LOS ANGELES -- Before a Stanford offensive lineman ever sees the field, he must first negotiate “The Room.” And The Room can be tougher than any drill, any conditioning program or even any defensive end or linebacker he will face. Because it’s in the The Room where line coach Mike Bloomgren not-so-silently passes judgment on who does or doesn’t have the chops.
“Everything those guys get in that room is earned,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “And it’s a tough room. You walk in that room, you better have thick skin. Cause it’s not just Mike that’s going to get on you. Sammy’s gonna get on you. David Yankey’s gonna get on you. If you can handle that room and come out and perform, you deserve to play.”
For as much credit as Stanford gets for overcoming the losses of Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck over the past few seasons, forgotten is that the offensive line has had to re-invent itself several times over with multiple standouts leaving for the NFL. The philosophy remains the same. But the personalities of each line have changed throughout the years.
“It starts in recruiting,” said Bloomgren, who began his career as a graduate assistant at Alabama and cut his teeth for four seasons as an offensive assistant with the New York Jets. “We were fortunate to plug in the three new guys last year and have them grow (Schwartzstein, Yankey and Cameron Fleming). Then you lose David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin a year early and it’s like, wow, now we have to do it again. David Yankey comes around and wins the Morris Trophy (given to the Pac-12's top lineman) and is a consensus All-American. It’s a compliment to those guys and how they work and striving to get better. They call themselves the Tunnel Worker’s Union. Those guys buy into that stuff.”
Along with assistant Ron Crook -- who manages the tight ends and offensive tackles -- Bloomgren also coordinates Stanford’s rushing attack, which has produced a three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. And like any good running back, Taylor knows where his bread is buttered. He’s rushed for 1,000 yards behind three very different offensive line units.
“They are a lot more goofy than last year,” Taylor said. “They are great guys. I wouldn’t want to be behind any other line. They are physical, tough, smart and athletic. That’s the thing. They are really big athletic guys running around. It all starts with them and to win games, they have to do their job. And we are winning games so they are obviously doing their job.”
Stanford’s downhill, power-running approach is appealing to prospective offensive lineman. And the fact that they have offensive packages that involve as many as eight offensive linemen at a time is also attractive.
“For us, we’ve played one true freshman on the offensive line, up until this year, during the last five years,” Shaw said. “This year we’ve played three. And those guys have earned that. Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett. Those guys have earned that. And those guys have taken some beatings in that room. Some verbal assaults, if you will.
“… There are a lot of places that play five starters and the rest of the guys watch. They’ve had success and that’s great. But we’re going to play eight -- at least eight -- just in the Rose Bowl. And we’ve been that way all year. If we can play nine, we’ll play nine. A young guy comes in and knows he’s going to have a chance to play. That he won’t sit on the bench for three years. If he does it right. If he can survive in our room, he’ll get a chance to play.”
Danser -- who became a full-time starter this year after seeing lots of time the last couple of years as a reserve -- has seen some great offensive linemen come and go. And he’s witnessed each season how the line has rediscovered a new identity and how each group takes on a life of its own.
“It really comes down to the work we do in the winter, spring and summer,” Danser said. “It really forms this unit. It takes leaders like Sam and leaders in the past like Chase Beeler, James McGillicuddy, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Andrew Phillips. It’s that leadership that makes this a great unit.”
And the trio of freshmen who have made their debuts this year know they are getting their trial by fire on the field -- and in The Room.
“The coaches and the older guys won’t let anything slide,” Garnett said. “They always find something. Yankey tells me you have to find something. You never do it right. Always be nit-picky and find something you did wrong. That’s what we’re all about -- getting to that next level, never being content. You are always looking for the perfect block.”