Cardinal Losing Linebackers

One of the doomsday scenarios Stanford fans did not want to face this fall was the loss of quarterback Trent Edwards. But what happens with the Cardinal defense loses its "quarterbacks?" Walt Harris says we need look no further than last Saturday's game in Eugene. There were problems a-plenty, but playing without two senior linebackers packed a punch that was felt throughout the defense.

Stanford knew coming into the 2006 season that they would be young on defense, with only a smattering of experienced and proven players.  That veteran nucleus took a hit in August when senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo broke the thumb on his right hand.  Already disadvantaged sans Okwo for their season opener last Saturday at Oregon, the Cardinal took a second big hit in the middle of the defense.  Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Mike Silva, who should be playing alongside Okwo as a talented tandem, spent the second half of the game in Eugene (Ore.) on the sideline.

Silva proved himself an impact player both of the last two seasons for Stanford.  He was one of the Cardinal's most valuable defensive reserves and a standout special teams player in 2004, and then he was called into the starting lineup versus USC when David Bergeron was suspended.  Silva recorded a sack and an interception in what was nearly the upset of the decade for the Cardinal.  Then as a redshirt junior in 2005, he started eight games and notched 57 tackles.

Again Silva snared an interception that season, this time running it back for a touchdown, against Arizona State.  However, later in that game the Stanford inside linebacker was pursuing a Sun Devils ballcarrier on a sweep that cut back to the inside.  Silva followed and cut back, only to meet head on with a horrific collision with a pile of friends and foes.

"I think that sparked it all," Silva says.  "Ever since then, I've been getting headaches."

"I've been having migraines my whole life.  I just thought everybody had headaches," the fifth-year senior explains.  "I've always had this predisposition to getting migraine headaches.  I guess playing a couple years of college football exacerbated it and made it worse."

His migraines since last fall have been so problematic for his playing football that Silva sat out all contact work during the spring.  He has been given a new helmet, designed specially to give extra cushion.  The Cardinal also furnished a new, thicker mouthpiece to help protect against concussions.

Not only do collisions present a problem for Silva and his migraines, but additional activities that go along with practices and games can contribute.  He says that there are a wide range of "triggers" that differ from person to person in bringing on migraines, and his include elements such as bright light, certain foods and certain conditioning or lifting exercises.  He has continued to learn about his triggers and strived to manage them and his condition, while also working with the Stanford doctors in finding the right medicine and dosages to help him.

"It's basically day-to-day," he says of the migraines.  "I can't predict."

Silva certainly did not predict that he would have a problem finishing his first football game of the 2006 season.  He spent a good deal of the game with his helmet off, and afterward he had a "foggy" look.

While Walt Harris did not yesterday specify Silva's migraine difficulty yesterday when we asked the Cardinal head coach, he has spoken openly this fall about the issue for his fifth-year senior inside linebacker.  Tuesday, Harris expressed renewed caution and concern.

"I think Mike has a real challenge because of his health issues," the coach comments.  "We are very protective of him.  For sure, we would treat it no other way.

"He has some health problems, and right now, we're going to have to prepare as if he can't play - only in a backup role," Harris adds.

With the additional news from Harris that Okwo is out again this week for Stanford's game at San Jose State, there is cause for concern.  The depth chart at Okwo's position (the "Mike" linebacker in the Stanford defense) played redshirt sophomore Pat Maynor in a starting role, backed up by true freshman Nick Macaluso.  At Silva's position (the "Ted" linebacker), the Cardinal turn to redshirt freshman Fred Campbell and true freshman Brian Bulcke.

The experience behind Silva looks frightful on paper, but is even thinner than it appears.  Campbell missed much of his redshirt season recovering from a spiral fracture in his ankle, while Bulcke played defensive line in Canada and only midway through his training camp last month was suddenly moved to inside linebacker.  It was a startling sight to behold Bulcke on the field in the fourth quarter at Autzen Stadium, but Silva's condition casts great doubt over how much football the fifth-year senior can play this year.  Campbell is not experienced and likely ill-equipped to play continuously through an entire college football game, which mandates playing a significant amount of his backup.

Hence we saw Bulcke's redshirt burned Saturday, rather than his classmate Macaluso.  Bulcke is third at his position on Stanford's depth chart, while Macaluso was listed second last week and again again this week.  However, the prognosis going forward this season would reverse those roles.  Okwo should soon return, while Silva could be often on the shelf.

The future may be bright for these young players.  Bulcke runs shockingly well for his size (260 pounds) and is a good athlete.  Macaluso is also a nice athlete with range and playmaking potential.  Maynor plays with a white-hot motor and hits ferociously, when he makes the right read and angle.  We are just this fall starting to see what Campbell may be able to do, now that he is recovering both conditioning and his football ability.  Maynor made six tackles on Saturday, while Campbell notched three in his college football debut, including a superb tackle for loss.

But the defense had a dismal day overall, missing Okwo and Silva terribly.  Not only are they more experienced and accomplished playmakers, but also the senior starting duo can be counted upon to make the calls that set the Stanford linebacking corps and front seven before each play.  A great failure for the Cardinal defense at Oregon was the number of times they missed calls and/or aligned themselves incorrectly.  What fans witnessed was an Oregon offense evading tackles and finding open space too easily.  What coaches saw was a young defense playing consistently out of position.

"The quarterbacks of your defense are your linebackers," Harris explains.  "It sounds like an excuse, but it's just a a statement of fact.  It's hard when your quarterbacks of your defense aren't out there."

"Just like if we had a redshirt freshman playing quarterback, there would be some things happening out there you would see that need to be tightened up," the coach continues.  "Well, it's the same thing at linebacker.  They get everybody lined up right.  I think that happened a lot of times - that we were not able to do that.  We don't know whether they were that much better than us, or we were not very good."

"We were pretty solid, but there were a lot of situations that came up where people just didn't know how to line up.  That threw us off - not knowing how to line up or how to make the right checks," echoes redshirt freshman nose tackle Ekom Udofia.  "We have such a young defense and a lot of young linebackers.  Not having Okwo there hurt.  I think Okwo would have made a huge difference in getting us lined up right."

"We'll look forward to getting him back on 'D' because we definitely need him out there," says fifth-year senior free David Lofton about Silva.

Harris has no updated timeline for Okwo's return to action.  He has yet to don pads and partake in any portion of a football practice since his August 16 injury and surgery on the 18th.  The Cardinal head coach calls the injury recovery progress "solid - not great, but solid."  His original schedule had him returning to practice at the end of this week or beginning of the next.

Silva also surprised us by practicing a good deal Tuesday.  He did took repetitions with the defense against the scout offense in preparation of the coming game at San Jose State.  Silva did not, however, join the first team defense at the end of practice when they scrimmaged briefly against the first team offense.

As he has said before, his condition will be "day-to-day" for the foreseeable future.  Maybe he and the Cardinal will catch a break, and Silva will be able to play the length of a football game this fall.  Or two or three or more.  But given his history and the most recent evidence in Eugene, we join Walt Harris with a sad cloak of pessimism.  Silva and Stanford deserve better, but it could be a difficult fall for both him and the defense.

An injured Michael Okwo still can help, instructing young Brian Bulcke and Fred Campbell in extensive sessions during Tuesday's practice at Stanford.

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