As we moved from the spring to the summer, from the off-season to training camp... and now into the harsh reality of game week, the fancy-free optimism of Stanford fans has somewhat cooled. The combination of youth and inexperience on defense looks to be an apocalyptic match-up against Oregon's spread offense, which by both talent and scheme could skewer Stanford into a Chainsaw Massacre-esque mess. Even if you buy the reasonable notion that the Cardinal offense will be the best seen in years, the margin is razor thin with dire depth at several positions and an offensive line that could spoil all the expected fun.
But more than all that, one dark cloud has been hanging over Cardinalmaniacs™ for more than a month: injuries. Every team has taken its lumps in August. That is the nature of everyday practices for three straight weeks during training camp, with more than a handful of double-day workouts tossed in. Stanford seems to have drawn more than its share of injuries, however, and more importantly cannot stomach losses when there are frightful depth chart holes behind the starters.
It's scary enough to walk into Autzen Stadium on Saturday carrying a knife to a gunfight. The Cardinal don't want to wield a spoon.
Stanford lost key players at every position on the offense during their fall camp, save fullback, and they were without a starter for extended periods at every other position save quarterback and offensive tackle. The defense lost its star player and only proven playmaker in senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo, out with a broken thumb until mid-to-late September, and missed several other players in the two-deep.
"Right now we have missed so much practice time because of health," comments head coach Walt Harris. "We started off camp banged up, but hopefully we hare healthier now than when we started camp."
Some of Stanford's misfortune this preseason was bad luck, but it was also a hard training camp. A hard camp, crafted by the Cardinal coaches by design.
"We've had a challenging training camp," Harris allows. "Our goal is to make it challenging so that our players grow together as a team, becoming more mentally and physically tough so that they can handle the competition of the Pac-10."
There is never intent for injuries to occur, but it was not unexpected for players to feel worn out toward the end of third weeks. Muscles ached mightily and juices were low for athletes conditioned to be explosive and agile. But last week, Harris and the staff started to pull back, again by design. We saw full practices in shorts for the first time since the NCAA's acclimatization period in the opening days. Sprints were scaled back or eliminated. Scrimmage mini-sessions were conducted without live contact. Two-a-days wrapped last Wednesday, coinciding with the Cardinal's final full scrimmage. Players had the last day of camp off, after a morning walk-through with some mock game situations.
Players since have regained the spring in their step, now practicing with a sharpness and energy that looks much more game-ready than what they showed the last half of camp.
"I think they feel better health-wise," Harris offers. "I think just the rest, cutting back practice and then having time off probably got us a fresh attitude and a fresh outlook. It's always a challenge to bring a team back. We don't want to be tired and worn out when we play on Saturday, so we have to be intelligent. We have been practicing for a long time."
"It's feeling much better now that we're scaling back on the rep's," echoes fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards. "It's just easier on me now that I haven't taken as many drops. My legs are a little bit fresher, and my mind is more in check with seeing things a lot better. That is only going to help me out here on Saturday. I'm very appreciative that we were able to tone it down a little bit before we actually hit the three-month season."
Edwards went for days at the start of camp without throwing any incompletion during the end-of-practice mini-scrimmages. His completion percentages were off the charts the first half of camp, including a sizzling first scrimmage. His accuracy waned the latter half, however, with fewer completions and a rise in interceptions - something he had not thrown previously in 2006 scrimmages (spring or fall). This week, Edwards looks like his old self.
"I sometimes take his accuracy for granted," Harris admits. "I think a fresh arm and his legs have helped him. I haven't seen him miss much this week."
