Outland Trophy history: Offensive guard Joshua Garnett, Stanford, 2015 recipient

This is the 10th in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020.  From 1946 to 2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.

(Guard Joshua Garnett was selected 28th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Garnett played in 15 games and started 11 as a rookie for the 49ers. A series of injuries starting in 2017 would basically curtail his stay with the 49ers, and he was released before the start of the 2019 regular season. Garnett retired in October 2020.)   

By Gene Duffey, Author

Some people think of Stanford, known for its fine academics and lineage of great quarterbacks, as the high and mighty of college football. But its linemen have proved they can get down and dirty when need be.

The Stanford offensive linemen nicknamed themselves the “Tunnel Union Workers” around 2008. The idea came from offensive tackle Chris Marinelli of Braintree, Massachusetts. Marinelli’s father worked construction on the Big Dig in Boston, a huge project that rerouted Interstate 93 under the city and connected Logan Airport to downtown. It took 15 years to complete and cost $14.6 billion.

“A lot of people didn’t understand it,” guard Joshua Garnett said of the nickname. “You have to bring your hardhat and earn your stripes. We took a lot of pride in that.”

“It’s a cool tradition,” added left tackle Kyle Murphy, who played next to Garnett.

Their names may not be as well-known as former Stanford quarterbacks Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, someone named John Elway and Andrew Luck. But Stanford’s  offensive linemen in the last decade or so have included several All-Americans … enter Chase Beeler in 2010, tackle Jonathan Martin in 2011, guard David DeCastro in 2011, guard-tackle David Yankey in 2013 and tackle Andrus Peat in 2014.

DeCastro was an Outland finalist in 2011, and Yankey was a semifinalist in 2013.

Garnett fit right in. He became Stanford’s first Outland Trophy winner in 2015. The senior from Puyallup, Wash. helped Stanford to a 12-2 record, including a Rose Bowl rout of Iowa.

Garnett’s father, Scott, played nose guard at Washington in the early 1980s.

“He was a good player,” Garnett said of his father. “Washington was the No. 1 team (in the country for six weeks in 1982). He broke his foot his senior year. That messed him up for the draft (NFL). He was a big guy, like me. It was exciting to watch him (on tape).”

Scott Garnett was drafted in the eighth round by Denver and spent four seasons, with four teams, in the NFL. He last played with Buffalo as a replacement player during the 1987 strike, then went on to become a policeman.

Joshua attended a bunch of Washington games with his father and quickly became a Huskies fan. He also noticed an outstanding offensive lineman playing for nearby Bellevue High School named David DeCastro. When DeCastro went on to star at Stanford, Joshua followed his career,

2015 Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett of Stanford. (Photo by Richard Ducree / ESPN Images)

Garnett’s size and smarts attracted attention from the top football schools across the country. He remembered going to Oregon for the Ducks’ Junior Day. There he met a tackle named Kyle Murphy from San Clemente, California and his future teammate.

“You could tell we could be good friends,” said Murphy. “I could see myself playing with him.”

They ended up rooming together for four years at Stanford.

But first Garnett had a lot of thinking to do before even picking the Cardinal. He made official visits to Michigan and Notre Dame. He didn’t need to visit Washington because he had been to so many games there. But he did consider the Huskies before eventually eliminating them.

“I wanted to get away from Seattle,” said Garnett. “Write my own legacy. Everyone knew who my Dad was (at Washington). And it’s tough to turn down that Stanford education.”

Not that Michigan and Notre Dame aren’t strong academic schools, but Stanford had so much to sell. Its former athletes include golfers Tiger Woods and Tom Watson, tennis player John McEnroe, softball’s Jessica Mendoza and volleyball’s Kerri Walsh Jennings.  

It was a non-athlete who impressed Garnett the most when he visited Palo Alto for Junior Day. 

“Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State) was sitting at our table, talking to a bunch of high school juniors,” he said.

“You can’t beat the education at Stanford,” said Garnett. “But no one thought Stanford would go to three Rose Bowls (in Garnett’s four years there).”

Stanford beat Wisconsin, 20-14, in the Rose Bowl following the 2012 season, lost to Michigan State, 24-20, a year later and blew out Iowa, 45-16, after the 2015 season, Garnett’s final year.

Before Garnett’s senior year of high school, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh left The Farm to coach the San Francisco 49ers. David Shaw succeeded Harbaugh.

“You’re always a little disappointed (when a coach leaves),” said Garnett. “Shaw was offensive coordinator. You knew the plays would be the same.”

Stanford’s offensive line recruits, led by Graham Shuler, a center from Franklin, Tennessee, began staying in touch on Facebook.

Garnett decided on Stanford several days before National Signing Day. Then he went to work on the Cardinal’s other line recruits, particularly Murphy and Peat.

Murphy waited until Signing Day. “He was blowing up my phone (trying to get me to commit),” said Murphy, who waited until Signing Day to make it official. “I didn’t answer a few times.”

Garnett played in every game as a true freshman, lining up at fullback or slot receiver in Stanford’s Jumbo package. “It was fun,” he said. “I had a couple of routes. I was always asking them to get me the ball.” The Cardinal preferred handing it to or throwing to faster backs and receivers. Garnett never did get to catch the ball or run with it.

He played on the line from Day One, starting out in third grade when he played for the Bethel Braves Little League team. “I was a big kid,” he said. He never played any other sports.

