The word of the week: communication. After three home games and a bye to start the 2014 season, Stanford hits the road for the first time on Saturday when they play the Huskies in Washington. Huskies Stadium is known as one of the loudest in the country. It will be a good challenge for a young offensive line that is trying to come together as a unit.
“This is the next step,” Head Coach David Shaw said. “To play against a really good front in a loud environment where you won’t be able to hear all the calls. You have to anticipate the calls. When you do communicate, you better do it quickly and succinctly.”
The offensive line has four new starters this season to go along with Andrus Peat. The athletes received huge praise as a recruiting class two years ago. Now they are putting their talent to work on the field. Shaw made a comment this week on a radio show saying he has three future first round picks on this offensive line and the other two will play in the NFL. The assumption is that he is referring to Peat, Josh Garnett and Kyle Murphy as the potential first round picks with Graham Shuler and Johny Caspers having the NFL talent.
Despite the individual talent and the impressive potential, there is no unit on the football field that has to work more as a team than the offensive line does.
“Cohesion,” Shaw labels it. “Individual talent shows up at corner, at receiver and running back, and at quarterback. Individual talent in the offensive line is dependent on the guy next to you. You can see ability, but as far as us being effective, they all have to be on the same page on every single play. They all have to be on the right spot every single play and they have to trust that every other guy is in the right spot and going the right direction every single play.”
So far the offensive line has played well as a group. The team is averaging 4.0 yards per carry. For the most part, Quarterback Kevin Hogan has had time to throw the ball. There have certainly been some learning experiences and some mental mistakes that have come in the form of key penalties. Overall, the unit has received good grades so far. But now it is time to hit the road.
“Every week they have gotten better,” Shaw said. “We have corrected mistakes and guys are more comfortable now. The last week of practice is probably as good as they have practiced and we think it can only get better. So this is the next test and hopefully we can play better than we did the game before.”
To find success, communication is paramount.
“That is the biggest thing when you go on an away game especially in a loud stadium,” left guard Josh Garnett said. “You just have to communicate. It has to be better, it has to be crisp.”
But how can the offensive line communicate when they can’t hear themselves think?
“We yell a lot,” Garnett said with a smile on his face. “The biggest thing is getting into the playbook. A lot of the time the center is going to make the call but if everyone on the offensive line can know the call then we aren’t going to have to rely on the center as much. We have a lot of smart guys. The coaching staff has really helped us out. It is getting a lot better.”
So the key to communication is less about communicating and more about knowledge. Everybody has to be on the same page. Everybody has to know what to do and what his neighbor will do. And everyone needs to execute the assigned tasks to perfection, because if there is a problem, voice communication may not be the answer.
Shaw says the coaches have to do their part as well to help the offensive line. “It is on us coaches as well to make sure we don’t give them too many things that can confuse them. The defense will try to confuse them on their own. This is a defense that shifts from one front to another sometimes really late. We have to have really good rules so guys can know what their rules are and play fast.”
Hogan has seen the improvement from his personal protectors in front of him as well. He said there has been a real emphasis on improving the silent communication on the offense just for such hostile environments like Washington.
“Growing from last season, playing on the road, we really wanted to work on putting an emphasis on making our silent communication better, easier, and more efficient. That is something we are doing. They are in tune with it. They have done a good job of it so far. We have all our signals down and I think they are going to be fine.”
As usual, Stanford is cranking up the music at practice to try and create a noisy environment, though they don’t have the speakers to truly imitate the noise they will face at Washington. Wednesday’s practice was spent on the turf inside “the fort” where it is as loud as they can make it.
The noise is one thing but that will be secondary to the talent of the opponent. Garnett said, “(They have) great pass rushers and great run stoppers. They have a lot of guys up front who are really good football players. Every Pac-12 football team has a great front-seven and Washington is no exception. It is going to be all technique. Our offensive line, their defensive line, whoever has better technique is going to win the game.”
And that is why handling the crowd noise will be so important. It is hard enough to win a talent battle, but if you are beating yourselves with penalties and missed assignments, it becomes an unwinnable task.
Garnett is not intimidated by going to the location where his dad once played in the defensive line. “I saw a great quote by Coach Shaw saying this is a big step for a young gelling offensive line going on an away game and going against a very good front seven and a very good defense. I think that is the next step. Just coming in with that attitude and not treating it like an away game. Just treat it like a business trip.”
The success of Stanford’s offense will depend on the offensive line continuing to improve and playing their best game yet.