That is good news for Stanford heading into the season opener this Saturday, but better still is the return of almost all the players who had been injured late in camp. The low-key close to last week after Wednesday's scrimmage, plus time off, has allowed the Cardinal to reclaim a surprising degree of health. Back this week in practices we have watched full participation from:
quarterback T.C. Ostrander (redshirt junior)
wide receiver Mark Bradford (senior)
wide receiver Richard Sherman (freshman)
tight end Matt Traverso (fifth-year senior)
running back Toby Gerhart (freshman)
left guard Josiah Vinson (fifth-year senior)
inside linebacker Pat Maynor (redshirt sophomore)
cornerback Nick Sanchez (redshirt junior)
nose tackle Mike Macellari (redshirt junior)
defensive end Tom McAndrew (redshirt freshman)
The last name deserves first comment. McAndrew was thought to be lost for the season, and maybe done for his football career, after nearly severing his big toe at the beginning of the summer. We were surprised to see the 6'5" defensive end jogging lightly the second week of camp, and then shocked to see him running conditioning sprints with the team soon thereafter. Late last week he was cleared for a full return, and the last two days we have seen him not only on the practice field but also taking extensive second team repetitions at both defensive end spots.
"It is a great job by the physical therapy people that work with our football players. And obviously a great job by him and our doctors," Harris praises.
This is nothing short of a miraculous turnaround for a player we thought at the beginning of the month maybe lost forever to Stanford Football. In just a few weeks, he appears to be preparing for game action on Saturday. It is a stunning and feel-good development for not only McAndrew and the defense, but for a team that has been besieged by injuries this preseason. In the end, it appears that his severed tendon did not perhaps deserve the doomsday prognosis delivered by doctors in Chicago. Regardless of the "how" and "why" in this medical mystery, the Stanford defensive line suddenly looks brighter for 2006 with the addition of McAndrew. His contributions this Saturday may be muted at best, but the regular season spans 14 weeks this fall, and he has plenty of time to get up to speed.
"It's good because when he gets bigger, we think he'll be a really good player for us down the road," Harris comments. "I'm ecstatic, and I think he'll turn out to be a good football player for us."
Maynor's return at inside linebacker is a welcome sight, given that he is the replacement for the injured Okwo. Stanford was practicing a pair of true freshmen last week at the inside 'backer positions while Maynor was out, and that was a frightening vision ahead of a 60-minute battle with Jonathan Stewart. Maynor ought to start this weekend. Both Nick Macaluso and Brian Bulcke may still travel as part of the limited Pac-10 travel roster, but the immediate emergency need to play one or both is now lessened.
Most of the other additions come at skill positions on offense. Ostrander twice this camp has strained his hamstring, and that set Stanford for a backup to Trent Edwards with no college game experience. Hamstrings are funny and unpredictable things, so we had no clue or confidence in predicting Ostrander's availability this weekend. He now looks like he is ready for action.
"He's just about back to 100 percent," Harris reports.
Should Edwards go down, and that news is a sigh of relief. Ostrander has seen extensive game action the last two years, including several extended relief appearances last fall when Edwards was knocked out. He has thrown close to 200 passes for nearly 1,500 yards - a giant leap ahead of the Cardinal's other quarterbacks.
Bradford did not play for most of Stanford's last two full scrimmages this preseason, and he was out of practice or in a yellow jersey on other days. Subtracting him from the field could be the single biggest hit Stanford could take on offense in 2006, but he looks like a "go" with his extended work both days so far this week. Sherman is deeper on the depth chart but a promising part of the Cardinal's offensive plans this fall. He started camp at a disadvantage with summer school overlapping the first two weeks, including practice time he missed with classes and final exams. Immediately following the end of the summer academic quarter, Sherman started putting together by far his best practices. Then he went down. Now he is back, and is repetitions yesterday with the offense were not trivial.
In the running game, we saw the return last week of redshirt junior Jason Evans, who missed much of camp but is now getting up to speed and rotating with redshirt sophomore starter Anthony Kimble. Another boost to the backfield this week has freshman Toby Gerhart back in action. He missed almost two weeks with a hamstring injury but took some light work on Friday and Saturday in a yellow jersey. Gerhart is out of that jersey and taking a rotating third with Kimble and Evans. He, like Sherman, missed a lot of time this camp but is being readied as part of Stanford's plans for this game.
