You can see it on our front page and throughout the website this month. We like Michael Okwo. We think a lot of him. In fact, we think so much of him that we put him onto the cover of the upcoming October issue of The Bootleg Magazine, despite shattering his right thumb during training camp and missing the start of this season.
That makes today such an exciting day to watch the Stanford defense, despite their shop-of-horrors work to date on Saturdays. You know well by now that the Cardinal rank dead last (and by a wide margin behind the next worst team) in Division I-A football against the run, and we suspect that they will not fare terribly well once they face a true downfield passing offense in the coming weeks.
But today marks the 2006 debut for Okwo on the football field. He still has his right hand in a huge cast, which will be hard to miss with an additional layer of padding wrapped around it. Okwo previously had pins in his thumb, helping to set it because it was shattered so badly. Once the pins were taken out, he was been able to resume physical activity. It was out of the question for several weeks that he could do any type of exertion that would make him sweat, but the day that the last pin was removed, he went to strength & conditioning coach Ron Forbes and ran a couple miles. He resumed agility drills and weightlifting with his lower body and the left side of his upper body.
He is not a two-armed football player quite yet. Okwo will have this cast a couple more weeks, to continue stabilizing the thumb as it finishes healing. It may be the UCLA or Notre Dame game before he can play with two hands, but a one-armed Okwo is better than most healthy players.
"We've missed him a lot for several reasons," explains fifth-year senior strong safety Trevor Hooper. "One is that he is quite a leader. He plays with a lot of passion and a lot of fire, which inspires the younger guys. We want him out there for that reason. And then he is a phenomenal football player. He has great instincts, especially in the run game. He can read blockers really well and get back in the backfield to make a play before it even starts. We have kind of missed those instincts and that natural football playmaking that he has. We're looking forward to seeing him back on the field - absolutely."
"He's one of our best players," says head coach Walt Harris. "It makes us a better team when he is playing up to the level that he is capable."
There is then the question of how capable he will be today. The first-game rust that everyone else on the field shook off two weeks ago will be twice as thick for Okwo, who only in the last few days put on football pads for the first time in a month. His conditioning is also nowhere near what it should be, given the weeks he could neither lift nor run, and that is critical for a player whose playmaking ability is predicated upon his extraordinary explosiveness. We will have to wait a few weeks for him to regain both of those areas, and then a couple more to catch the right side of his upper body with the rest of him.
"I have to rebuild strength in my arm, and I'm sure my wrist will be weakened because it has been stabilized for so long," he explains. It may take a little while to get that back, but I don't think it will be anything that will hinder my progress significantly."
Okwo also admits that there is also a split-second of hesitation when he meets a ballcarrier or a blocker ("There is a little bit of that right now"). He is an incredibly instinctual player, which makes his football speed even faster than his 40 time. He has the best reactions on the Stanford defense, but they could be mitigated if he cannot wrap up or shed blockers like his usual self.
"I'm really mostly worried about taking on linemen coming out to me," Okwo admits. "I know that I cannot use my hands like I want, since I don't really have any wrist. But we're playing a team that cuts, which is good for me and a plus."
The Navy game may be as good as any on the remaining schedule for Stanford to have the senior linebacker return. Those cut blocks mean that he does not have to engage blockers with his fists as often. The predominance of the running in their offense (121 rushes versus 13 passes in 2006) means that Okwo has narrower focus in reading his keys.
Indeed, Okwo had one of his best games in 2005 at Navy. He made 1.5 tackles for loss and five solo tackles, both second-best for him that year.
"I think he can have a huge impact, just his speed and athletic ability in the middle," offers fifth-year senior free safety David Lofton. "He is probably our best defensive playmaker. I'm looking forward to getting him back and seeing what he can do out on the field. He had a great game against Navy last year and had some big hits, so I look forward to him utilizing his talents out there."
Teammates' eyes light up at the mention of their senior linebacker, but the most visible excitement comes from Okwo. Watching the last couple of games has been sheer agony for the playmaker. He is not only the defense's best talent, but he also is more sound and knowledgeable than any other player in the front seven. If you think it was painful for you as the lay fan to watch the Stanford sieve at Oregon and at San Jose State, imagine what it was like for him to see so clearly all that was going wrong on each and every play.
"Especially since I know everything that is going on on defense," he says. "I'm watching each player and reading the offensive line. I'm looking at the linebackers and looking at the quarterback. I'm looking at the routes. There is only so much that you can see with the vantage they give you."
It hurt not only to see the failures, but watching those games also forced him to reflect upon the things he will have to do at a higher level to not fail.
"I told all the guys - it really hurts me to see my defense performing sub-par," Okwo explains. "It really hurts. It really says something I think about the players before and what they left to the younger guys. I definitely question that everyday - whether or not I have put in enough to make sure that all the players on my team play as well as they can. I put a lot of it on me. I think there are a lot of things that I didn't cover well, and I'm definitely trying to get that into the players. Hopefully they will start to come around like it's their game."
