By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Fifth-year senior Derek Hall, one of the most promising young offensive linemen out of Missouri when he was being recruited five years ago, had appeared in exactly two games for Stanford's football team since arriving on campus in the fall of 2006 before this year.
Meanwhile, Chase Beeler, Andrew Phillips, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin formed the Tunnel Workers Union last year and helped carve huge chunks of yardage for Heisman Trophy runnerup Toby Gerhart.
Chris Marinelli graduated and, after a competition between Hall and James McGillicuddy, Hall became the new member of the TWU. McGillicuddy hasn't been forgotten though. He's sort of an honorary member of the group and has seen significant playing time in a variety of roles.
It should all be on display again Saturday when the 12th-ranked Cardinal (2-1, 5-1) hosts Washington State (0-4, 1-6) for a 2:10 p.m. kickoff in Stanford's Homecoming game.
"They're a very proud group, not as in cocky, but they are proud of the way they handle their jobs," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said of his offensive line. "It's a fun group to play behind."
The two big question marks on the offensive side of the ball heading into the season were at right tackle and running back. Six games into the season, those questions have been emphatically answered.
"We talked about a running back by committee and thought that was going to be a big question mark," Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I know at some of our earlier press conferences we talked about right tackle being a question mark."
Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for 100-plus yards in each of the past three games, has emerged as the top running back. Hall stepped into the right tackle spot and hasn't missed a beat.
"It bodes well for us that a guy, who, early on we wondered if the light would ever come on. Would he reach his potential? How good can he be?" Harbaugh said. "Now we have evidence of a guy who works his tail off, it was important to him to be successful, and went through all the workouts and the weight lighting to be where he is."
Meanwhile, McGillicuddy has been worked into new roles that he has been lobbying to expand every week.
"He's wearing different numbers, he's coming out of the backfield and he loves blowing people up," Phillips said. "He comes out of the backfield looking for people to tattoo. He's faced a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries early on. He's had a bunch of knee surgeries. The way he has kept up and endured is admirable."
The 6-foot-3, 307-pound McGillicuddy has lined up as a blocking back and as an eligible receiver, which accounts for the number changes.
"I don't know if any other program has a position like that," Phillips said. "He's a special element for what he can bring to the offense."
And he's begging for even more involvement.
"He is ever lobbying to expand the Cuddy role," Harbaugh said. "He wants the ball. We talk about the possibility of him carrying on third-and-one. He comes back with 'Well coach, I was thinking of something closer to the goal line.' He may not have won the starting role but I think he's more valuable where he is. It's a unique niche he has created for this team."
Would Luck ever consider throwing him the ball?
"Never," Luck said. "I threw to him once in practice and he dropped it in front of everybody. He's always in my ear about it."
What about a hand off?
"I don't think he'd know what to do with it," Luck chuckled.
As for Stanford's rushing attack, the numbers are eerily similar to last year.
"I think a lot of people around the country thought we'd have difficulty replacing one of the top running backs in Toby Gerhart," Phillips said. "But we knew we had so many people coming back and that we'd have a lot of weapons. It's nice to still be able to move the ball without Toby, and to move the offense."
Experience helps, but Harbaugh thinks this offensive line could be even better than last year.
"It's not just run blocking; it's the pass protection," Harbaugh said. "Our linemen are blocking in 1-on-1 situations and getting it done. Sacks are always a good indication of how well the line is blocking (Stanford has given up three), but there are also fewer hits on Andrew and fewer throwaways than last year. It's the way they work and study game plans together."
The Cougars are coming off their best defensive effort in two years in both points allowed (24) and total yardage (352).
"Their defense plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and they never give up," Luck said. "We have to come prepared."