Looking Up the Ladder

While the discussion all week for Stanford fans of the matchups in this USC game have been focused on Cardinal starters, there are continuing questions about a pair of reserve linebackers. Michael Craven and Michael Okwo both sit lower on the depth chart than many fans would like, so we took a look this week at their stories and what separates them from the playing field on defense.

Four years ago, Michael Craven was the #1 linebacker in the nation coming out of La Quinta High School, hailed as the cornerstone playmaker for a new generation of Stanford defense.  Today, he is the #3 linebacker on the depth chart at his position on The Farm - a far cry from the lofty expectations created for him.  Blessed with unparalleled athletic ability, Craven has showed flashes of greatness with his backside pursuit of quarterbacks and his lightning closing speed on ballcarriers.  But the redshirt junior has been his own worst enemy at Stanford, with a string of disappointments in the classroom and in his personal life that have not only distracted him from his football focus, but have kicked him out of school.  You heard nary a word about the off-season conditioning, nor the progress in spring ball, of the heralded linebacker because he was forced to nearby Foothill College to try and get his academic house in order.  Only in August did Craven successfully earn reinstatement by Stanford University, which in fact forced him to miss some of the early practices of preseason camp.

"I guess you would say it's changed my perspective on football, school and life in general," Craven says of his rocky road and recovery.  "It's not my ability that matters.  It's my reliability and consistency.  It's not about me; it's about the team."

The gifted 6'1" 230-pound athlete has slipped up enough times at Stanford that he was worn the patience thin with his coaches and his teammates.  It was widely said this off-season that if Craven could work his way back onto the team this time, it would be his last chance.  Those close to him said the fourth-year Stanford man had hit rock bottom when he was kicked out of school and had to enroll at the nearby junior college.  So a short leash has been attached to inside linebacker, with no room for mistakes on or off the field.  His aforementioned words speak to his new understanding of responsibility and commitment, but more convincing is how the coaching staff praises him thus far in his return.

"He's making good progress and doing all the things we have asked of him," tells Tom Williams, inside linebackers coach.  "He's making tremendous progress, and I really mean that.  Michael is practicing hard and becoming a master at his position.  As a result, he's earning more repetitions."

Craven went through a similar, though less severe, situation last year when he needed summer school at Stanford to save his academic standing and maintain his eligibility for the fall.  He joined preseason camp late as a result and was put on the third string defense.  By the middle of the season, he worked his way up to a starting position that he held the last five games of the year.  The defense has changed since, and a wealth of players have grown and matured while he was unable to work with the team.  Most critically, Craven missed spring practices when the new 3-4 defense was installed.  Without that learning, and with another late start in camp this fall, the La Quinta (Calif.) native is even further behind the curve.

With all his athletic ability, not to mention his accumulated experience in his three prior years of Stanford Football, it would be easy for Craven to complain.  Younger players are playing ahead of him - players without an athletic ceiling as high as his.  But there have been no outbursts.  There have been no grumblings.  He has quietly and assiduously worked to try and earn playing time once again.

"Obviously I'm trying to move myself up the depth chart because I like playing," he admits.  "I just work hard and don't let myself get discouraged.  I've never had this much fun, being back on the field and being with all the guys.  I've missed it for so long."

"There are different amounts of repetitions you get, depending on where you are on the depth chart," Craven continues.  "The last couple of weeks, I've seen my snaps go up and that's helped my gap responsibility.  It all starts right here on the practice field.  You have to be perfect every snap.  And at my position, you have to be a leader - the quarterback of the defense."

On the field, Craven and Williams have worked to correct and minimize his mistakes, while also catching up on the new responsibilities the player carries as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.  Off the field, they watch film together and pass lessons from teacher to student that go back to Williams' playing days as a Stanford linebacker.  The work is paying dividends in practices, and the staff see a chance that Craven might step into a greater role this Saturday against USC.

"This week will be a big week for him," Williams says of his improving and promising protégé.  "This might be the week that Michael breaks out and gets his big chance."

