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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Offensive line progressing quickly

By Kevin Gemmell

Everyone wants to pat the offensive line on the back for their performance this year -- everyone but the offensive linemen themselves.

Everyone wants to say that they turned a corner. But in their eyes, there is no corner to turn -- only a never-ending straight line of improvement.

"What corner?" asked guard David DeCastro. "I don't think there is a corner. We're just trying to get better every week."

What was once the biggest question mark of the Cardinal has turned into one of Stanford's greatest offensive assets. Not that DeCastro really cares much for other people's opinions.

"People are entitled to think whatever they want," said the bruising run-blocker. "If there were questions about us, that's fine. I don't think we really cared."

Gotta love the big guys.

With three new starters -- Sam Schwartzstein at center, Cameron Fleming at right tackle and David Yankey at left guard -- the initial thought was that there were going to be some growing pains. And there have been. But they are so minor that they usually go unnoticed. But not to the players or coaches.

"Once we got through training camp, we said it in our staff room that we thought it was going to take four to five games," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "For a new center -- who is a fourth year senior -- we didn't think it would take too long for him."

And Schwartzstein has been outstanding commanding the offense. He's been called the second smartest player on the team -- behind the guy he snaps the ball to.

"He has to be," DeCastro said. "He's the center. He's the quarterback of the offensive line."

DeCastro, along with Jonathan Martin, are the only holdovers from last year's unit, which was considered one of the best in the country.

But their work ethic has caught on quick. Early in the season, Schwartzstein, Fleming and Yankey said they felt the pressure to match the tempo set by Martin and DeCastro -- both of whom are considered two of the best in country at what they do.

Case in point, the Cardinal are No. 1 in the nation in sacks allowed with two. That's 189 passing attempts out of 191 where the quarterback has not been put on the ground. Well, technically, it's 190, because one of the sacks was quarterback Andrew Luck running out of bounds against Duke. Either way, it's an impressive number.

"They are all great guys," Luck said. "... It's a neat dynamic with two guys who played a lot and three guys with relatively no experience at the college level. It's a neat dynamic to see them all grow in the system."

While Shaw wasn't as concerned with Schwartzstein because he was a veteran player, there were concerns about Yankey and Fleming.

"Those are two guys who started off shaky, but have progressed tremendously," Shaw said. "I'm excited about their futures. They've got three years to go and they are playing like veterans right now. I'm excited where we'll be in three games, four games from now."

But it's not just the guys on offense who have been noticing. Defensive lineman Ben Gardner says he can see -- and feel the improvement -- each week in practice.

"We do a 9-on-7 drill every Tuesday, starters against the starters, and David Yankey is coming off the ball and hitting me harder than any offensive lineman I've faced this season," Gardner said. "They have come a long way since the beginning of training camp."

Shaw graded the offensive line at a B, B-plus level after starting the season in the C to C-plus range. He continued to heap praise on Schwartzstein, noting that he's "calmed the seas" in the middle. He said Fleming and Yankey have progressed nicely, but there is still plenty of work to be done for the redshirt freshmen.

"Those guys as playing well, but there are still three or four plays a game where they look back and say 'gosh, how can I miss that?'" Shaw said. "That's the growth you have with young players."

And yet behind that line, the Cardinal running backs have been able to tally 181.7 rushing yards per game and an average of 5.1 yards per carry. The yards per game is 42nd nationally, while the passing offense is 16th. More importantly, the scoring offense is fifth with 45.8 points per game.

"That's football," DeCastro said. "It's never as good as you think it is and it's never as bad as you think it is. There is definitely some growth. We're nowhere close to where we want to be. There is always stuff to clean up."