Episode 5 of our 2014 Insider Preview featuring R.J. Abeytia, which delves deep into David Shaw's offensive line and tight ends, is embedded above.
High Hopes Up Front
When it comes to the big boys up front, Stanford is undergoing a massive changing of the guard. Four starting offensive linemen from last season are gone; at least three new tight ends are expected to have significant roles. So the blocking unit that helped produce an 1,800-yard rusher in 2013 quite simply doesn't exist anymore. The Cardinal are reloading with fresh talent across the entire blocking board, and this restocking up front poses what may be the team's biggest question mark entering 2014.
Talent level, though, is not in doubt. On National Signing Day two and a half years ago, Shaw proclaimed that Stanford had netted one of the best offensive line recruiting classes "in modern football history."
The coach, though, is the first to clarify that the class has much work to do before realizing its potential. Coincidentally, now would be a good time for that to happen. Because with two offseasons under Shannon Turley under its belt, the unit has now matured into a fully instrumental role: All five of this year's expected starters along the offensive line are expected to be products of that great 2012 haul. They're tasked with replacing four graduated studs (left guard David Yankey, right tackle Cameron Fleming, right guard Kevin Danser, and center Khalil Wilkes), all of whom are now giving the NFL their best shot.
This, then, is a moment of truth for Stanford's offensive line.
"Thankfully, with coach [Mike] Bloomgren, we recognized three years ago that this class had to be this good because they were going to play," Shaw said. "We couldn't count on a couple of those guys like David Yankey and Cam Fleming coming back for fifth years, because we knew how good they were. So we made a concerted effort three years ago: We hit it hard, we sold it hard, and we were fortunate to get these guys who are great students, really good football players, tough kids, and good guys all in one class. It's probably been our best recruiting job that we've done in a while, because we saw a need and we filled it."
Aside from gelling with each other, the Cardinal's offensive linemen must also find cohesion with a new running back corps and a fresh infusion of talent at the tight end position, which also holds an integral blocking role within the scheme of Stanford's power rushing attack. Shaw understands that jelling is not an overnight process; he hopes that his linemen develop the instincts and trust necessary quickly in the heat of battle because of their strong bond off the field.
Stanford Tight End Production: By Year
The potential return of a legitimate receiving threat from the tight end position should help Stanford keep defenses off balance in short yardage-to-go situations. As the table above shows, 2013 was an atrocious year in that regard. The passing game went almost exclusively through the wide receiver position, and this was particularly damaging to the team's performance on third down and in the red zone. The hope here in 2014 is that a new crop of talented tight ends can fill this major gap.
Shaw, in fact, has said the team will play at least four tight ends this season. That will enable the return of two and three-tight end sets that fans last saw two years ago. Sophomore Austin Hooper will be the new 'Y' (blocking) tight end, while veteran Charlie Hopkins will back him up. Following productive offseasons, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada will both see their first game action splitting time at the 'F' (receiving) tight end spot. Heralded freshman Dalton Schultz may become the fifth tight end to play in 2014, but Shaw said his knowledge of the playbook must still improve.
No one will dispute the claim that Stanford has the horses across the offensive line and tight end positions to be very good up front. In the end, this will be a question of development and time: Can coaches Mike Bloomgren and Morgan Turner oversee development and cohesion in their units that's fast enough to keep up with the Cardinal's rigorous schedule? That may be 2014's money question.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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