Body Count Climbing

Numerous fears that fretful fans have carried into this 2005 Stanford Football season range from the defensive backfield to the new offense to the tailback position. But the biggest threat to a successful season on The Farm is currently the injury bug. The injured body count is climbing quickly, which has Walt Harris concerned. He took action at one position today, making his first position switch of the fall.

One of the most increasingly important stories of this 2005 Stanford Football fall camp is the story that cannot be fully told.  Injuries are mounting for the Cardinal, and they have completed just nine of their 21 days of this camp.  By my unofficial count, there are currently injuries at every position group on the football field for Stanford, save the quarterbacks.  At several positions, there are multiple injuries.

But new Cardinal head coach Walt Harris is not keen on reporting injuries.  He has remained mum each and every time there has been a request by the media this fall on a given injury.  The only injury information on specific players he has permitted came when a different question was asked.  Harris was queried on the performance of his offensive line, for example, and yielded the information that starting left tackle Jeff Edwards was out temporarily with a strained calf muscle.

When the subject of the total body count comes up, however, Harris did comment today on what is a clearly concerning situation.

"We're getting more guys hurt.  A couple more were hurt today," he allows.  "Yeah, that's a concern.  Sure."

Two types of injuries which have taken Harris by surprise are hamstring pulls and concussions, the latter of which took one starter out of action today after depleting two talented reserves yesterday.  Stanford's hard-nosed coach is not anywhere close to changing the rigors of his preseason camp, despite the mounting body count.

"Training camp is a grind.  Football is a grind," he comments.  "This is no country club, either.  We just have to find a way."

Harris is displeased with the number of injuries but says it is a part of life in a violent sport.  He likens injuries in practice to what could and probably will happen to the Cardinal in a game.  When one man goes down, the next needs to be ready to step in.  Reserves can become starters in the blink of an eye.  Harris has already forecast that for the Navy game, with its heightened heat and humidity (neither of which exist at Stanford currently), he will have to play deeper into his bench than he would normally like.

At positions all over the field, Stanford currently has second or even third team players lining up with the first string offense or defense.  The silver lining may be an increased preparedness for those players come Saturdays this fall, with the extra work they are receiving during the preseason.  This of course is palatable only if the currently injured starters are well and capable in the next couple of weeks.  There is little to smile about losing the best players on your roster.

"We feel bad that some guys got hurt," Harris offers.  "Some are freak injuries."

Some injuries are also somewhat predictable.  Several players on the roster have histories of injuries, and when we see them go down in a practice, it comes as little surprise.  One of those positions is fullback, where fifth-year senior Kris Bonifas and redshirt sophomore Emeka Nnoli have both spent more time in yellow jerseys than not during their respective college football careers.  This was one of the driving forces behind the position switch last winter for Nick Frank from nose tackle to fullback, which has paid off beautifully.  Frank has been the starter at the position every day of camp this fall, after holding down the first team position much of the spring.  The injury bug has bitten already this fall, and when Harris received word early this morning confirming the renewed fullback drain, he once again searched out a position switch to bolster the offensive backfield.  And for the second time this year, Harris has moved a defensive lineman to fullback.

Freshman Ben Ladner, who conveniently wears #45, received the news of his move from defensive end to fullback this morning.  Just three hours before the start of practice, he was handed the offensive playbook.  That sounds like a recipe for a very long afternoon for a freshman, but Ladner handled himself surprisingly well.  The evidence came in Harris' praise after the practice, which comes rarely from the head coach.  Typically, Harris defers comments on players from that day until the next, after he has had a chance to review film.  But he says he could immediately commend Ladner for his first day's work on offense.

"To his credit, he really impressed me today," Harris lauds of Ladner's debut at fullback.  "That's a Stanford guy.  He really picked it up."

One of the most famous numbers reported during the Cardinal's recruitment of Ladner out of The Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City (Mo.) was his 1560 SAT - and that came on the old SAT, with a maximum of 1600 points.  He's a smart cookie for sure, though book smarts do not always translate into football smarts.  We have just one day's data thus far for this new fullback, but Harris says his command of the playbook was well ahead of expectation for somebody with essentially no previous knowledge or preparation.

One reason to expect a smooth transition is Ladner's high school history.  He ran an eye-popping 4.60 in the 40 at the Nike Camp on Stanford's campus in May of his junior year - while carrying 265 pounds.  As a senior at Pembroke Hill, he ran for 555 yards on 101 carries and recorded 16 receptions for 309 yards as a wingback, scoring 12 touchdowns.  This lad is no stranger to the carries, catches and blocking out of the backfield.

Indeed, Ben Ladner initially hoped that he would be recruited as a tight end out of high school.  That is where he played his junior year, though his combination of size and speed begged for the defensive line.  Still, we noted immediately after Signing Day in The Bootleg Magazine that he could have a future at fullback.  Stanford signed Jerod Arlich in the 2004 class, a year prior to Ladner, for fullback but lost him to a medical retirement just a few months after he arrived on campus.  The void at fullback remained.

When we learned this summer that Ladner was to wear #45 his freshman year, it further confirmed our suspicions that he could have an offensive future.  It was also noteworthy that he reported for the summer voluntary workouts at 258 pounds, seven pounds below what he weighed on Signing Day.  Granted, the rigorous regimen of strength & conditioning handed him by Ron Forbes could understandably strip a few pounds initially, but Ladner looked like the best possibility to move to fullback on this roster.

That all being said, Walt Harris maintains that this position switch was not preordained.  It would be foolhardy to make a move before getting an actual look at Ladner on the practice field for the first time.  You never know what kind of football player you have until you put pads on him in fall camp.

"We wanted to try and let guys play the position where they were recruited," Harris explains of his policy for the new freshmen.  "This was necessitated by injuries.  It was unplanned.  At that position, we're not very well manned."

Harris also admitted to the history of injuries that some of his fullbacks have displayed.  He gave similar comments to me in the winter when I interviewed him and asked about the Nick Frank switch.  This is a man determined to avoid a fullback vacuum, which is yet another data point that Harris is deadly serious about his running game and two-back offense.

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