Last year, Stanford Football was crippled by a pair of injuries during training camp and the season opener. Fifth-year senior defensive end Casey Carroll was lost in August, debilitating the depth on the defensive line the remainder of the fall, which in turn may have cost the Cardinal one or more additional wins with fourth quarter defensive fades. 6'7" freak wide receiver Evan Moore did not make it to halftime of Stanford's opener at Navy, and the offense suffered the rest of the way with up-and-down performances and scattered injuries in the receiving corps.
No program in the Pac-10 can swallow injuries with more difficulty than Stanford. Their scant depth at most, if not all, positions leaves the Card in a quick hole when a starter goes down. As such, it is with great trepidation that we approach Stanford's start of their training camp on Monday, already saddled with a slew of ailments. Several have been reported and covered in depth by The Bootleg, but a new injury just occurred in the last month and was cleared for release by Walt Harris yesterday.
Fifth-year senior center Tim Mattran has a stress fracture in his right tibia. It was a fracture that likely resulted from an untreated precursor, and thus this injury was inevitable. However, it is ironic and unfitting that the 6'5" 305-pound Stanford center went down on a day when he was doing extra work.
The schedule for Stanford's voluntary workouts this summer brought all roster players to the field Monday through Thursday for daily conditioning sessions and 11-on-11 practices. Fridays were "off" days with linemen taking a rest, while the skill players would conduct 7-on-7 passing practices. On Friday July 14, on a lineman's off-day, Mattran came out to the practice field for an extra session of conditioning. Classmates and fellow offensive linemen Jon Cochran and Ismail Simpson also took the day to log extra runs. The laudable effort unfortunately ended for Mattran in heartache.
"I came out to jog just a little bit on my own," Mattran describes of that day. "It had been bothering me since we had started the summer, but I figured it was just shin splints or muscle soreness associated with being back into the swing of things running-wise with a lot more volume than we did at the end of the spring. I went out to jog on my own, and after a couple of times around the field, all of a sudden it hurt really bad. I had a hard time even walking on it, just getting myself off the field."
"I had a chance to see the doctor the next week. The worrisome part about it, which made him think it was worse than it was, was the fact that it was very localized pain. He sent me to get some pictures," the senior says. "I'm not a doctor; I have no desire to be a doctor. But when I saw them, I could tell that something was wrong. There was this big crack down the middle of my shin."
A big crack down the middle of his shin. Painful words to read for any Stanford student-athlete, but Mattran's injury is particularly poignant. Not only is he unavailable to start training camp next week. Not only is he questionable for the most difficult season opener Stanford has played this millennium. Mattran is also the one and only offensive lineman who Harris and the Cardinal coaches gave a vote of confidence in the spring as a clear and dependable starter. Gone for now are his leadership, inside-out knowledge of the offensive playbook, and steadiness in both making the calls and executing his blocks.
"We're not sure when he will be available," Harris says of his senior center. "I still think that we have a long ways to go at all positions - both guards and both tackles - and now with Tim being out, all five positions are still under the microscope."
Before we dive into doomsday narratives, however, let us examine in detail the prognosis for Mattran and when he might return to the field.
"It was frustrating to see that was actually what it was. That was kind of the worst case scenario at the time," he says of the fracture. "The good thing was that we caught it early enough that I have been taking care of it the two and a half weeks that I have been off of it. We're talking about doing some things with a bone stimulator to accelerate things. It's been pretty optimistic so far, as far as getting ready for Oregon on September 2."
The 'bone stimulator' is a device for which Mattran is being fitted and will soon wear for a few hours each day as he walks around. As mysterious and poorly understood as that technology may be to us, it was more surprising the last couple weeks that we saw Mattran standing and walking through some steps with the linemen during summer practices. Not only was he not in a cast, but he was moving around on his stress fracture. The explanation he passed along, loosely translated from what the Stanford doctors told him, is that healing a weight-bearing bone without any weight on it will necessitate a later additional transition period to adjust to the movements and load of this 300-pounder playing football. Instead, Mattran has been instructed to walk and move normally with neither cast nor crutches.
This is the third week of Mattran's recovery, but there is no timetable for his fracture being healed in 'X weeks.' Instead, it is a watch-and-wait approach while the tibia heals.
"I need to be able to walk on it for two weeks without any pain - just being able to walk around on it," Mattran explains. "It's still not there. It's getting better. It used to be that it would hurt on every step. Now it's stairs that make it hurt, and every now and then I'll step on it wrong and it will hurt. It is progressing. I can tell. Just listen to my body - that's the biggest thing they have been telling us. Hopefully the bone stimulator is going to help it along nicely."
