Stanford O-line battle just as crucial as QB

So the Stanford Cardinal have to replace a quarterback who is going to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. It happens. Almost every year, in fact. Since 2000, nine teams have been where the Cardinal are now, having to replace a quarterback taken No. 1 overall. During that same span, 32 teams have had to replace quarterbacks taken in the first round. While Andrew Luck might be considered in rare company, the Cardinal certainly aren't.

However, replacing two offensive linemen taken in the first round -- that's rare. And difficult. Since 1967, only 11 schools have had two offensive linemen drafted in the first round. Rarer still is that only four have had to replace both a guard and a tackle -- the last coming in 2001 when Michigan's Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus were drafted back-to-back at Nos. 17 and 18, respectively.

That's the challenge facing the Stanford Cardinal, who kicked off spring ball this week without left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro. Both were in Indianapolis last week for the NFL combine and both are expected to be first-round draft picks. And Stanford's future success hinges as greatly on replacing Martin and DeCastro as it does replacing Luck.

"The competition is going to be high," said Kevin Danser, one of several in line competing for DeCastro's old guard spot. "I don't think anyone is penciled in to be a leader or a favorite. There are a lot of guys that want that spot. And you're filling in for someone great. It's not like a David DeCastro comes around every year. It's going to be tough, but we're all looking forward to competing."

Stanford returns three starters from last year's group: right tackle Cameron Fleming, left guard David Yankey and center Sam Schwartzstein. All three were first-year starters last year and performed very well alongside Martin and DeCastro. And that's the reason head coach David Shaw isn't looking to move any of them from their current spots.

"I think Cameron Fleming and David Yankey have shown some special things where they are," Shaw said. "I learned in Baltimore [as a Ravens assistant] that taking a guy and moving him from where he's comfortable, you're taking one problem and making it two problems. We'll keep Sammy in the middle. We feel really good about those three guys and we'll have a lot of competition between those spots."

Cole Underwood and Brendon Austin appear to be emerging as the top two candidates for left tackle, Shaw said.

"Brendon Austin has had an outstanding winter," Shaw said. "He's up to 300 pounds, moving great. Cole Underwood really started to get a feel and help us at the end of games. Cole is going to be in competition potentially at both of those positions. He's shown potential to kick at tackle and pull as a guard."

Underwood, who appeared in three games last season, said he's a better player for having backed up Martin and Fleming last season.

"Moose [Martin] is a do-things-right-all-the-time kind of guy," Underwood said. "He's an extremely hard worker and that's what separated him from tackles all over the country. That's why he's about to be a first-round pick. Be obsessed with the game. Be a workaholic. Technique is key, no matter what size you are or how much you lift. If you don't have technique, it won't help on the field. He was a big technician and he was always striving for perfect technique every rep."

The X-factor is Stanford's heralded offensive-line recruiting class. Shaw upped the ante when he brought in several of the nation's top offensive linemen in one class. It sounded an alarm to the players on the roster that the level of competition had increased significantly.

"You welcome that -- you always want that competition no matter who they bring in," Danser said. "Whether it's the best of the best like this class or anybody else. Whoever they bring in, it comes down to competition. You want a spot? You have to fight for it."

While true freshman traditionally don't contribute immediately on the offensive line, Shaw said not to be surprised if several of them are in the mix right away.

"Yes, absolutely," Shaw said. "I would say possible bordering on probable. As you know, we play more lineman than anybody possibly in the history of football. We're going to play seven or eight linemen in every single game. If those young guys show the ability to help us out, we're going to put them on the field. If they show enough ability to split time or start, we're going to do it. I have no qualms about that. The best guys play. If a guy becomes a starter -- we still have two or three positions open. We really consider about eight guys starters on our offensive line."

That bodes well for players like Danser, Underwood, Austin, Kevin Reihner, Khalil Wilkes and anybody else hoping to block for whoever becomes the next Stanford quarterback. The Cardinal had a lot of success last season with their jumbo package of seven or eight offensive linemen and two or three tight ends. And don't think the players don't appreciate a system that puts the spotlight on the big boys.

"It's extremely effective," Underwood said. "First, it's tough for other teams. I'm sure they turn on film and say, 'This is a monster we've never seen.' And it's good for recruiting. Young guys are looking and saying, 'Hey, they love linemen at Stanford and they show us love.' That's all we all really want, is to be loved a little bit."