STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford has become a frequent stop for NFL scouts traversing the country for the top college talent. For coach David Shaw, who spent nine years as an assistant coach in the NFL, those are visits he enjoys.
The conversations help Shaw gauge where the stock of his own players stands, and perhaps more importantly, give him informed opinions on players he’ll be charged with scheming against. One of his major takeaways is especially relevant this week with No. 14 USC coming to The Farm to play No. 13 Stanford.
“You ask [the scouts] the question ‘Who is the best offensive player you've seen? Who is the best defensive player you've seen?'" Shaw said. “Some of them said [Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery] on the offense. Some said some other guys, which is great.
“All of them said Leonard Williams at USC [on defense]. It's not just me, everybody sees it.”
Williams rolled his ankle in practice Tuesday and didn’t practice Wednesday, but even at less than 100 percent, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound physical freak will have the Cardinal’s full attention on Saturday. The Stanford coaching staff learned its lesson a year ago in USC’s 20-17 upset in Los Angeles, when Williams played despite a lingering shoulder injury.
“We didn't think he'd play last year,” Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. “Not only did he play, but he played in a big way. He adversely affected our game plan. I can tell you that.”
And that performance came against a veteran offensive line that sent four players to NFL training camps this year, including a pair of draft picks in guard David Yankey and tackle Cam Fleming. This time, Stanford is still green in trenches. Talented, sure, but one game together against UC Davis wouldn’t exactly qualify as ideal preparation to face a player of Williams’ caliber.
That’s where Andrus Peat comes in.
What Williams represents as an NFL prospect on the defensive line, Peat does on the offensive line. At 6-foot-7 and 316 pounds, the junior is a prototypical NFL left tackle and also a potential top-10 pick in the 2015 draft.
“He’s a fantastic player and prospect,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Knew about him coming out of high school. Went to Stanford and they have just continued to develop him like they’ve done with the linemen in the past. I think he’s obviously become, if not the leader, then one of the leaders of that offensive unit and it shows in his play, but it also shows in his demeanor and body language.”
A year ago, there weren’t many opportunities to see Williams, who lines up at multiple spots on the line, and Peat go head-to-head, but it figures to happen at times on Saturday. When it does, count on NFL scouts to be watching closely.
“I can't wait,” said Bloomgren, who also coaches the offensive line. “Every chance they get to line up on each other, I hope USC puts him there and I don't think our guy will back down and I don't think any of our guys would back down from him. But that's going to be a pretty epic battle when 70 [Peat] goes against 94 [Williams].”
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks Williams as the No. 2 draft-eligible prospect for next year’s draft, but, like Peat, Williams has another year of eligibility remaining if he chooses to use it. McShay’s evaluation of Williams projects him at defensive end in the NFL and colleague Mel Kiper Jr. agrees.
“If Williams doesn't wow you with quickness on the edge, realize he's 290-plus pounds and won't get pushed around even if he moves inside,” Kiper wrote. “At his size, he's a special athlete who could line up as a defensive end and drive a tackle back or line up on the outside shoulder of a guard and create problems with power and quickness as well. He's the kind of disruptive, versatile lineman who can succeed in any system.”
Both McShay and Kiper rank Peat among the nation's top-10 prospects for next year, but it's still too early to forecast whether Peat or Williams will head to the NFL after this season.
For Shaw, the Peat-Williams matchup is intriguing, but he'd just assume any future meetings between the two players occur on Sundays.
"Hopefully Leonard will be a top-5 pick this year and hopefully Andrus will be a top-5 pick next year," Shaw said wishfully.
Even when Williams is lined up away from Peat, it should provide for good theater. Stanford's offensive line is as highly touted a unit as any in recent memory despite its collective lack of game experience. How it fares against USC's front seven should provide some insight into how the Cardinal's season will progress.