Taking a more positive perspective, Okwo expects that any added playmaking he can bring back to the defense will help ignite his teammates. There needs to be fire and excitement, rather than defeat.
"There is nothing that gets me more fired up than players out there having a ball and making tackles," he says. "Hopefully I can contribute some of that, so that players can feed off of that and get a little swagger in them."
Considering just how frightfully young the front seven is on this Stanford defense, with eight true or redshirt freshmen starting or rotating in the two-deep, a little swagger sure could go a long way.
"I think the defensive linemen are doing a pretty sound job, plugging up the gaps. I think that we're a little shaky in the 'backers," Okwo adds. "We need to coordinate a little bit better with each other and make sure that we work together. We need to become more sound in our keys. Sometimes we have some young guys in there who haven't played much - Pat Maynor, Brian Bulcke and Fred Campbell. This is their first college experience. Getting their eyes and making sure they know what other people are doing - it's kind of difficult. We're going to start building that, and that comes with repetitions and being out there a lot."
The coaches have commented after each of the last two games their disappointment in defensive players out of position. The players, to a man, have all echoed the failure. Part of the problem is the lack of leadership expected to come from Okwo in orchestrating the front seven before each snap. Having that back, and all the leadership that he brings, could be as important as his physical abilities to this young defense.
"I think it will give us a veteran in the huddle," Harris offers. "I think it will give us a good player, but he hasn't played football for a long time. This is a game that a lot of outstanding players get nullified because of the way that Navy plays, but we're way more excited about the fact that he could play than we were last week when we knew he couldn't play."
But teammates say that they cannot use Okwo as a crutch. He will help, and he probably (we're tempted to say 'definitely') would have been the difference in Stanford's one-point loss last week. Can he alone cure what ails this defense?
"No. It's about a team and about team defense," Hooper answers. "No individual player is a reason for our failures this season. No individual player is responsible for our run game. It's been a team defense. He is going to help us, no doubt, but it's about the team defense and he will contribute."
"The senior leadership might play a small part, but still, guys need to know what to do at every position," Lofton declares. "If you are getting it done in practice, there is no reason to not get it done during the game. That goes for every position. I don't know what it is, but it seems like we are not executing the way that we have been doing in practice. Toward the end of camp, I thought that we were executing great. At every position, I was really positive about what was going on. I don't know what happened come gametime. Guys started being out of place, not taking the right steps and being out of the gaps. Hopefully we will have that fixed. We're going to have to have that fixed because to stop the Navy offense, we're all going to have to execute our assignments and play within our assignments."
If Okwo hurt watching the last two games, that cannot approach the embarrassment and fury for his teammates that were on the field. At some point you get angry and pissed enough that you say, 'Enough,' and fix things. The seniors on the defense are already at that point.
"It's definitely a pride issue," Lofton allows. "This weekend is a huge opportunity for us to prove that we can stop the run. I know we can, and that's what we're going out to show everyone this weekend."
The defense of course is not alone in hurting over the last two weeks' losses. While the Stanford defense has lifted the team much of the last two years, keeping them in and winning games the offense otherwise did not deserve, the roles have been reversed this year. The offense now is on the rise while the defense suffers. That means some of the biggest fans this week of Okwo's return are on the other side of the ball.
Navy has shown that they can chew up massive amounts of clock with their triple-option running game. Coupled with the new NCAA rules that speed up the game, there are choice few offensive opportunities when playing against the Mids. If Okwo and his ignited defense could make some stops or turnovers to hand the ball to the offense couple extra times, that would greatly help the Cardinal's chances today. That is why Trent Edwards smiled as widely as anybody this week when asked about his excitement with Okwo's return.
"Absolutely," Edwards answers. "He is a type of guy who makes people around him better. It's just his way he approaches the game and the way he plays the game of football."
"If I was a defensive player and saw him make a tackle in the backfield, or take on a guard's block and beat him to the quarterback," the fifth-year senior quarterback continues, "I would want to play a little bit harder. I would want to know my assignment a little bit more, just based on having that type of player on my defense. I think that is what it's going to do for the other 10 guys."
That is what Edwards and teammates hope Okwo is going to do for the Cardinal today. The realities of his limitations today, coupled with the challenges across the defense and brought by a fast-hitting Navy option offense, leave us unsure that the Stanford senior can be a savior all by himself. But he certainly brings hope and excitement, which are the words of the day as we experience the opening of the home schedule and the new Stanford Stadium. There is much more anticipation and electricity for tonight's game than an 0-2 team ought to offer, which says something about Okwo and about the possibilities that await the Cardinal.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!