There have been some injuries, for sure, but Stanford has gone through the most of this 2004 season relatively free of physical ailments. The defense started the season with bad news when fifth-year senior defensive end Will Svitek came down with a knee infection that required surgery, keeping him out the first couple games and out of the starting lineup all year. Still, classmate Scott Scharff has manned the starting role all nine games to date admirably. Once Scharff stepped into the starting lineup for the San Jose State game, there has been no injury disruption at any of the 11 defensive positions through nine games. Only David Bergeron's disciplinary one-game suspension left a hiccup.
Over on offense, there have been a few injury incidents, though not excessive in frequency. Back spasms took Josiah Vinson out the week of the Notre Dame game, and a knee injury sidelined Brian Head for two starts. All the skill positions have held their starters healthy this year, with the exception being the running back spot, where J.R. Lemon missed last week's Arizona State game.
Good fortune in the injury department might be a little bit of luck, or it might be effective strength and conditioning. Regardless of the source, the Cardinal have had better than average success in keeping its players healthy this year... until now. As we approach the 10th game of the season, with no bye since mid-September, injuries are suddenly taking their toll. The defensive side of the ball is suffering the brunt of the damage, with three key players all out with knee injuries.
Redshirt junior inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann, redshirt junior defensive end Casey Carroll and redshirt sophomore strong safety Trevor Hooper are all done for the season with MCL injuries. Schimmelmann and Carroll were both injured during the first half of the Arizona State game this past Saturday, while Hooper was injured prior to the weekend and did not travel. All three are on crutches currently, but if there is a spate of good news, it is that none of them require surgery. The medial collateral ligament can typically heal itself without surgery, provided that no other knee ligaments are damaged. The nominally more disastrous injury is a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which is front and center for the stability of the knee for athletes and requires reconstructive surgery. All three of the players are wearing braces and will have rehabilitative treatment ahead to accelerate their recovery time.
Schimmelmann is the one starter among that trio, though all three players were part of the defensive rotation seen most Saturdays. Carroll plays heavy minutes each game in the six-man rotation on the defensive line, providing a fresh set of legs behind junior Julian Jenkins. Hooper has played less minutes, but prior to his injury he was seeing increased time behind sophomore Brandon Harrison in the defensive backfield.
The Stanford schedule this year unfortunately closes the season with nine straight games, including five of seven on the road. This is the time of year you most want to have established depth to carry you through a game, as the accumulation of hits, strains and fatigue take their toll. You have to be particularly concerned about Carroll's injury going into this Saturday's game against Oregon State. If there is one key to defeating the Beaver offense, it is to get to quarterback Derek Anderson. He has a long history of questionable decision-making and interceptions in Corvallis, which makes pressure from the defensive front a requisite in Stanford's gameplan. The defensive line uniquely requires a regular rotation to stay fresh and effective, as fifth-year senior defensive end Will Svitek explains.
"It's a fatiguing position because you have to push against a 300-pound offensive lineman every play, and then chase down a 185-pound running back," the 295-poun senior offers.
Svitek would have been a starter this year, and he was primed for his best season yet. Teammates and coaches marveled at the best August camp of his career, but then he was taken out of action with a surprise knee infection. He had to get his knee opened up and cleaned out, which took him out of practices for several weeks. That was the second procedure on that knee in the span of five months, following surgery in May. The disruption in his conditioning to start this fall has taken away some of his speed and explosiveness, which he still has not completely regained. When you consider that Svitek is now the one game-capable reserve on the depth chart for the two defensive end positions, after Carroll's season-ending injury, it paints a grim picture for the DL pressure on Anderson this week and on Aaron Rodgers the next week at Cal.
One stop-gap measure to return depth at the DE positions is to play sophomore nose tackle Nick Frank more outside. Coming into the fall, defensive line coach Dave Tipton told The Bootleg that he felt Frank and Carroll both could play inside and outside. Tuesday in practice, we saw Frank work some as a four-technique across from the offensive tackle, as well as over the center at his regular position. The subsequent cost, of course, to playing Frank for stretches at defensive end is his decreased capacity in backing up redshirt junior Babatunde Oshinowo at nose tackle.
