All eyes for Stanford Football are once again focused on the offensive line in 2007. The Cardinal want to rekindle their longstanding tradition of a high-powered and exciting offense, but none of that can happen without protection and production from the front five.
Narrowing the focus further, it is right tackle and left guard where Stanford feels uncertainty just weeks before the start of the season. For that reason, it was an important event that redshirt sophomore right tackle Chris Marinelli late Saturday took his first repetitions of one-on-one practice work since the end of the 2006 season. Even more exciting was the sight of Marinelli taking team repetitions during Sunday's practice - with the first-team offense, no less.
The animated chatter from fans, coaches and teammates could not compare however to the exuberance Marinelli felt to take a meaningful part in practice with his teammates, after watching from the sideline for nearly nine months.
"It's really exciting to get back out here," Marinelli says. "It's the worst thing in the world to sit and watch, especially coming from the style of football I play. It's not about doing everything right; it's about playing as hard as you can all the time. So it's really tough to sit out and watch this. This is unbelievable to get back. The first day back - just unbelievable. I love it."
Marinelli had off-season shoulder surgery in the winter and has been working since to rehabilitate and strengthen his left shoulder.
"I'm 100 percent healthy," he exclaims. "The doctors cleared me. The strength staff has cleared me. The physical therapists have cleared me. Now it's just about getting the rust off - playing low, getting my hands right, getting my mind right and getting in my playbook. This is what it's all about. It's a lot of fun to be out here, going against guys like Erik Lorig. This is the best thing in the world. It's great to be back."
Simply being on the field again is not a guarantee for Marinelli, however, that he is ready to answer Stanford's needs at right tackle. The 6'7" 295-pound blocker has months of rust to shake off, plus improvements to make upon his redshirt frosh performance.
"Getting low is always the number one thing in football," he offers. "I also have to get my hands right. I have that really good punch when I get it right, so I'm just getting it back. And trusting my left shoulder - trusting that it's healthy, trusting that the doctors got it back and trusting that the trainers got it back."
Watching Marinelli his first couple of practices back, you can see the adjustments he is having to make after being out of the game all year. One improvement already from Saturday to Sunday appeared to be in the forcefulness of his punch when engaging a defender.
"I have 100 percent confidence in my punch," Marinelli maintains. "It's about the timing and getting back to game speed. Guys are fast at this level. I've been doing a lot of half-speed reps with Coach [Shannon] Turley and the younger guys. Going up against those big, strong guys is all about the timing. I feel like I got a lot of good punches today."
"On the same note, I had a lot of terrible plays," he adds. "That's just the way it is. You have to keep getting better every day, and it'll be great."
If Marinelli does improve and can win the right tackle starting job, what will he bring to the position and to Stanford's offensive line?
"Just an unbelievable level of physicality," he snarls. "It's that punch. The whole atmosphere. It's a mean right side, with me and Fletch. I promise you that... When I'm out there, it's a new level of physicality and intensity, just like it is with Fletch. The two of us together are tough to beat, when we're on the same page."
"That's the main thing," Marinelli continues. "I might not always get it right. I might not always do it the best. But I will always do it the hardest. And I make sure it hurts, when I do."
Just 19 days remain until Stanford's season opener, at home against UCLA. Sometime before then, the battle between Marinelli redshirt junior Ben Muth should yield a winner for the right tackle starting spot.
"My plan is to keep getting out here and busting my ass playing," Marinelli says. "I've already done a lot of tape. I have those D-ends in my mind; I have those linebackers in my mind. I have that whole D-line in my mind at UCLA. My main goal right now is to come out and challenge Benny for the spot. You know, it's Benny's spot right now. He's playing really well - the best I've ever seen him play. He's playing really physical. I'm just going to come out here and push him, challenge him. The best player will get the spot."
"Other than that, I'll be ready to play UCLA," he adds. "We knew all along that it would be a matter of time and how quick I came back in camp. But we knew I would be ready to play. Now the best player will play, whether it's me, Benny, Allen [Smith] or whoever. And they will play furiously."
Other News & Notes
* Just 18 hours after he was driven off the practice field by an ambulance, redshirt junior nose tackle Gustav Rydstedt was walking the sidelines Sunday and flashing a few smiles. Late in Saturday's evening practice, the Swede was knocked unconscious by a hit during a live scrimmage period, laying motionless on the field for some time. He regained consciousness and thankfully was found at the Stanford Medical Center to have suffered no worse than a concussion from the incident.
"I'm pretty tired, and I have a headache," Rydstedt says. "I can't remember much that happened."
"It was eerie," says head coach Jim Harbaugh of Saturday night's scary scene. "I was really amazed at the way our trainer handled things, and the job by the doctors at the Stanford Emergency. It was just top shelf. He got a CAT last night, and everything was normal with his neck and his brain. That was tremendous news. He has some symptoms today, and we'll have to wait until those are completely calmed down."
