There is a light at the end of the tunnel, after all.
This is has been a rough season for sophomore speedster David Marrero, who has been a fan favorite of Cardinalmaniacs™ ever since he signed with Stanford two years ago. Injuries and coaching decisions kept him on the shelf last fall far more than most of us liked, but the promise of a sophomore surge was kindled last spring when Marrero was moved to wide receiver and delivered tremendous playmaking ability carrying and catching the ball in scrimmages. This was finally the answer to Stanford's search for a home run threat on offense, with elite speed and explosiveness to stretch the field and opposing defenses.
But seven games into his second season on The Farm, Marrero has carried the ball just once and caught a mere five balls. His one regular role on the team has come on punt returns, where he has served in every opportunity of every game this year. His 5.9-yard average per return does not pop the eyes out of your head, but he has been supremely consistent in catching and protecting the football. Still, some fans have grumbled about Marrero's inability to break the "big one" in his punt return capacity - often running sideline to sideline rather than upfield, in an effort to get outside. The burst we know and love for the track athlete has been missing, and that has led some observers to tag him a bust.
Not so fast.
Outsiders have been unaware of knee problems with which Marrero has been struggling since the middle of August preseason training camp. Pain in his right knee has been excruciating and debilitating throughout the fall, and it has destroyed his ability to play at his accustomed level. Only recently did Stanford doctors pinpoint the problem, and thankfully it is not something structurally daunting. Marrero has a pinched peroneal nerve behind his knee in his right leg. This past Saturday night, after the Oregon game, he had three shots of a nerve blocker administered around that nerve. The results have been immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
"For the first time since the first few days of camp, I feel close to 100%," says a smiling Marrero. "The shots should last a week or two. If it continues to feel good, they'll do surgery at the end of the season. That would be minor and only take four weeks to recover."
In addition to the severe limitations and pain he has experienced with his right knee, the sophomore utility player developed equally troubling problems with tendonitis in his left knee.
"I had to compensate with my left knee. I worked it so much harder because of the things I could not do with my right knee," Marrero explains. "It got progressively worse and worse. I tried to push through it, but tendonitis isn't really something you can push through - I found out."
Relief has come for that knee as well in the form of anti-inflammatory agents. And as his right knee functions at a more normal level, he should no longer be operating in an imbalanced fashion that has been problematic for his left knee. It took just one practice with his "new" knees to brighten Marrero's entire world.
"Tuesday was my first test, and I felt like I was near 100%. It was a shock to me," he allows. "My biggest problem has been that I haven't been able to turn on anything when I want to. I couldn't cut when I wanted to. I couldn't explode like I did in the spring or summer... This has been killing me all year. I tried to just get through the pain, but that wasn't the answer."
Marrero is brimming with confidence heading into Saturday, though it may take more than one week for him to return to his spring form. He is an athlete whose playmaking ability all his life has been predicated upon explosive speed and quick bursts. After not possessing that capacity for the last two and a half months, he will surely need time to reacclimatize to his body. But with just four games to go in the regular season, Marrero is chomping at the bit right now.
"This is the week I've start exploding again. I feel that much better," he declares. "On punt returns, now I'm running by people. I can come to a stop and then blow by like I'm used to. I wasn't able before to do the things I wanted to do. I just haven't had my confidence. I've been watching Devin Hester at Miami and how he has returned the ball, and I know I have that ability."
"I haven't been able to run away from anybody," Marrero continues. "Linebackers have even been tackling me. I just haven't been able to make the little moves."
Some fans have been acutely critical of his punt returns the last several weeks that have taken the ball laterally rather than north-south, but Marrero says that he has simply been unable to elude the first coverage tacklers to reach him, which is required for him to get to the designed protection and blocking set up for him.
"I haven't been able to beat the first few people who get to me," he offers. "I haven't been able to get to the wall, which is where you have the chance to break the play open."
It is a testament to his reliability in fielding punts that the coaching staff has stuck with him throughout the season, despite his shortcomings in returns. That being said, his 5.9 yard-per-return average sits sixth in the conference. UCLA is one of the best teams around at covering punts, so it won't be easy for Marrero to break out this weekend. As a comparison, the Bruins have allowed just 4.7 yards per punt return this year, which is more than twice as good at Stanford's 10.4-yard average allowed.
Fans will also be eager to see the renewed Marrero back on the field, hopefully sooner rather than later, on offense. His problems this fall have prevented him in practices from performing at a level that would inspire confidence for the coaching staff. It is no accident that the sophomore wideout has not touched the ball on offense in a month. The last time his number was called came in the second quarter of the Washington game, when he carried the ball and took off outside. He found some open green and started to make moves to beat defenders ahead of him, but his knees would not cooperate and left him crumpled on the ground after a seven-yard gain. He went down as he tried to make an open-field cut, without a defender laying so much as a finger on him. No play this year better encapsulates the difficulty he has endured. Marrero was demonstrably upset as he walked to the sideline after the play, and it was clear to anybody who saw him how frustrated he was with himself.
A select few plays have been run for Marrero this week in practice, and he indeed looks like a different player in his execution. Only Bill Cubit and Ken Margerum know if the sophomore will see the field and get chances on offense as early as this Saturday at the Rose Bowl. For his part, the 5'9" burner feels he can be a difference-maker at a time when the Cardinal need to win.
"I still feel like I'm the big play potential that we haven't had," he opines. "Each of our three losses have been by just a few points, and I know I can be that one play that gets us the win in those tight games."