Stanford has shown this year that they can play with a five-man rotation on the defensive line. They were plenty successful the first two games of the year when they were missing Svitek, but it should also be noted that players were at the peak of their physical condition in early September. It is questionable if the Cardinal can pull off play just five men up front these next two weeks. If you are seeking a sixth man, then look to redshirt sophomore nose tackle Matt McClernan. He has stood on the sidelines the vast majority of this season, but he is the strongest and most mature of the young reserve D-linemen. In Tuesday's afternoon practice, McClernan stepped up to the second team and took a lot of snaps.
Schimmelmann's loss hits the starting lineup, the first such injury for the defense during the 2004 regular season. While his speed and playmaking abilities will be missed (Schimmelmann leads the team in total and solo tackles), there may not be an alarming drop-off with his replacement. Buddy Teevens said early Tuesday that it would not be clear until practices this week whether sophomore Michael Okwo or redshirt junior Michael Craven would get the start at the "Will" inside linebacker position, it is almost certain that Okwo gets the nod. Craven has been out of practices the last few weeks with a muscle pull, and he did not practice Tuesday afternoon. Okwo has been healthy throughout the season, and he has seen his role on defense steadily rise over the last month of action. The six-foot sophomore has 14 tackles in the last three games, including career highs of seven solo and eight total wrap-ups last Saturday in Tempe - both totals that led the team. While he has more than his share of youthful mistakes, Okwo is a fantastic athlete with blinding closing speed and unforgiving ferocity of hits.
Over on offense, the major question is at the quarterback spot. Trent Edwards was knocked out of the game Saturday with a shoulder injury, for the second time in three weeks. He bounced back after his Oregon injury with a full week of practices, but this week does not look like a repeat recovery. The redshirt sophomore did not don pads Tuesday and stood on the sidelines with his left arm in a sling. There is no official pronouncement yet on the starting quarterback for the Oregon State game, but it seems exceedingly improbable that Edwards will be ready and able. Unable to lift his arm Tuesday to even begin to throw a football, there are questions as to whether he will have the range of motion to call plays in from the sideline on Saturday.
A miracle may unfold today and tomorrow on the practice field, but I doubt it. Redshirt freshman T.C. Ostrander took the clear lead in Tuesday's practice with the first team offense, for the first time this fall. Ostrander is the most junior of the active three quarterbacks behind Edwards, but he is on target for his first collegiate start this Saturday. Fifth-year senior Ryan Eklund and redshirt junior Kyle Matter shared the second team repetitions behind Ostrander, with Matter seeing the most work throwing the ball we have seen all year. However, Matter's shoulder strength is still so very poor that he would likely be only an emergency third option.
Ostrander has similar tools to Edwards, though obviously less experience and knowledge of the details of the position at the college level. Green though he may be, the Menlo-Atherton High School product has enjoyed rousing success in each of his two relief appearances after Edwards' injuries. Against Oregon, Ostrander led Stanford to their only touchdown of the day and made two tremendous throws in the final 16 seconds of the contest to move 45 yards for a field goal attempt that fell just short. Last week at Arizona State, Ostrander was under center for a 17-point fourth quarter comeback that nearly won the game, if not for the Sun Devils' two-minute march down the field to reclaim victory.
"T.C. did a nice job coming in," comments Teevens on the relief performance in Tempe. "He did a nice job with the team. I'm confident in his ability to play the position."
To round out the injury report, there are two pieces of good news. Redshirt junior receiver Justin McCullum is back in action and took full part in Tuesday's practice. He injured his ankle in the early moments of the UCLA game and did not travel to Arizona State. The biggest surprise on offense this year, the 6'4" wideout has been a go-to player in the Stanford passing game in the middle of the field. Fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith has picked up that slack with 15 catches for 247 yards the last two weeks, but everyone is excited to have McCullum back on the field.
"Sometimes, you don't fully know what you've got until you lose it," says wide receivers coach Ken Margerum.
In the running game, redshirt junior J.R. Lemon returned to practice Tuesday after sitting out all of last week as well as the Arizona State game. The tailback starting job and rotation are up in the air, given weakness in the ground game the last few weeks, as well as Lemon's injury. He split time evenly with fifth-year senior Kenneth Tolon and freshman Ray Jones Tuesday afternoon.
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