Stanford fans will rejoice at that possibility.  The visiting Trojans bring more superlative athletes to the table than any other opponent Stanford will face this year, and that cries out for the Cardinal to unsheathe their biggest and best weapons.  If he can play within the defense, there is no question how much Michael Craven would help toward that effort.  But we know that the consistency and assignment responsibility is not a given for the redshirt junior, which remains his Achilles heel at this time.

"Michael has the rare ability to make plays outside the framework of the defense," Tom Williams explains.  "That can be a blessing or a curse.  He did that in high school, and it made him a great player.  But at the college level, guys are better - running backs and quarterbacks can recognize and capitalize on those mistakes.  Ultimately, his ability to play his assignments and his gaps will make him a great player, and we're still waiting for that."

Two years after Craven, another nationally acclaimed prep linebacker with exceptional speed and athleticism matriculated to Stanford from Southern California.  Michael Okwo was a jaw-dropping performer on both sides of the ball at Mira Costa High School, and Cardinalmaniacs have been quickly impressed by his playmaking ability on special teams.  Okwo was such a quick study and had such an instinctive nose for the ball that he played as a true freshman in 2003, with the bulk of his time on the field spent on special teams.  Not only is he a standout on coverage teams, he is also positioned in a unique role ahead of the wedge on kickoff returns.  The sophomore has yet to see the meaningful time on defense, though, and that has been a disappointment for fans and Okwo alike.

"My whole freshman year, I thought it was the reject position," the 6'0" sophomore says of special teams duty.  "But now I really believe it can win or lose games.  Just look at T.J. Rushing against BYU.  In the NFL, you see a lot of starters on special teams, and that's the case here, too."

"I'm obviously not playing as much as I used to play [in high school]," Okwo continues.  "That could get me down, but remember that I have a major role on this team.  I put everything I've got into special teams.  I make sure my full force is felt on the field when I hit people."

Watching Okwo destroy opponents on special teams, there is little doubt that he is laying the wood to the best of his abilities.  And just as observers have been impressed by those plays, so too have been the coaches.  But like Craven, there remain questions of consistency in Okwo's play as an inside linebacker.  The exciting sophomore has not seen much in the way of "non-garbage" minutes on defense yet this season, though he is the first to say that the competition in front of him is tough to beat.

"Kevin Schimmelmann is a great player - probably the best linebacker we have," Okwo praises.  "He knows the defense so well and understands not just what he's doing, but what he's doing relative to the rest of the defense."

"Michael Okwo is coming along just fine," comments Tom Williams on his sophomore charge.  "But I don't think he's ready right now to be an every day linebacker for us with his current consistency.  He can make three or four good plays in a stretch, but then he will blow two in a row and make you scratch your head."

"A lot of time, it's just finishing plays," Okwo continues on the subject of his consistency.  "I read out of coverages or blitzes and get out of position.  For example, I may be blitzing right to left and see the quarterback roll to the other side.  I try to pursue him and wind up losing contain.  If he comes back to that side of the field, I'm out of position and I can't finish the play."

There are some things working in Okwo's favor, however.  For one, he was fortunate enough to play in a 3-4 defense in high school at Mira Costa, which has made his learning curve a steep one relative to his teammates in picking up the new Stanford defense.  Okwo also has the benefit of the peak growth made between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"I can feel plays a little more now and I've gotten rid of a lot of mistakes," he describes.

Like Craven, fans are clamoring for Okwo to get significant minutes on defense against the awesome weaponry of USC.  Cardinalmaniacs would not be the only ones amped to see him on the field this Saturday, given the enormity of this game for the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) native.

"This game means a lot to me," Okwo admits.  "I know a lot of people on the team, and a lot of people who live in my area are big on SC.  This is the game you look forward to all year."

Ironically, the extra juices flowing for the SoCal sophomore are as much a detriment to his play as inspiration.  If he gets in the game on Saturday, watch him to see if in his excitement he over pursues or makes a mental mistake.  The adrenaline can work against him.

"I am trying to stay more relaxes, as much as I can," he explains.  "I know when I get too excited, I can get too tense and miss plays.  I've been trying to relax in practices this week because it's so important."

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