Depending on how you took last night's news, today may be either depressing or a relief for Stanford Football fans. Senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo injured his hand Wednesday during the team's scrimmage, and Friday he had surgery. Redshirt sophomore Ray Jones that same day was moved from running back to Okwo's position, which hinted at an extended timeframe for Okwo's recovery - perhaps missing some extended action during this fall season.
Today we learned more details of the injury, as well as the prognosis for the explosive playmaker's return.
"He has a broken bone in his thumb and had surgery [late Friday]," reports Cardinal head coach Walt Harris. "We hope to have him back in three to four weeks."
It takes only a quick look at the calendar and the 2006 Stanford season schedule to calculate that Okwo will miss at least the Cardinal's season opener. Harris confirms that disappointing revelation:
"I think that Oregon is very doubtful," the coach corroborates. "He's out."
The good news, if you feared the worst, is that Okwo might not miss games beyond the opener in Eugene. Three weeks from yesterday's surgery would be the eve of the next game, at San Jose State. If Okwo does not play against the Spartans, his prospects sound favorable for the highly anticipated home opener on September 16 against Navy. Okwo is expected to play at first with a hard cast and later a soft cast.
"He'll be 100 percent from the upper body down, but not with his hands," Harris offers. "It will affect his tackling some."
While Cardinalmaniacs™ are swiftly drowning in the sorrows if this most devastating injury news, during a resoundingly debilitating training camp, the most dejected person today ought to be Okwo. Not only is this a sorrowful start to his swan song season at Stanford, it is the second straight year significantly marred by injury. Okwo suffered a high ankle sprain last year during the Oregon game, and never returned to the starting lineup or his full form the remaining eight games of the season. Harris however says that the upbeat senior student-athlete is keeping his chin up after this most recent calamity.
"His spirits are good," the Cardinal coach comments. "Mike is a great guy. He's very mature - a philosophy major. Real smart. He's going to play a lot of football for a long time. He's a really good athlete. That's a big loss for Stanford."
"I feel for all of us, honestly," Harris adds. "In our mind, he is our most productive defensive player. With all the graduation and losing all the good players that we had last year, you hate to lose him."
Today also marked Stanford's second full scrimmage of this camp, and the defense did move on without Okwo. In his place at the "Mike" inside linebacker position on the first team defense was redshirt sophomore Pat Maynor. The hard-hitting youngster showed flashes on special teams last year but is starved for defensive experience, not unlike Okwo's early Cardinal career. Previously considered a prospect who could provide depth, Maynor is now front and center, with the expectation and need to mature.
"He's a scrappy guy who wants to stick it up in there and tackle people. He'll rise to the occasion," Harris says confidently, though there are challenges for the youngster to meet. "To execute what he has been asked to do. Footwork. Taking on blocks. Defeating blocks. And then tackling well."
The second team linebacker at Okwo's position today was freshman Nick Macaluso, who has seen a great deal of playing time in practices as well as both scrimmages this week. Though it may appear that Macaluso has stumbled into that opportunity with Okwo's injury, he was already seeing a rapid rise in his repetitions earlier in the week. The freshman in practices has been one of the top performers in his class and a quiet surprise, though he took a step back when put to the test of Wednesday's extended scrimmage. Macaluso's pass coverage has been a strength, but his reads and run support have been erratic. He now has the opportunity to rally and still fight for playing time this year.
Seeing some time behind Macaluso today was Stanford's latest linebacker, the newly converted Jones. He had only one day of practice at his new position Friday before this scrimmage. Jones last played defense four years as a high school senior at the Columbus Academy in Gahanna, Ohio. His transition will take some time, but he and the Cardinal coaches are both beaming about the possibilities.
"Ray Jones is new playing there," Harris says. "We'll reevaluate and see how he is doing. But he's excited about it, and we're excited about anybody who wants to do it."
The Okwo injury news may curtail most Cardinal excitement for now, but these things are a fact of life in football. Players go down, and new players have to step up. While we wait for the senior standout to return, it will be interesting to watch the development and competition for Maynor, Macaluso and Jones in the remaining practices of this fall camp. Stay tuned to The Bootleg for this and all the latest with Stanford Football in the coming days and weeks.
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