"Once that two weeks of walking on it with no pain is up, they said it's a very rapid progression where you'd probably get right back into it," he adds. "The challenge is keeping myself in shape and staying mentally focused on the football season until we get to that point. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. I'm telling myself that I'm going to be ready for Oregon, if not the second week of two-a-days. I've got a positive outlook on it, and I think I'm going to be ready to go."
With just four weeks to go until the season opener at Oregon, the clock is ticking. A quick look at the calendar shows that it will take a minor miracle for him to start/play in Eugene.
"I think what Coach Harris and Coach [Tom] Freeman have always said is that you have to be ready for game week. If you can't be ready for game week, you're not going to play. So at the very latest, I have to be ready to go that Tuesday before Oregon. Hopefully it will be before then. I'm hoping that it will be. That would fit the timeline that they gave me. That's what I'm aiming for - that second week of two-a-days, the third week of camp."
Mattran needs to fully participate in practice on Tuesday August 29, under those guidelines, to put himself on the plane to Oregon. He needs to walk pain-free on his right leg for two full weeks, and then needs perhaps one week after that to ramp up from non-activity in practice to pads and football speed. That means the fifth-year senior needs sometime this next week - preferably early in the week - to start walking without pain. If that pain persists through next week, the Cardinal can probably kiss Mattran good-bye for the duel with the Ducks.
"It's really nobody's fault. That's the frustrating thing about it," Mattran allows. "It's something that happens when a guy me size does the things that we do. I'm surprised that it doesn't happen to more of us. You can usually get away with it. It's more frustrating than anything right now."
That frustration is shared throughout the Cardinal community today. Injuries will happen during training camp and during the season, but this is a tough one to stomach before the first pads are donned in August. That being said, Stanford Football will go on. There is no mourning period, with daily practices starting on Monday and then two-a-days next weekend. The offensive front five will have to move a new man into the middle, and that promoted first-string player is redshirt junior Preston Clover.
Clover is somebody who languished on the scout team offense his first three years, without anything to particularly distinguish him in his play or development. A light turned on in the spring, however, and Clover began to blossom. There was some confidence taking root that he might become a competent backup for Mattran this fall. The younger center is a good athlete who moves well - maybe better than Mattran - but he remains a work in progress in understanding the position, the calls and the playbook.
"He really turned it on in the spring," Mattran offers on his understudy. "He took advantage of the fact that he was going to get more rep's because he didn't get those in the fall last year, which was unfortunate. He's a good athlete. He's fast for a guy his size. He's really starting to grasp the center position and all of the mental things that go along with that very quickly."
"He's had a hard time with his work schedule getting out to all the workouts we have done this summer, but he has been in watching film and trying to keep thinking about it," the senior says. "That's such a big part of playing that position. I'm confident that he's going to be able to go in, make the calls and get everybody going the right way. He'll make the blocks, too. He's a good player. I'm not worried about somebody not being able to fill in the job and keep everybody progressing this fall."
Therein lies another issue with this injury. The center sets the tone for the offensive line, both in the huddle and on the line of scrimmage. For a unit already besieged with uneven play and corresponding criticism, losing Mattran could threaten the line's progress during training camp. There were visible signs of improvement in the spring, and that gave us hope. Does the optimism now take a hit?
"It all stems from the spring. The spring was a fantastic time for us as a position group. We really stepped it up," Mattran maintains. "We saw a lot of progress in the run game and just understanding the offense. Knowing the offense - not just what we're supposed to do, but also how it fits into the offense in general."
"We're a tight group. That's the other thing," he adds. "It's not like any one of us is an established leader. We all have leadership qualities. Just because I'm out doesn't mean that one of the other guys isn't going to keep the momentum going, which is exciting. I think that you need that. That's a good sign for where things are going this season."
One additional source of hope and possible improvement for the big nasties is an altered approach by the Cardinal coaches to the offensive line and their plays. The theme: 'keep it simple.'
"As a coaching staff, we spent a lot of time this off-season trying to do some things that will help them become a better offensive line in the run game and pass protection," Harris says.
"We're going to have more protections, but they're going to be very similar to each other. At least, that's what I've been hearing around the office," Mattran elaborates. "In the spring, we took what we wanted to be the focus of the offense, and perfected it. Instead of putting in a wrinkle here and there that you're only going to run once or twice a game, which costs a lot of coaching time during the season, we are able to get the basics down. Build from there. We're very confident in the basic things that we're going to do. Once you don't have to think about those anymore, I think that allows you to be more creative. So that's the direction that we're headed in."
With Mattran out for the start of fall camp and possibly the start of the season, nobody really knows the direction this offensive line is headed. But we will see soon enough.
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