Are you allowed to write about Stanford football without mentioning Andrew Luck yet?
Granted, whenever you lose a quarterback who threw a school-record 82 touchdown passes, finished second in the Heisman balloting twice and was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, the race to replace him is bound to garner copy. But the bigger question as the team starts training camp is whether the Cardinal offensive line will continue to overpower Pac-12 Conference defenses this season without All-Americans Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro.
Stanford’s emergence onto college football’s national stage will always be linked to Luck. But the real transformation started with Jim Harbaugh and the blue-collar ethos he brought to the Cardinal locker room when he took the helm in 2007. Under Harbaugh, the offensive line became the centerpiece of the team’s identity; they called themselves the Tunnel Workers Union, digging the holes that produced the top two rushing seasons in school history (2009, 2010).
After David Shaw was promoted to replace Harbaugh last year, Stanford continued to run a power offense that just happened to have the country’s best young quarterback under center. And despite losing three pieces, the line — anchored by DeCastro and Martin — helped produce the third-best rushing season in school history.
But when the 2012 season kicks off against San Jose State on Aug. 31, Shaw will send out a line that boasts a grand total of zero college starts prior to the 2011 season. His depth chart is, however, overflowing with talent after four consecutive Top 25 recruiting classes.
“We’ve got multiple guys who can fill those roles — which is huge. We haven’t been that deep in the past,” Shaw said. “We can pick a starter at any point and know we’re going to be two deep at every position.”
Shaw is returning a pair of studs — sophomore Cameron Fleming (6-foot-6, 314 pounds) and junior David Yankey (6-5, 301 pounds) — who look destined to join Martin and DeCastro in the NFL soon. Senior Sam Schwartzstein will carry the load under center for the second year in a row, while a pair of four-star recruits, redshirt freshmen Brendon Austin and Kevin Reihner, duke it out with juniors Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes for the two open spots.
In addition, Stanford hauled in what some are calling the best class of offensive lineman in the history of college football in February, landing five-star recruits Andrus Peat (6-7, 308 pounds), Kyle Murphy (6-7, 280 pounds) and Joshua Garnett (6-5, 325 pounds). And Shaw hasn’t ruled out the possibility that a true freshman could start at some point this season.
If the line transitions as smoothly as last year, Stanford (ranked No. 18 in the USA Today preseason poll) could put up double-digit wins again this season. The front seven is salty, the backfield is loaded and Shaw just needs his next quarterback to be a sound manager.
But no one can predict what a young line’s learning curve will look like. Sure, they’re huge and talented, but what happens on the road when 60,000 fans are screaming so loud they can’t hear the quarterback? That’s usually when false starts, holds and sacks — the pitfalls of an inexperienced line — tend to snowball. And if the offense is continuously facing third and long, you’ll really notice that a certain somebody’s missing under center this season.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.