Burkett uses brain, brawn to anchor line
Even on a team of very bright players, Stanford center Jesse Burkett stands out. For one thing, he has a double major in symbolic systems and Japanese.
“Symbolic systems,” he explains, “is an interdisciplinary major that combines computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology. I can tie it in with my Japanese major, the linguistics part of it. It’s a nice intersection of my interests.”
Another interest is the NFL. After a shot at pro football, he’d like to work in high tech in Japan. “Hopefully that’s a long way away,” he said.
Burkett is a 6-foot-4, 304pound redshirt junior. The center calls the blocking signals for the line, so Burkett has to be able to predict what the defensive front is going to do. That’s not always easy, with people shifting around at the last second and linebackers trying to get him and the quarterback to think they’re not blitzing when they are, and vice versa.
“You try to use the word ‘brilliant’ very cautiously, but Jesse is so doggone smart,” head coach David Shaw said. “Being able to see things and make calls — particularly the last couple of years with inexperienced quarterbacks and making sure the protection is going the right way.”
According to offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren, Burkett is “absolutely our leader in terms of making the calls at the line of scrimmage. He and (left guard) David Bright have put in so much time for this offensive line, going back to last summer, but week in and week out. What they do is so impressive. They prepare like pros.”
The Cardinal O-line has helped tailback Bryce Love lead the nation with 1,240 rushing yards. Stanford is tops in the country in yards per carry (8.1). A cynic might argue that any offensive line would look good blocking for Love, who leads the nation in yards after contact with more than 600.
“It’s so much fun blocking for him,” Burkett said, “because you never know when he’s going to go down the rest of the field.”
But don’t sell this line far short. It had to contend with the behemoths of Utah, a defensive front that Bloomgren said was as big as any he saw in four seasons on the staff of the New York Jets. The Utes were No. 1 in the country, allowing just 87.0 yards per game, until Love and the Cardinal pierced them for 196 in a 23-20 win.
The line has improved every week since the USC game, Shaw said. That includes the following game against San Diego State, when little else went right for the Cardinal. That week, Stanford had shuffled the line, bringing A.T. Hall back at right tackle, putting freshman Walker Little at left tackle, switching Bright from left tackle to left guard and moving Nate Herbig from left guard to right guard. The one constant was Burkett.
“You could say the USC game (a 42-24 trouncing) was kind of a wake-up call in terms of our pass protection,” Burkett said. “There were so many ball disruptions in that game that after that game we had an intense focus on pass protection and not getting beat anymore.”
He admits there’s an element of guesswork in calling out the protections. Bloomgren prepares him for what’s coming, but every game the defense is going to try “something we haven’t seen before. At that point you’ve just got to pick a call and go with it.” Tom FitzGerald is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @tomg fitzgerald
Center Jesse Burkett (73) is the one who calls blocking signals for the line. “You try to use the word ‘brilliant’ very cautiously, but Jesse is so doggone smart,” head coach David Shaw said.