Sports

Two big reasons why the offensive line is dominant again

 

Stanford left tackle Kyle Murphy lingered for a moment after a recent practice as left guard Joshua Garnett walked behind him toward the locker room.

"Best tackle in college football!" Garnett yelled.

"All-American, right there!" Murphy responded.

"Best tackle in all of football, actually!" Garnett answered.

And so it went, a give and take between longtime teammates who comprise the left side of the Stanford offensive line. They are big reasons why Stanford (11-2) has regained its mojo as it piled up victories to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl Game, where it will meet Iowa (12-1) on Friday at 1:30 p.m. (ESPN) in the 102nd edition in Pasadena.

Stanford, you may recall, opened the season with a 16-6 loss at Northwestern, a game in which the Cardinal rushed for only 85 yards and gained only 240 in all.

Stanford, clearly, has returned to its roots. The red-zone and third-down difficulties of a year ago are long forgotten. The Cardinal is back to putting up the type of numbers that it had in creating a smackdown reputation while earning four consecutive BCS bowl berths in the 2010-13 seasons.

"We're a power football team," Garnett said. "That's what we want to be. That's who we are. If we play Stanford football, it's going to be a great season."

This has been targeted as the year of the offensive line, the senior year of a legendary class.

On Feb. 1, 2012, Stanford head coach David Shaw announced the team's letter of intent signees at a press conference at Kissick Auditorium on campus this way:

"We are excited to welcome one of the best recruiting classes in school history," he said.

The centerpiece of that class was the offensive line, with seven highly rated prospects. The most prominent was tackle Andrus Peat, rated as the nation's top recruit by the Sporting News. Garnett, Murphy and center Graham Shuler were rated among the top five at their positions by recruiting services. The class also included Brandon Fanaika, who enrolled in 2014 after a church mission, Nick Davidson and Johnny Caspers.

Peat was a first-round selection, the 13th pick overall, by the New Orleans Saints in the 2015 NFL Draft. Garnett and Murphy man the left side, Shuler starts at center, Caspers starts at right guard, Davidson is a backup at right tackle, and Fanaika backs up Garnett at left guard.

With the experience and talent on the line and with Kevin Hogan, in his fourth year as a starting quarterback, Stanford is primed for success. The explosiveness of its skill position players, particularly at running back, has given Stanford an unflinching attack.

In a 55-17 victory over Arizona on Oct. 3, Garnett was Stanford's offensive player of the game, making more pancake blocks than any Cardinal in recent memory. The team racked up 570 yards in total offense.

"Josh is playing at an extremely high level," Shaw said. "He's so big, so physical, so athletic. Getting out on screens, he has that athletic ability to hunt those smaller guys down. And, as a puller, he's doing a great job on linebackers."

Garnett's play has inspired comparisons to David DeCastro, Stanford's 2012 first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"That's rarified air," Shaw said. "DeCastro was truly special. I think that's what Josh would aspire to be. Josh is not there yet, but he has a high ceiling. He's going to keep getting better."

Murphy had one of the most memorable blocks of the Arizona game, firing outside to smother an Arizona player and allow Christian McCaffrey to race around the edge to score his first rushing touchdown of the season, from four yards out.

Murphy and Garnett are the best of friends. They've roomed together since they were freshmen and have been playing together so long that they don't need to vocalize their intentions. Sometimes, just a nod or a point will be met with complete understanding.

"Even though you do so many different blocks so many different times and against so many different fronts, it becomes so easy," Murphy said. "We're already on the same page."

Shuler said the two have been eager for the chance to play together on the same side. Last year, Garnett played alongside Peat on the left, with Murphy manning the right tackle spot.

"Andrus and Josh were dominant together," Shuler said. "It feels like it hasn't dropped off at all. If anything, it's picked up."

Shuler, for the record, credits himself with convincing both to come to Stanford. Shuler already had committed when he was teammates with Murphy in the U.S. Army High School All-Star Game. He also sent a series of Facebook messages to Garnett, which, he admits, Garnett never returned.

Despite Shuler's efforts, Garnett already was sold. A human biology major and aspiring emergency room doctor, Garnett signed his letter of intent while wearing a "Stanford Medicine" T-shirt.

Murphy is a science, technology, and society major with a focus on innovation, technology, and organizations. He interned at an investment banking firm last summer and seeks a career in business.

Together, they've helped make the Stanford line virtually impenetrable while opening holes for McCaffery's record-breaking season.

"They're instrumental to our success," Shuler said. "They've been great leaders and great guys on and off the field, and they're dominant football players. They're guys you want to play with."

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