Day Three: Ostrander Goes Out

Wednesday was a day we eagerly anticipated, with Stanford able to conduct its first practice of this preseason camp in shoulder pads. Ironically, the Cardinal could not protect against injury blows that struck three critical fifth-year seniors. Stanford Football took a step back on offense and defense Wednesday, with new questions at positions lacking depth and experience.

The third day of Stanford's preseason camp opened on a high note, with new installation on offense and a pair of players participating in individual drills who were out at the start of the week.  Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Chris Marinelli took some repetitions against air with the second-team offensive line, his first action of 2007 after having off-season shoulder surgery.  Marinelli started five games at right tackle for the Cardinal a year ago, and all are anxious for his return to bolster the competition and level of play at right tackle this fall.

Redshirt freshman Tyrone McGraw also took snaps during individual running back drills Wednesday.  The 5'9" speedster is not expected to surpass the presumptive top two at the tailback position, redshirt junior Anthony Kimble and sophomore Toby Gerhart, but he demonstrated in the spring a unique big play threat.  Adding McGraw to the mix will only make Stanford's offense more dangerous this fall.  He ran for 153 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries in the Spring Game before suffering an injury.  McGraw is returning from post-spring knee surgery (torn meniscus).

Marinelli and McGraw would be the first to say, however, that they would gladly trade their progress to avoid the sight that struck Stanford at 6:59pm on Wednesday.  Just a quarter of the way through the Cardinal's three-hour practice, fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander took himself out of practice with a sore hamstring.  During a one-on-one passing drill with the wide receivers and defensive backs, Ostrander motioned to the trainers on the sideline and patted his right hamstring.  After a few minutes of conference, the quarterback left the field for the training room.  He returned toward the end of practice in street clothes.

Though this is the first public incident this camp of Ostrander's ailing hamstring, he says that it has been an ongoing issue.  He hopes his careful handing of his hamstring will keep it from becoming a serious problem.

"I've been kind of nursing it.  I've had little twinges here and there this whole summer," the quarterback reveals.  "Now I'm trying to be safe with it - be careful and make sure I don't do anything like last year, where I pulled it and had to sit out for a week of camp."

"It just felt tight, and it didn't really warm up," Ostrander elaborates on Wednesday's incident.  "I talked to Coach Harbaugh about it, and we decided to make sure it gets better and make sure it gets healthy before I come back out here and really go...  There was some pain there, but it was mostly precautionary.  I know that I could have practiced, but I wouldn't have been getting everything out of practice I could have."

Stanford's starting quarterback spent most of the remainder of the evening practice in the training room receiving treatment on his right hamstring, including electrical stimulation.

"Right now there is some scar tissue that's built up, and they're trying to break that away," Ostrander explains.  "Once that's gone, it should be good to go."

Head coach Jim Harbaugh was noncommittal on his quarterback's prognosis for upcoming practices.  Ostrander however is aiming to return to the practice field tonight at 7:00pm, when the Cardinal conduct their fourth straight evening practice in the first four days of camp.

"I'm expecting to practice tomorrow," Ostrander offered as he walked off the field last night.  "We'll see how it feels tomorrow, and nothing is for sure.  But I want to get back on the field."

If there is a silver lining to Stanford seeing their starting quarterback leave practice, it is the opportunity afforded to the pair of youngsters behind Ostrander who have one combined collegiate passing attempt between them.  Redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard and redshirt freshman Alex Loukas dominated the quarterback snaps the remainder of practice and enjoyed their heaviest work since arriving at Stanford.  The duo emerged from the spring in a dead heat for the backup job, and they rotated equal repetitions Wednesday evening.  Harbaugh maintains that neither has yet edged ahead of the other with their early showings this camp.

"They both have made improvements since the spring," the head coach comments.  "But they're still a ways to go, to get to the Pac-10 level."

"It's a process of consistency and running the football team," Harbaugh says.  "I'm glad that they got those reps.  But you'd like to see more consistently good plays.  There were flashes of really good, and there were some not-so-good.  Like I told Alex, not every play is going to be a great play.  You will make mistakes.  Go in, learn from those mistakes and make this where you don't make them again."

Both players look stronger and more confident this fall than they showed in the spring, but both are leagues behind Ostrander in their command of the offense and in their consistency.  Some of the brighter highlights Wednesday came from the arm of Pritchard, who at least thrice connected on deep passing plays that hit his target on the money.

"I think I responded well," Pritchard offers.  "Everyone is getting chances in there.  It's early in camp, and Coach is trying to get guys reps.  I think everyone is doing a good job when they get the opportunity of showing what they know.  That's the biggest thing right now early in camp - just showing how much you've learned over the summer.  We worked hard out here this summer on 7-on-7."

"I feel like we're getting better as an offense," he continues.  "Everybody is picking it up better.  Coach Harbaugh and his staff are doing a good job of getting stuff out of meetings and helping us get the offense down.  I feel feel like everybody is starting to pick it up better.  We had some focus problems today, but overall, a lot of guys are doing better picking it up."

Ostrander's control of his hamstring injury offers confidence that his absence is temporary, and the added work for Pritchard and Loukas can be seen as a silver lining.  There was nothing redeeming, however, from a more serious injury that transpired later in practice.  Fifth-year senior cornerback Tim Sims went down to the ground with an apparent reinjury of his hamstring, while defending a passing play on the sideline.  Sims' body language spoke louder than words regarding the severity of the injury.  He tore off his helmet and pounded the ground - not necessarily in pain, but rather in violent upset and frustration.

Sims missed the entire spring with a hamstring problem, and only in July was he able to start to work his way back into playing form.  It was a grand victory for him to start this preseason camp in full participatory capacity, but that lasted less than three practices.