Garnett attended Kalles Junior High, always playing a year ahead of his class because of his size. He was on the eighth-grade team as a seventh grader, on the ninth-grade team as an eighth grader. He wasn’t allowed on the varsity until his sophomore year of high school.

“I took it out on the junior high guys,” said Garnett, who played defensive end as well as offensive tackle. “I was 6-2, 265 and they were 5-8 and 165. I had some crazy hits.”

Garnett’s voice sounded more like a student than an athlete. It didn’t possess any tone of the toughness that football requires.

But Joshua Garnett turned into a different person on the field. He played nasty.

“It always came natural for me,” he said of being mean when it came to football. “It was something my dad taught me. Off the field you can be nice, kind, help people out. You have to flip that switch on the field, be an animal.”

Murphy, who started at right tackle as a junior and moved to left tackle, next to Garnett, as a senior, confirmed that quieter side about himself and his roommate.

“We’re pretty mellow outside of football, play video games,” he said. “We took up golf (our) senior year. We kept our place neat and tidy. We liked to have people over. We shared the cooking responsibilities.”

Garnett preferred playing defense to offense in high school. He made a sack on his very first play in a high school game. “I was pretty psyched after that,” he said.

Sometimes Garnett lined up at nose tackle or defensive tackle or defensive end for Puyallup High. But everyone recruited him as an offensive lineman. He never got the opportunity to play defense at Stanford.

“I felt I could have been a pretty good defensive lineman,” he said. “I told (defensive line coach Randy) Hart I could have played defense for him. ‘If you ever need a nose guard on the goal line.’”  

Garnett did start one game as a true freshman on the offensive line. Appropriately, it was against Washington State.

“I found out early in the week,” he said. “There’s always a little bit of nerves. I’ve got to be ready. I was a Husky fan and didn’t have a great feeling for the Cougars. I was just going out there, flying around. Got a couple of pancake (blocks).”

Stanford won, 24-17.

By his sophomore year Garnett was seeing more time at left guard, backing up All-American David Yankey. “I learned a lot from him,” said Garnett. “He was always helping me, pulling me aside, coaching me up.”

Again, he started one game, again vs. Washington State. This time the Cardinal won, 55-17, in a game played in Seattle, near Garnett’s hometown.

Garnett started every game as a junior and senior.

His junior year in 2014 could be classified as disappointing at best. Stanford finished 8-5, including three losses by three points each and a win over Maryland in the Fosters Farms Bowl. But the Cardinal looked loaded for 2015.

Garnett and Murphy became so effective some people began calling them the Bash Brothers.

Mike Bloomgren, Stanford’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, developed a strong appreciation for the two linemen.

“What makes them so special is the way they finish, and how violent they play,” Bloomgren told Vihan Lakshman of the Stanford Daily.  “When they get the opportunity to work some double teams and they go two-on-two with both a defensive lineman and a linebacker on the ground, I bet people are like, ‘That’s not really what I want to be up against.’

“From what I’ve seen, they’re the best guard-tackle combo (in the nation).”

Gradually their personalities drifted to more similarities.

“Kyle was very unassuming and not very talkative in high school whereas Josh was just the opposite, always kind of the life of the party,” said Bloomgren. Garnett was elected president of his freshman dorm. “Now you see Josh be more reserved depending on the context and the situation, and Kyle has the ability to talk and get loud when he needs to,” added Bloomgren.

Stanford opened the 2015 season with a Saturday morning game at Northwestern. The Cardinal used to be considered much like other private schools such as Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Duke, That has changed.

Did opponents still underestimate Stanford?

“Teams would always do that,” said Garnett. “You would hear, ‘They don’t even go to practice. Just show up for games. You guys are too worried about academics.’

“You don’t have to be stupid to be a good football player. “I think it’s disrespectful to the sport,” said Garnett.

But did Stanford, which had become a powerhouse in football, underestimate Northwestern.

“Watching film on Northwestern.” recalled Garnett. “They’re an academic school, like us. We’ll go in and steamroll them. We’re thinking we’ll have a shot at the national championship. A lot of people underestimated Northwestern.”

Stanford was underrated, too, ranked a modest No. 21 in preseason. Northwestern was unranked.  Stanford upset the Cardinal, 16-6.

“People were writing us off like we’re the worst team (ever),” said Garnett, one of the Cardinal’s captains. “That really motivated everyone.”

Stanford, held without a touchdown by Northwestern, scored at least 30 points in every game the rest of the season. The Cardinal lost only once more, 38-36 to Oregon, beat USC to win the Pac-12 championship and buried Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

“Winning the Pac-12 was always our goal,” said Murphy. “You appreciate football more because you’re working so hard in class. But a lot of us were disappointed not to get a shot in the championship playoffs.”

That pain eased a little when Garnett became Stanford’s first recipient of the Outland Trophy.

“I was pumped, with him being my best friend,” said Murphy. “None of us were shocked. He always recognized our achievement, too. It wasn’t all about him.”

Unlike too few pro athletes, Garnett will view the NFL as a temporary job, not a career. You must plan for some kind of life after 30, or 35, or whenever the day comes when you can’t pull on a helmet any longer.

Garnett, a human biology major, wants to be a surgeon in an emergency room someday The idea first popped into his head when he was in sixth or seventh grade, watching a television show titled “Untold Stories of the ER.”

“It was exciting,” said Garnett. “You have to be a detective a little bit. What’s wrong with this person?”

Calling Dr. Garnett.