Over the next few weeks, I’m running through the 10 most intriguing players in the Pac-12 this season. This isn’t a list of the most important players or the best—we’ve already done that. Instead, it’s a look at which players across the league have the widest-ranging potential. Who can swing the league with a strong campaign? Which players have the potential to flip a win or two their team’s way? Let’s get started. 

No. 10: Stanford’s offensive line

Breaking the mold right off the bat, but come on. Stanford’s offensive line is an enigma. Maddening to the faithful in Palo Alto and fascinating to the folks on the other side of the country who remember Toby Gerhart and Christian McCaffrey and crushing I-formation football. 

Stanford was the gold standard of smash-mouth football a decade ago. 

In the spring of 2009, Stanford’s offensive line ditched the nickname “Fat City” and sought a more representative moniker. Chris Marinelli, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound mountain of a tackle on the Cardinal line, told The Mercury News’ John Reid the group wanted a new name that wasn’t quite as sloppy. 

They were buttoned up. Blue-collar. Reliable. That spring, the Tunnel Workers Union was formed. Later that fall, Stanford won eight games and Marinelli earned first-team All-Pac 10 and second-team All-America honors. Stanford posted a rushing success rate of 46.5%, a mark that ranked 10th nationally. 

Thanks to 321 rushing yards (6.4 a carry) and three scores on the ground, Stanford boat-raced a ranked Washington team in late September, 34-14. 

In back-to-back weeks to open the month of November, Stanford beat seventh-ranked Oregon and 11th-ranked USC in the Coliseum. Gerhart ran for 223 yards and three touchdowns on the Ducks’ defense. The following week, Stanford rang up 325 yards and five scores on the ground as a team, outscoring USC in the fourth quarter 27-0 to win 55-21—the largest win for the Cardinal over the Trojans in the series history.

“It’s about just going out and going to work every day and not making excuses,’’ said Marinelli that season, per The Boston Globe’s Phil Perry. “If you do all of the little things, everything else will fall in line.’’

When Jim Harbaugh took the Stanford job ahead of the 2007 season, the Cardinal was coming off a 1-11 campaign. He was the fourth head coach to helm the program in seven seasons. 

The 2006 Stanford team averaged 65 rushing yards on just under 31 attempts per contest. 

Harbaugh went 4-8 in his debut season but laid the groundwork with a stylistic change. Stanford was going to run it, it was going to keep running it, and it was going to wear opponents down. 

The team was successful on just 35% of its rushing attempts that first year (113th nationally). A year later, Stanford enjoyed a one-win improvement and the rushing success rate climbed to 41.1% (48th). The 2009 season marked four straight years of year-over-year increases in run rate. 

In 2010, Stanford won 12 games and an Orange Bowl, averaging over 5 yards a carry and posting a rushing success rate of 45.8%, 17th nationally.

It was the first 10-win season for the program in 18 years and only the second since the Second World War ended. 

Harbaugh parlayed that success into a head coaching gig in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers and Stanford handed the keys to the bulldozer over to David Shaw. 

The team enjoyed five double-digit-win seasons over the next six years. 

But in a lot of ways, 2017 marked the turning of the chapter for Stanford football. 

The Cardinal went 9-3 in the regular season, but was outmuscled by USC in the Pac-12 championship game and then beaten by two points in the Alamo Bowl. Stanford finished 20th in the final AP ranking, the seventh time in eight years the team closed the season ranked. 

That hasn’t happened since. 

The Cardinal won eight regular-season games in 2018, then four in 2019, then four of six in the abbreviated 2020 season, then just three last year. 

Shaw’s best season so far at Stanford—a Rose Bowl win and a third-place finish in the AP poll in 2015—was marked by the best success rate the team has had on rushing attempts in the last 15 years. A mark of 49.8% ranked 10th nationally. 

