By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren has a chart in his office listing the combined starts by offensive linemen at every NCAA FBS school. Going into the Oregon State game, the Cardinal ranked 103rd, not exactly a comforting statistic.
Fortunately for Bloomgren, he has a rock at center, arguably the toughest position on the field. Fifth-year senior Sam Schwartzstein has started 23 consecutive games.
"We're not where we want to be, but thank God we're not where we used to be, and he's a big part of that," said Bloomgren.
Schwartzstein took over the starting center job last year from All-America Chase Beeler. Working alongside All-America guard David DeCastro and All-America left tackle Jonathan Martin, the group helped quarterback Andrew Luck lead the Pac-12 Conference in passing efficiency and completion percentage. They also tied for seventh nationally in the fewest sacks allowed, and cleared the way for Stepfan Taylor to rush for 1,330 yards, second-highest in school history.
This year, Schwartzstein returned with left tackle David Yankey and right tackle Cameron Fleming. But Stanford recruited five outstanding freshmen on the line, led by tackles Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, and guard Joshua Garnett, and Schwartzstein has been the stabilizing influence.
Last summer, he organized voluntary meetings on Saturday mornings and spent two hours with the freshmen teaching and explaining how things are done.
"I'm so thankful for what he did, knowing we would be young on the offensive line, developing these kids," Bloomgren said. "He was like a coach. He taught them how we practice, what we're going to practice and taught them our calls. He gave them such a good base for our system."
The 6-foot-3, 292-pounder is from Southlake, Texas, and is one of three captains this season.
"The thing you'd say about Sammy is what an amazing leader he has become," Bloomgren said. "Last year he stepped in at center and was so great he was able to drive our ship because he's so smart. We throw so much at him and he's done it so well."
For example, Schwartzstein makes at least three calls at the line of scrimmage on every play. Once the defense sets up, he'll adjust the line to counteract it and get everyone in sync with offensive shifts and motions.
"He's almost got to be a step ahead of everybody else," said Bloomgren.
The humble Schwartzstein insists it's a group effort.
"I can make endless calls, but the guards and tackles help out," he said. "It's not just a one-man show out there. I have my head between my legs. The guys are helping me out."
Schwartzstein credits Beeler and DeCastro for showing him the way.
"From Chase, I learned how to be a student of the game," said Schwartzstein. "How to really dive into the gameplan each week and understand how important it is to really lead the team at center.
"From Dave, the most important thing I learned was consistency throughout your life and his pursuit of perfection outside of football. He had a famous quote about what he put in his body: `I don't eat for taste, I eat for substance.' Brown rice, spinach and chicken at every meal. Body in peak performance for every game. School work, eating habits. That's why he was such a consistent player. He took it seriously."
Not that Schwartzstein doesn't have a lighter side. Luck said Schwartzstein was great at keeping guys loose when the situation called for it.
"That's fair," Schwartzstein said. "I consider myself an intense player, but I also understand that it is a game, and you're a lot more successful if you enjoy doing it. If you stay too tense, then you're not going to be successful."
Schwartzstein enjoys needling teammates in practice, especially Yankey.
"We typically give jabs at each other," he said. "He's an unbelievable player, so I like to make fun of him. I'll tell him how good he is and then I'll tell him bad he is, like how he should take notes and watch me. We go back and forth."
Said Yankey, "Sam's an awesome leader of the offensive line. He's always joking around because it's the best way to help a guy out and soften the blow. When it's time to be serious, he's the first one to do it. He reins us back in."
Bloomgren said offensive line meetings are seldom dull.
"Our room is such an interesting dynamic," he said. "There are no holds barred. Sammy has the ability to lighten things up, but he's got a very serious side, too. He's a guy who has a whole lot of balance -- probably a lot more than I had as a 23-year-old. I don't even know if there's a probably to it."
Bloomgren loves to rib Schwartzstein about playing next to DeCastro. The latter was so strong, he made everyone look good.
"We run a lot of combination blocks," said Bloomgren. "There would be times with Double D where he would make contact with the defender and Sammy basically ends up taking him to the ground. Sammy was always like, `Coach, that was me.' We know better."
Schwartzstein attended football power Carroll High School and helped lead the Dragons to a state title as junior, playing left tackle. The Dragons became only the second school in the history of Texas Class 5A football to win three state titles. In his senior season, the team lost two games, ending a 49-game winning streak, and a 58-game streak against Texas schools.
"I do come from a smaller town and most of the guys on the team are players that you grew up with from first grade on," Schwartzstein said. "It does kind of have that hometown feel. The town shuts down on Friday nights. You've got the kids with the jerseys. You've got fanfest. Pretty similar to here."
Schwartzstein woke up every morning at 6:30 and his dad dropped him off at school on his way to work so he could lift and watch film before class. Then, there were meetings, film study during lunch and more film before practice.
"It was a job back then, too," he said.
Home games were the payoff. Carroll drew crowds of about 7,000 for every home game. "I'd say the coolest part was the fan support," said Schwartzstein. "You knew everyone in town and they all knew you. It was a pretty awesome experience."
Admittedly, coming to Stanford was a culture shock, but he has settled into The Farm and hopes to make his home here. A science, technology and society major, Schwartzstein is interested in "business because there are so many different technologies being built that people don't know how to access. Like if you have a restaurant, how do you access the technology that the iPhone brings?"
Asked to name the best advice he has ever received, Schwartzstein didn't hesitate. "Two things have been my mantra this year: Only you are responsible for you. My family put me in this position. I understand that if I don't do the right thing, it's my decision and I have to live with that.
"The other thing is bet on yourself. One of my mentors tells me all the time, if you can't bet on yourself and can't be willing to take a chance on yourself, no one else will."