On the academic offensive: The most interesting line in the world

Oct. 4, 2016, 11:58 p.m.

Much like the rest of Stanford’s game week preparations, media availability sessions remain entrenched in habitual practice. Like clockwork, head coach David Shaw, coupled with select players and assistants, stops by a corner of the practice field of the day to chat with the reporters on hand before filing out for the night. At this point, the ritual has the feel of muscle memory to it; nothing surprises the practitioners of this well-worn routine.

That is, until ESPN’s Holly Rowe arrives and brings her cell phone.

On an otherwise unremarkable Thursday afternoon on the Farm — which is to say, 70 degrees and sunny — ESPN’s broadcast crew of Rowe, Joe Tessitore and Todd Blackledge arrive at practice to chat with Cardinal players and coaches ahead of Stanford’s Pac-12 opener against USC.

Tessitore and Blackledge begin by talking with quarterback Ryan Burns before moving on to Francis Owusu, whose highlight reel catch against UCLA was immortalized by Tessitore’s call on the air. Meanwhile, Rowe sets her sights on, quite literally, a much larger target, and grabs all five starting offensive linemen, lining them up side by side in order of their positions. She instructs them to look into her camera phone and say the words that would soon cause ripples on national TV during the broadcast of the Stanford-USC game and put the O-line on the map.

“We are the most interesting line in the world.”

For a position group that rarely receives outside attention or produces easily digestible numbers, the Tunnel Workers Union has been a prominent talking point throughout the Cardinal’s young season, a phenomenon one can credit to Stanford’s decision two years ago to put players’ majors next to their names on the official depth chart.

While every position group boasts impressive students with a variety of majors and interests — fifth-year senior kicker Conrad Ukropina does research in building empathy through virtual reality, fifth-year senior receiver Michael Rector works in a stem cell lab, sophomore corner Frank Buncom watches neurosurgery videos in his spare time — the offensive line wins the battle hands down. From right to left, the group majors in philosophy, earth systems, Japanese, biomechanical engineering, and science, technology and society.

At a combined 1,493 pounds, it’s hard to ignore the formidable presence of the group when they stand shoulder to shoulder, but their intellectual weight might be even more formidable as one scans down the first column of Stanford’s two-deep.

The outside attention, though, seems rather strange for a bunch of college students just going about their lives.

“It’s been surprising to us,” fifth-year senior right guard Johnny Caspers said of the media attention. “We’re all just doing what we’re interested in.”

Aside from the Tunnel Workers Union’s newfound celebrity status for the diversity and rigor of their majors, Stanford offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren sees the group’s academic abilities as an asset within the walls of the program.

“I love, when a recruit comes in, having the guys go down the line: ‘Name, hometown, what you’re majoring in,’” Bloomgren noted. “When you have parents in there and they hear ‘Japanese,’ or when [former offensive tackle] Cameron Fleming was here, ‘aeronautics and astronautics,’ those are not normal things.”

“We also had [former offensive guard] Joshua Garnett doing HumBio and [former offensive tackle] Nick Davidson getting out of here with a mechanical engineering degree,” he observed. “These guys are truly student-athletes, and I think it’s so cool.”

Bloomgren, who previously spent four seasons as an assistant with the New York Jets before coming to Stanford in 2011, also pointed out that the intellectual talents of his starting offensive line has a practical benefit as well.

“There’s certainly a different level of kid I get to work with [at Stanford],” he said. “We only get them four hours a day in college football, and I would say we have no problem getting in the same volume that we did in the National Football League with eight hours a day. And that’s a testament to them.”

Shaw agreed: “It makes me proud as an alum that we can have a diverse group of guys with a bunch of interests that are still really good football players … We’ve got a group of guys that are all really bright, and we can challenge them.”

So who exactly are the players up front beneath the pads and helmets, and how did they decide to embark on such unique academic journeys? Let’s take a moment to meet “The Most Interesting Line in the World.”

The Stanford offensive line showcases its versatility both on an doff the field. When the Tunnel Workers Union is not battling in the trenches, they can be found excelling academically as they pursue a variety of majors. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)
The Stanford offensive line showcases its versatility both on an doff the field. When the Tunnel Workers Union is not battling in the trenches, they can be found excelling academically as they pursue a variety of majors. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Right Tackle: Casey Tucker

As Indiana Jones famously remarked, “It’s not the years. It’s the mileage,” and that very much describes Casey Tucker’s football journey on the Farm. While the Gilbert, Arizona, native has just begun taking classes for his junior year, Tucker is a steely veteran presence on the offensive line after appearing in five games his freshman year and starting every game in 2015 at right tackle.

