will rely too heavily on either in short-yardage situations.
"I wouldn't anticipate that," Shaw said. "I think we have some natural runners. I think we've got some good runners. I think both of those guys can fill that role - Patrick had a nice one the other day, broke out on a little fullback dive. And last spring Lee Ward had a beautiful one also. So those guys can function as ball carriers and do a decent job. But I think their role is going to be leading up on linebackers more than that."
Though no final determination has been made, Shaw indicated on Monday that Christian McCaffrey has emerged as the true freshman most likely to play this year.
"Christian McCaffrey has been outstanding," Shaw said. "Whether it's special teams, whether it's a small role on offense maybe similar to what Barry (Sanders) did, just getting his feet wet in college football. He's really showing that he looks like he's ready to play. We still have a couple of weeks left and we can make those decisions down the road, but I don't mind giving that pat on the back right now - I think he's had an outstanding camp."
Stanford expects redshirt junior running back Remound Wright to rejoin the team next week. Wright has been held out since the second session of spring ball with an unspecified disciplinary issue.
Quarterback guru George Whitfield, who trained Andrew Luck prior to the 2012 NFL Draft, observed practice on Monday. Whitfield and Shaw have known each other for several years.
Stanford has avoided major injury so far this camp, but the Cardinal is being cautious with a few players. Jordan Watkins got "banged up" a few days ago, Shaw said, and is expected to be fully cleared sometime in the middle of next week.
Additionally, Stanford held Aziz Shittu and Deon Cajuste out of practice on Monday for precautionary reasons. The Cardinal is also being careful with David Parry; he did not participate in the afternoon session.