"I think that's more serious," Harbaugh grimly comments on Sims' hamstring injury.  "We haven't had him really all off-season.  It's been a nagging thing for him.  Hamstrings can be that way."

Sims is the last of Stanford's three veteran cornerbacks to fall to injury in the last week.  Classmate Nick Sanchez has also been battling a hamstring injury, and he has been held out of all practices this camp.  Redshirt junior Wopamo Osaisai suffered a knee injury on Monday and has been out the past two days.  The trio have combined for 29 starts and are the strength of Stanford's defensive backfield in 2007.  The rest of the cornerback corps have zero collegiate starts and scant game experience on defense.

With that threesome wiped off the practice field, it is a bunch of fresh young faces manning the two-deep at cornerback for the Cardinal.  Redshirt sophomores Chris Hobbs and Kris Evans ran with the first-team defense after Sims' injury (Evans had been second-team and was the one promoted following the injury).  The second unit has true freshman Corey Gatewood and walk-on redshirt sophomore C.J. Easter.

Hobbs deserves mention for his playmaking so far this camp.  He surprised and impressed us in the spring when he worked at wide receiver, an experimental position switch, which was reversed late in the spring after a serious of defensive injuries.  The 5'9" athlete is small in stature but plays aggressive, confident football in coverage.  He has been a pleasant surprise again this camp, and he is making the most of his opportunities while the veterans are sidelined.

One final injury blow to the fifth-year senior class on Wednesday came from an MRI diagnosis of a hip problem that has been bothering starting fullback Emeka Nnoli.  The starter for Stanford in 10 games last year, Nnoli has apparently been playing with a pain for some time.  Only at his pre-camp physical did he reveal that he felt a problem, and the doctors ordered an MRI examination.

Nnoli missed his third straight day of fall camp on Wednesday, though more notable was the sight of his walking with a pair of crutches.   No diagnosis of the ailment was given by Harbaugh after practice.  Only an ominous comment from his head coach.

"It doesn't look good right now," Harbaugh says.  "But we want to wait until Friday, when we get it read again by a specialist."

The depth behind Nnoli at fullback is arguably even less experienced than the green groups at quarterback and cornerback behind those injured veterans.  Redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger has not only not played in a college football game, but he also newly switched to fullback from linebacker this year.  He took the lead in repetitions on Wednesday.  We saw true freshman Owen Marecic take the next most repetitions, followed by redshirt sophomore Josh Catron.

"Owen is doing a good job," Harbaugh offers of the freshman, who has turned heads in his first practices on The Farm.

Harbaugh also says that the Cardinal will explore personnel outside the current fullback depth chart, if Nnoli's medical status on Friday confirms that he will be on the shelf.  One strong possibility is redshirt sophomore tight end Ben Ladner, who has looked excellent in the spring, summer and fall.  The 6'3" 250-pounder is in the best shape of his life and is demonstrating his best football since coming to Stanford.  The bittersweet element of moving him to fullback is that he came alive this spring once he left that position and switched to tight end.

Other News & Notes:

*  The third practice of this preseason camp meant that shoulder pads could be worn for the first time, per NCAA guidelines.  That afforded a higher level of contact and physical play, which naturally gave us a better look at the running game than we had seen the first two days.  To no surprise, the king of the crop is redshirt junior Anthony Kimble.  His speed and elusiveness not only helps him make defenders miss, but he also showed explosiveness out of cuts that broke big gains out of nothing.  One particularly memorable play he took to the left quickly made a 90-degree turn, and Kimble darted on an angle to the right sideline and beat the entire defense for a long touchdown.

*  It was an inconsistent day for fifth-year senior Derek Belch in his field goal work.  He put several balls wide left, worse than any day he demonstrated all of last spring.

*  Belch later had a chance to try his leg on kickoffs, which were practiced for the first time this camp.  Keep in mind that the NCAA has for the second straight year changed the rules to the disadvantage kickers.  In 2006 they lowered the tee from two inches to one.  This year they have moved the kickoff back five yards.  Belch hit balls with good direction, on average to the 10-yardline (plus or minus a few yards).  Also interesting were the candidates back for kickoff return duty, which remains an open question for the Stanford special teams.  The first four we saw back there were Anthony Kimble, Toby Gerhart, fifth-year senior Jason Evans and true freshman Jeremy Stewart.

*  Sophomore wide receiver Richard Sherman had a bad day of dropped passes, which visibly disgusted and frustrated him.  The athletic but temperamental 6'3" speedster is still a raw talent, who can be limited by his own maturity.  Those drops were a matter of focus, and we'll be watching Sherman throughout camp to see how he handles himself.  As a true freshman, he led Stanford in receiving a year ago, but that opportunity was afforded by the injuries to Evan Moore and Mark Bradford.  Both players are healthy and fifth-year seniors today, which drastically changes the numbers game for Sherman this year.

*  Following his illness on Tuesday, sophomore defensive tackle Levirt Griffin returned to the practice field Wednesday evening.  With the time he missed, Griffin was employed on the second-team defense, alongside redshirt sophomore Matt Kopa in the defensive line interior.  Redshirt junior Gustav Rydstedt is taking Griffin's place on the first unit, playing alongside fifth-year senior Chris Horn.

*  Who is the most unknown name to Cardinal fans on the two-deep so far in this camp?  Look to the safety corps, where walk-on redshirt freshman Jerome Jackson has held down those duties alongside redshirt junior Thaddeus Chase.  Chase is a player who has a good deal of special teams experience, and one of the most improved defensive players we saw in the spring.  But Jackson has emerged from relative obscurity, and he has held off some better known names the last couple days.

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