After starting the first two games of the 2016 campaign at left tackle following Stanford’s successful experiment with him at the position in spring practice, Tucker moved back to his natural spot on the right side of the line against UCLA, and it looks like he will stick there moving forward.

While the offensive line remains in transition with the presence of three new starters, Tucker is a mainstay, a holdover from one of the most dominant lines in school history. When he talks about what he needs to do to improve, his words are measured, saturated with the experience of being in the midst of battle over a dozen times before and, above all, thoughtful.

What else would you expect from a philosophy major?

Academics have always been a key component of Tucker’s life, but he wasn’t sure of a major when he arrived at Stanford in 2014. A writing and rhetoric class in propaganda grabbed his attention as a freshman, but it wasn’t until he enrolled in Philosophy 1: Introduction to Philosophy, with professor Nadeem Hussain, in the spring of his sophomore year that he found his academic direction.

“You just cover a lot of different topics across the board in philosophy, and it just teaches you how to think,” Tucker said of the course. “And Professor Nadeem was really cool.”

“It is kind of fun to see all of the different majors across the line,” Tucker added. “I feel like just being at Stanford and just having the opportunity to talk to people on campus, it brightens you up a little bit … Having that sort of standard and being able to put it out on the field, I feel like we do have an intellectual advantage.”

Right Guard: Johnny Caspers

The Union leader and elder statesman of the group is Caspers, who is now in the middle of his third consecutive year as the starter at right guard. Caspers also studies earth systems, an interdisciplinary environmental science major, with a concentration in sustainable agriculture. As a native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the team captain noted that his Midwest roots heavily influenced his choice of major.

“Coming from the Midwest, agriculture was always something in the back of my mind,” he said. “Taking more environmental science classes and understanding land steward processes and some of the challenges that face our agricultural system is something that really interests me.”

Away from the football field, Caspers found an avenue to expand his budding interest in agriculture through working at the Stanford Educational Farm — the farm on the Farm. His work on the farm also led him into a research project involving earthworms.

“Putting my education to practice inspired me a lot,” Caspers said of working on the farm through Earth Systems 180B: Principles and Practices of Sustainable Agriculture. “I also worked on earthworm composting and trying to create a more interconnected system of nutrient cycling on campus.”

Caspers’ work on the farm also served as the inspiration for his current nickname amongst the offensive linemen: “The Machine.”

“I think there was a picture of me working on the farm,” Caspers said. “We have an offensive line group chat, and guys just threw out names and one of them was ‘The Machine.’”

Tucker also noted that the nickname also draws on Caspers’ notorious work ethic: “Johnny’s always [in the facility] working, dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s.”

As for the future, Caspers has his eye towards continuing his football career, and Shaw says that he has a real shot at sticking at the next level. Beyond football, Caspers said he would like to work for a state government and help local farmers defend and farm their land.

Center: Jesse Burkett

Arriving at Stanford as a freshman in 2014, Jesse Burkett, like many students on campus, came in with a strong interest in computer science. After looking to fulfill the University’s mandatory language requirement, however, Burkett’s academic plans changed.

“In high school, I watched some anime, had a little bit of interest, and then coming here, I needed a language requirement, so I was thinking, ‘Hey, let’s try something different and do Japanese,’” Burkett said. “I fell in love with it. It’s just been a ton of fun. And then I declared at the end of spring quarter last year.”

Even with the emergence of Japanese courses on his schedule, Burkett’s interests in tech have remained steady. The St. Augustine, Florida, native currently plans on adding a second major in symbolic systems and hopes to combine his two passions in his professional life.

“I’d love to work for some kind of tech company over [in Japan],” he said. “Just get some experience and live in Japan at the same time. That would be ideal.”

With so many interests, choosing a favorite class is no easy task for Burkett, but, at the end of day, his love for Japanese wins out.

“There was actually a Japanese and Korean pop culture class I took last fall. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s JAPANGEN 122 [Translating Cool: Globalized Popular Culture in Asia],” Burkett said. “I was the only football player. It was a super fun time and I met a lot of cool people. I think there were something like 15 to 20 people in the class … You’re studying anime and manga, and you had a lesson [on] Korean pop music and stuff.”

Burkett’s journey in Japanese has also allowed him to forge a special bond with offensive line assistant coach Tsuyoshi Kawata, a native of Saitama, Japan. Burkett first surprised his coach with his new language skills during a freshman talent show and will now have side conversations with him in Japanese, though discussions surrounding football and technique remain in English.