One problem in getting Marrero on the field is the depth of successful players currently playing ahead of him at the receiver positions. The "big three" (Evan Moore, Mark Bradford and Justin McCullum) remain consistent performers each week, and it is a difficult argument for any skill player on offense to get on the field at their expense. Additionally, redshirt junior Gerren Crochet is enjoying a mini-emergence. His burst is not the same as Marrero's, but he is the only other player on offense for Stanford who similarly possesses true track speed. Crochet has had his number called in each of the last two weeks in big spots, and this week's practice suggests he may have a role again in Pasadena. Moreover, the increased activity for the fourth-year player has been a tremendous boost to his confidence. Though his catch last week against Oregon was ruled out of bounds, by the slimmest of margins, the play was one to inspire confidence for himself, his teammates and the coaches.
This week in practice, I have seen a more loose and energetic Crochet than I have witnessed in the last couple years. Additionally, he has stayed healthy throughout the entire fall for the first time since he has been at Stanford. Watch to see if Crochet steps up and makes a play this Saturday. Self-confidence is a critical, though underrated, requisite for performance at this athletic level. That reason alone suggests success will come soon for Crochet.
Over on defense, we are seeing a shift toward greater rotation at positions that a month ago were manned almost exclusively by the starters. This is a subject I have treated in detail in recent stories and updates. The defensive line continues to heavily rotate their top six players at the three positions, and the cornerback position continues to be split amongst the three co-starters. But what fans have been asking for is more time for reserve players at the linebacker positions, given how opposing teams have successfully run the ball in the second halves of recent games. Last week I gave you a revealing discussion by inside linebackers coach Tom Williams about his decisions this year in playing his personnel, and how he wanted to make changes in playing more of his depth.
Misinformed fans ripped Williams immediately after the game when they did not see Michael Craven on defense at the "Mike" linebacker position. But what they failed to notice was an injury Craven suffered early in the game on special teams. The redshirt junior pulled his quadricep and could not continue. He was out of practices all this week and will not play at UCLA. Head coach Buddy Teevens said yesterday that he is hopeful for Craven's return the following week against Arizona State, but the reality is that muscle pulls are unpredictable in their timeline for recovery. Don't set your expectations for a return too soon by Craven.
On a more positive note, sophomore Michael Okwo played huge minutes last weekend in the Oregon game, particularly in the first half. He has heavily rotated with the first team this week in practices as well, which suggests he could continue to have a significant role Saturday at UCLA. One note is that he has spent some time playing alongside Kevin Schimmelmann. The two nominally share the same "Will" linebacker position, when you look at the official Stanford depth chart, but I wrote before the season that Okwo and "Schimmy" could very conceivably play side by side at the two inside linebacker positions. Mike Silva is the man on the depth chart behind David Bergeron at the "Mike" position, but you may also see Okwo or Schimmelmann play there.
It should also be noted that the outside linebackers are demonstrating more depth of late, as well. Though neither played anywhere near the length of time that Okwo enjoyed last week, both Timi Wusu and Emmanuel Awofadeju saw the field at the "rush" and "Sam" outside positions, respectively. Rotations this week in practice suggest we will see that continue. Finally, Trevor Hooper is stepping into more of a regular rotation at the strong safety position in practices of late. He has spent much of the fall running a solid second team with the defense, but he is seeing more time alongside both Oshiomogho Atogwe and Brandon Harrison these past few weeks. Hooper has seen more playing time on defense in October games than he did in September.
Speaking of Okwo, he had the defensive play of the day Thursday afternoon in practice. In 11-on-11 action, he intercepted a pass as he was backpedaling in coverage. The sophomore made an athletic leap and snared the ball falling backward, and then he held on to it as he crashed to the ground. That play brought the entire defense off the sideline to celebrate.
Back on offense, redshirt junior Brian Head was out of practices Tuesday and Wednesday as he continues to recover from the left knee injury he suffered early in the Washington State game two weeks ago. Head was out the remainder of that game and did not see the field last Saturday against Oregon. Thursday marked the first and only time this week that the veteran center took snaps in practice, though he did so strictly with the second team offensive line. With how much time he has missed from practice the past two weeks, it is expected that redshirt freshman Mikal Brewer will get the start at center Saturday for the second straight week. This will be the third start in four games for the youngest starter on the offensive line, and the fourth straight game of major playing time.
While Head also sat out last Saturday's game, his status is a little different this week. In the Oregon game, he was not ready to play at all. Had Brewer sustained any injury and been knocked out of the game, redshirt freshman Preston Clover would have been called into action at center. Tomorrow against UCLA, Head should be cleared and ready to perform in a reserve roll if needed.
As reported earlier this week, redshirt sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards returned to practices on Tuesday and took the full complement of first team snaps with the offense. He continued without any difficulty the remainder of this week's practices. Edwards was knocked out of the game last Saturday against Oregon with a bruised left shoulder, bruised left hand, and his bell rung. He never returned to the game but is all clear to start and play at his full capacity in Pasadena against the Bruins.
This is a rarity I cannot recall in several years, but Stanford Football has added a new face to the roster in late October. Freshman Aaron Zagory has just joined the team and suited out for the first time this week. He hails from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he was a three-sport athlete in football, soccer and swimming. The 6'0" 160-pound walk-on was a standout place kicker in high school, and he joins the small group of specialists currently on the Cardinal roster. However, there is not as much need for kicking depth as there is punting depth. Stanford has a very able, and admittedly exciting, backup to Michael Sgroi in redshirt freshman Derek Belch. Belch has yet to see the field this year, but he has a bright future and has kicked very well in practices. But behind Jay Ottovegio, there is no other punting specialist for Stanford. If something were to happen to take the redshirt frosh out of action, Buddy Teevens would have to throw Sgroi or wide receiver Greg Camarillo onto the field. Neither of them spend much time punting in practices, so everyone is eager to see Zagory develop as a proficient punter.
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