If you hop into your recruiting time machine and travel to the summer of 2003, you may remember a young running back from Ohio with national recruiting interest who came to the Stanford overnight football camp. Ray Jones earned an offer from the Cardinal coaches in large part because of his strength, athleticism and versatility. After working him out on both sides of the ball (as is done with almost every recruit at camp), the offensive and defensive coaches felt that Jones had a chance to help the Cardinal at safety as well as running back.
Jones was soon offered, primarily as a running back, and that is where the 6'0" 218-pound athlete has played the last two-plus years on The Farm. His promise as a true freshman was bright enough that he was the lone player in his class to play that season and burn his redshirt.
But each time that depth issues on defense, particularly at safety, have cropped up for the Cardinal, some fans with a long memory of Jones' recruitment have revisited his original recruitment, evaluation and offer plans that included defense. There has also been a dearth of production at running back of late for Stanford, which has provided a case for keeping Jones in that competition. In this fall camp, Jones has been the one and only running back to stay healthy through every practice, and he ran for several days as the Cardinal's number one tailback. More than just a man atop his position chart, the redshirt sophomore has also been somewhat productive in scrimmages and moved the ball.
However, the landscape for Stanford Football changed this week. Standout senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo injured his hand Wednesday during the Cardinal's first full scrimmage of training camp. He has missed practices since, including both the morning and afternoon practices on Friday, when he had surgery. Head coach Walt Harris had no comment on the severity of the injury late Friday, nor a timeline for Okwo's return.
"I've not heard anything," Harris answers. "I haven't seen him yet today."
The sight of Jones playing Okwo's position (the "Mike" inside linebacker) on Friday spoke more than Harris could have said, however. Moving Jones, who is one of only two healthy tailbacks on the roster who has played in a college football game, so swiftly to inside linebacker implies that Okwo's absence will be more than days or even a couple weeks. There appears to be an urgency to plug that position in preparation for September football games.
"He played defense in high school, and with Okwo's injury, we're going to need some depth," explains defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff of Jones' position switch. "We think that he can contribute."
"He was a good high school defensive player. Coach Christoff recruited him and liked him on defense," Harris echoes. "He came to Coach Christoff and talked to him about it. We have to spread our athletes around, and that's probably his best chance to get playing time."
The question immediately on the minds of Cardinalmaniacs™ with this news of course: When will Okwo return? We will look for some official word from Harris after Saturday's scrimmage, and we will not offer conjecture before then. We will also save the impact analysis of Okwo's loss, which depends upon the length of his injury recovery, as well how quickly he will be his old playmaking self upon his return. For now, we can look at Jones' jump to inside linebacker, which is the biggest position switch news of this fall camp.
The nature of Jones' new position is a surprise by itself because of his high school playing experience, as well as his recruitment, at safety. Moreover, a 6'0" 218-pound athlete sounds much more like a safety than an inside linebacker. However, there are a few factors to consider why this might make sense. First, there is obviously the need. Safety has several able bodies right now, including three seniors across the two positions. Inside linebacker just became very inexperienced, with one senior at the "Ted" position and nobody else with any shred of significant defensive experience.
Second, Jones is close to Okwo's size. Any argument you might make about Jones being undersized for the position could be said for Okwo, and that has not been said for quite some time. Obviously Okwo proved to us through his playing and practice experience that he could be not only effective, but also potentially dominant, at linebacker despite his size. Jones has one day of inside linebacker practice experience, so maybe that parallel is premature. But Jones is similarly a strong player who excels and delights in the weight room. Both are aggressive athletes as well. Okwo has roughly 10 pounds on Jones, but that is not a world of difference and could be corrected in short order if the Cardinal coaches felt it important.
On that note, another player comparison of interest is Coy Wire. He moved from running back to defense and twice earned All Pac-10 honors in his two years at inside linebacker. Moreover, Wire was a small but powerful 6'1" and 218 pounds.
Finally, remember that Okwo's position is not the strongside inside linebacker. That is manned by fifth-year senior Mike Silva. Okwo's position plays on the weak side of the field, away from the tight end and the strength of the offense. The position still plays near the middle of the field and requires a powerful presence, but the "Mike" linebacker would typically be smaller and faster as compared to the "Ted" position.
The move also makes sense from Jones' perspective. While he was earlier this week the Cardinal's number two tailback (behind Anthony Kimble) in practices and the Wednesday scrimmage, early results this camp showed that freshman Toby Gerhart will be high in the running back rotation this fall. Gerhart took a step back this week with a hamstring injury, but when healthy he looked like a lock as Stanford's new number two, if not a challenger for the starting job. Additionally, redshirt junior Jason Evans has been out injured and could figure in the mix as one of the top two or three backs. Jones could have soon found himself running third or fourth on the depth chart.
At inside linebacker, Jones has an immediate opportunity as players compete for the now wide-open "Mike" position in Okwo's absence. Harris is correct in asserting that this move gives Jones a better chance to play. The question, though, is how soon he can move up the linebacker learning curve.
"Within the next two weeks, he should be able to contribute," Christoff boldly projects. "He's tough. He's strong. And he has a good sense for the ball, from the way we saw him on his high school film."
"He's in the mix," the coach comments. "We just line him up, tell him what to do and let him go to the ball."
Sounds simple. Replacing Okwo will not be, however. But Jones is a competitor who made this move to get onto the field and to help the Stanford team. We will watch him closely in the coming days, including extended opportunities in the upcoming scrimmages, to watch his progress at his new position.
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