As a further testament to his intellect, Burkett, as the backup center to starter Graham Shuler last year, spent much of his time during games with a large whiteboard in his hand on the sideline. Carrying on a tradition made famous by former Cardinal center Conor McFadden, Burkett was tasked with quickly diagramming the opponent’s formations and relaying them to the Stanford coaching staff, a role he also credits with preparing him to contribute on the field.

“When I was a freshman, [former offensive lineman] Kevin Reihner handled that responsibility, so I was kind of his assistant, almost. It was great to learn from him,” Burkett said. “Doing it last year just helps with the recognition of the defense and how to gather all of the information and draw up the fronts. It really helps with recognizing what defense they’re in so we can get in the right calls.”

When he got word that ESPN’s clip of the offensive line made national television, Burkett found the news to be a great selling point for the football program.

“I didn’t expect [the clip] to make it to TV, actually,” Burkett remarked. “It’s cool to highlight something that Stanford is really great about. Being a great football program as well as a great academic institution. It’s cool to be able to highlight that stuff on a national stage.”

Left Guard: David Bright

The word “versatility” takes on a near-sacred quality in the world of sports, but David Bright takes the term to another level, holding down the left guard spot in the starting unit while also serving as Stanford’s backup left tackle, ready to slide over in case of an emergency.

In addition, Bright’s academic interests straddle a number of fields, lying at the intersection of biology, engineering and healthcare. Ultimately, Bright found a path to combine these interests through the interdisciplinary biomechanical engineering major.

“I came in premed and I then realized that I just loved engineering. Probably my favorite class that I’ve taken so far is E30 [Engineering Thermodynamics],” Bright recalled. “It really sparked my interest in the engineering field, and I just decided to pursue it from there on out.”

Though Bright is no longer pursuing a pre-med track, he has talked about possibly using his engineering skills to make an impact in the medical field in the future.

After redshirting during his freshman year, Bright appeared in 13 of 14 games for Stanford in 2014 before becoming a critical component of the offense in 2015 at the “ogre” lineman position. The Southern Californian first saw extended action close to home in Stanford’s win over USC last September, a game in which the Cardinal offense exploded for 41 points. Bright also flashed that priceless versatility on the road against Oregon State last season when he held down the left tackle spot following a first-half injury to starter Kyle Murphy, helping Stanford escape Corvallis with a victory.

Within the locker room, Bright received the nickname “Salty Dave,” a reference to his sometimes surly nature early in his career.

“During my freshman year, a couple of the older guys said it,” Bright said. “It kind of stuck, but now it’s fading off because I haven’t been like that since my first couple of years here.

“It’s been kind of a running joke. I kind of think it’s funny. Initially I didn’t, but I just kind of brush it off and it’s all good.”

Left Tackle: A.T. Hall

Many courses at Stanford have a reputation for being demanding, but a select crop of classes have cultivated a reputation for being evil, time-sucking black holes. Chief among them is ME 101: Visual Thinking, the gateway course into the mechanical engineering and product design majors where students team up to prototype and build solutions to designated problems.

A quick glance at the evaluations for the course reveals a fairly prominent pattern: “Be warned,” “Insane time commitment,” “It will literally take up your entire life.”

Stanford offensive tackle A.T. Hall, however, had a slightly different response to the course: “My favorite class by far.”

As he mentioned on the ESPN broadcast, Hall’s favorite project for the course was building a pinball machine, a task that required him to pull four all-nighters but ultimately resulted in a satisfying final product.

“I just love building things with my hands,” he said.

For Hall, who is majoring in science, technology and society with a product design focus, academics has always been a major focus, and Stanford always stood out as his dream college destination after his father, former NFL defensive lineman Travis Hall, brought a young A.T. to the campus over a decade ago.

“One day he brought me [to Stanford] when he had a bye week,” Hall said. “He told me, ‘If you ever want to do something great one day in school, football or anything sports, you’ve got to come here.’ And ever since then, it was like, do what you got to do to get into Stanford.”

Hall has also been labeled by many teammates as one of the funniest personalities in the locker room, and the junior’s fun-loving persona has also made its way onto the field. During the 2015 season — his first year of game action — Hall, a member of the field goal unit, would often run from the sideline into the end zone to celebrate a touchdown before proceeding to carry out his PAT duties.

“I knew I had to go there, so might as well go celebrate with my teammates,” Hall recalled with a laugh.

Hall also concurred that the academic talents of the Tunnel Workers Union further give them an advantage on the field.

“The stuff we have to learn on a week-to-week basis is right behind the quarterbacks, I would say,” Hall noted.

“You can’t be a dumb guy and play in our system.”


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu

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