Vinson is another player who missed most of camp, with a concussion (and then a second injury) in his case. He returned to practice Tuesday in a yellow jersey, taking some repetitions at left guard. Wednesday he was without the injury jersey and fully participated in offensive line work in full pads. He was thought to be the starter for Stanford at left guard, but fellow fifth-year senior Ismail Simpson has manned that spot in his absence. Vinson may not have the repetitions to reclaim the starting job for this weekend, and Simpson has 26 starts under his belt the last three years. Vinson could prove valuable on Saturday, however, even if he does not start. He would be a talented and experienced backup should injury befall either guard, and he also could be the answer if Simpson misfires and the coaches want to give a quick hook.
Other than Okwo, who was already declared "out" for at least this weekend after he broke his thumb, there is only one other major injury still unresolved on the roster. Fifth-year senior center Tim Mattran, who was the only offensive lineman named a 2006 starter after the conclusion of the 2005 season, has been in-and-out of practices this month with an ailing right leg. At first thought to be a stress fracture in his tibia, then later diagnosed anew as a stress reaction, Mattran missed the start of camp and then suddenly returned to action. He lasted just a few short days before apparently aggravating or reinjuring his leg. The 305-pound lineman has been out of practice since the second episode, walking with a boot and a crutch. Mattran ditched the crutch yesterday for the first time but came nowhere near the practice field.
The official depth chart released on Sunday listed Mattran as a co-starter at center along with redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher. Harris has said that if Mattran were to return, Fletcher would return to right guard, where fifth-year senior Jon Cochran has moved from tackle and taken the starting reins. However, Harris has said before that the team rule is that a player has to practice on Wednesday of game week in order to start that Saturday. Mattran did not practice yesterday, so we can today declare that Fletcher and Cochran will be starting at center and right guard, respectively, to open the season at Oregon. Moreover, the prospects for Mattran being able to play in any capacity this weekend look bleak. Harris this afternoon told The Bootleg that Mattran is "doubtful" for the game.
- Stanford has brought out sets of large loudspeakers this week which, along with a recorded football crowd soundtrack, have been used to simulate the noise that will be brought Saturday by Oregon fans at Autzen Stadium when Stanford has the ball on offense. Linemen may on occasion be jittery. The quarterback may need longer at the line of scrimmage to carefully communicate audibles. But the Cardinal offense, which is built mostly with veterans, appears prepared - at least, as much as they can be. "When the noise hits, even as old as I am, you can feel it," Harris says.
- Much is made about the difficulty of playing in Eugene for Stanford's opener, but keep in mind that crowd noise is a factor when the visiting offense takes the field. With the exception of two redshirt freshman tight ends and a true freshman tailback, the Cardinal offense is littered with players who have experienced college football on the road. Indeed, Stanford managed to go 4-1 on the road last season, and this year's offense is built almost entirely with the same personnel.
- A different factor now being discussed for Saturday's game is the forecasted heat, which could push into the 90's. Stanford has had mild weather on campus for most of this month, but Harris does not anticipate a differential effect of the heat on the two teams: "I think it will be hot on both sides of the field."
- One final question we keep asking as we draw near the 2006 season opener is which true freshmen will suit up and play for the Cardinal on Saturday. Walt Harris has shown us repeatedly in his two years at Stanford his proclivity against discussing freshmen, so it was no surprise that our effort asking him today again came up empty. He did admit to the probability of some playing, however, which is newsworthy given that Harris and the Cardinal played no true freshmen last year. "I know there is a chance that we will play some freshmen," he allows. "I think they'll have big butterflies."
- The leading candidates in this frosh class to play this fall and not redshirt continue to be nose tackle Sione Fua and running back Toby Gerhart. The practice repetitions we have seen for wide receivers Richard Sherman and Austin Yancy are serious enough that they appear possible, if not probable. Defensive end Levirt Griffin looked probable to play just a week ago, but the numbers game may be changed somewhat now that Tom McAndrew is coming back into playing form so quickly. Inside linebackers Nick Macaluso and Brian Bulcke are more remote still, though they could be one linebacker injury away from coming off the sideline on Saturday. If Stanford can keep from playing those two this week and maybe the next, Michael Okwo could return to the position group and create more comfort for the Cardinal.
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