Rydstedt has a well-deserved reputation on the team as one of the top tough guys, playing without complaints through any array of injuries. We can remember three years ago, when Rydstedt as a new freshman on The Farm suffered his first injury at Stanford. He was disgusted and fought against the yellow jersey that the trainers ordered him to wear the next practice, signaling no contact drills. Coming back from a concussion is serious business, however, and nobody wants to see Rydstedt play the part of the tough guy too soon.
"When you're dealing with the head, the heart or the back, those are just things you don't play through. We just explain that to him," says Harbaugh. "'Goose' is a smart guy. He doesn't speak seven languages for nothing. He's not going to do anything dumb, and we will make sure of that."
* The Stanford defense has already put in several days of work with their "Okie" package, which we also saw installed and used a good deal in the spring. This is an important component to the style of defensive play that Scott Shafer employs, so watch for it on the field this fall. Without giving away the formation(s) or complete personnel, we will point out a couple of players who are running with the first-team defense in this package who are nominally running with the second unit in the base package. Watch for fifth-year senior Peter Griffin and redshirt junior Thaddeus Chase. Both are seldom-discussed players who walked on at Stanford and probably will not be listed as starters for the UCLA game. But both players are regular players on special teams and have this chance to focus on a specific defensive identity when their package is called onto the field - their chance to make a defensive impact.
* One sight that gave a scare Saturday night was redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Clinton Snyder grasping his arm in apparent pain. A trainer tended to Snyder and he did not return. Separated shoulder? Stinger? Ultimately it was just a gash to his hand. Snyder did take off some of the periods Sunday, playing in some others. Fifth-year senior Landon Johnson took some of the vacated first-team reps, and it should be noted that on the first snap of the first team period, Johnson made a diving play where he broke up a pass while laid out.
* We are still marveling at the amount of time and instruction spent on special teams this camp. If fans want to know where to look on the field this fall to see if the Jim Harbaugh program is headed in the right direction, look to special teams first. They were the unit with the steepest drop-off in 2006, at the bottom of almost every major Pac-10 statistic, though the seasons immediately preceding saw Stanford near the top in special teams play. 2007 special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin is being given an unprecedented amount of time to instruct the techniques on his teams and instill a fire into his players. Durkin has had enough time in the spring and now again this camp to work with the roster that we think many of the starters on his teams are firming up.
Here is who we saw Sunday on the first punt team: Wopamo Osaisai and Richard Sherman (gunners); Jason Evans, Pat Maynor, James Dray, Mark Bradford, Patrick Bowe and Austin Gunder; Toby Gerhart (deep protect); Brent Newhouse (long snapper) and punter Jay Ottovegio (punter).
Kickoff returners are still being auditioned, though the primary four we currently see in competition are Jason Evans, Toby Gerhart, Anthony Kimble and Wopamo Osaisai. Two freshmen are also getting a glance: Jeremy Stewart and Corey Gatewood. The rest of the first-team kickoff return is currently manned by Ben Ladner, Erik Lorig, James Dray and Will Powers (wedge), plus Austin Gunder, Peter Griffin, Thaddeus Chase, Carlos McFall and Stephen Carr (hands).
The kickoff team is led by kicker Derek Belch. He is currently joined by Mark Bradford, Jason Evans, Thaddeus Chase, Wopamo Osaisai, Austin Yancy, Pat Maynor, Clinton Snyder, Landon Johnson, Peter Griffin and Carlos McFall.
* The final team period of Sunday focused on red zone offensive versus defense. Twice we saw James Dray score touchdowns through the air, the first time on a screen pass from fifth-year senior T.C. Ostrander. The second score was a play-action rollout by redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard, who continues to hold down the second-team quarterback spot. A little later, Pritchard looked to the endzone again on a rollout, this time targetting true freshman wideout Ryan Whalen. Whalen leapt for the fade pattern pass but could not grab it. Redshirt junior cornerback Wopamo Osaisai was right there on his hip, and he laid out to snare the ball (after a brief bobble while falling to the ground) for a tremendous interception in the back corner of the endzone.
* Watch out for freshman wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who has quietly been impressing this camp and is in the mix for playing time in the depth behind the "big three" of Mark Bradford, Evan Moore and Richard Sherman. Baldwin is battling redshirt junior Kelton Lynn and redshirt freshman Stephen Carr for the #4 wideout spot. The way injury misfortune has treated Stanford the last few years, the #4 and #5 wideouts are probable to play important roles on the field sometime this 12-game, 14-week season.
* Fifth-year senior defensive Udeme Udofia went out of practice during Saturday's evening workout and was out all of Sunday's practice. In his stead, redshirt junior Pannel Egboh has ascended to the first-team defense.
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)!