In the five full seasons since (national rank in parenthesis):

  • 2016: 42.9% (75th)
  • 2017: 37.9% (110th)
  • 2018: 36.5% (122nd)
  • 2019: 38.5% (112th)
  • 2021: 36.6% (124th)

Why has Stanford fallen off? The trenches have fallen apart. 

For five seasons from 2012-16, Stanford runs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage no more than 17.9% of the time over the course of any given season. That’s happened three times in the five years since. 

The Cardinal couldn’t run the ball last year. Every fifth rushing attempt was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. The offensive line was credited with generating only 2.7 yards per carry, one of the worst marks in the country. In short-yardage situations, Stanford was woefully pedestrian. 

For Tanner McKee’s sanity, let’s just all agree to call the pass protection unsavory and move on.

And the fall-off doesn’t really make a ton of sense when you look at the overall development of the program. Shaw has signed four 5-star offensive linemen so far during his tenure, two in the 2012 class and then two more in the 2017 class. Stanford signed no such player in the 10 years prior to 2012. The recruiting pedigree of the program has shifted upward, but this program has always prided itself on development.

The average Composite rating of the 33 offensive linemen Stanford signed from 2002-2011: 0.8444.

The average Composite rating of the 40 offensive linemen Stanford has signed from 2012-2021: 0.8921. 

Better, but worse?

From 2011-2017, Mike Bloomgren was the team’s offensive line coach. He left ahead of the 2018 season to take the head coaching job at Rice. Kevin Carberry replaced him and spent the next three seasons on The Farm before being hired by the LA Rams. That brings us to Terry Heffernan, who is entering his second year as the team’s offensive line coach. Maybe that’s the change agent that sparked all this?

Maybe. But Shaw remains and so does the larger offensive identity. Here’s hoping a little bit of continuity and familiarity helps this group. There’s certainly a ton of it.

When we sit down each offseason to try and peg which teams can “bounce back” and which teams can seemingly come out of nowhere, returning production matters a ton. It’s a good indicator of progress when you have a bunch of it and regression when you have very little of it. 

Well, Stanford’s offensive line has all of it. Every offensive lineman who played a snap as a blocker last season is back. It’s almost unheard of in today’s game to return every single snap from a position group year-over-year.

“Having all the guys back is going to be really big,” McKee told me at Pac-12 Media Day. “There’s just so many things you have to do together as an offensive line, passing guys off and things like that. When you’ve done it with your guys, you know different tells, different calls, when you need to help your guy out, when he’s going to pass a guy over, so I would say (continuity is) definitely an important aspect.”

McKee said the offense has gotten some adjustments this offseason to better match the talent on the team. He thinks tailback EJ Smith’s running style more closely fits the offensive line’s strengths as blockers. He mentioned adjustments to better take advantage of a talented crop of pass-catchers. 

Shaw hinted at the same.

“There’s a reason why they call it growing pains, because sometimes it hurts. We had some growing pains last year,” he said.But I think what that taught us really is what we do well, what we don’t do well. Really looking at this group, and having the offseason to really put some things together, both for them physically, but then also schematically, technique that we want to see on the field.”

He credited Heffernan and the strength staff for getting the group “bigger, more explosive, more physical” than they were a year ago. They’re playing with a bit of an edge, something that’s been encouraging to see.

Drake Nugent and Walter Rouse are the key names back. I’ll be specifically looking to see if Myles Hinton, a top-100 signee from the 2020 class who struggled mightily as a pass-blocker last year, can rebound.

We did not play our brand of football last year to any degree,” Shaw said. “So now for these guys to come back… How our team goes depends on the offensive line. I mean it. Those guys are going to set the table for us, for Tanner to do what he needs to do, E.J. Smith, those guys need to play at a high level. They’re taking that very seriously.”

Before fall camp kicked off, Shaw felt they had seven guys on the line who could be starters. Depending on camp, they could rotate as many as eight onto the field.

Said Shaw: They’re going to determine how much success we have this year.”