For all of the returning players Stanford has on offense in 2007, there have been two major questions hanging over the Cardinal since April. It has been often said and repeated that the offensive line has three starters set, each of whom possess significant talent and experience: sixth-year center Tim Mattran, redshirt junior left tackle Allen Smith and redshirt junior right guard Alex Fletcher.
The questions at left guard and right tackle have loomed large for Stanford - that is, until now. Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh recently gave his vote of confidence to fifth-year senior Mikal Brewer at the left guard position, after watching his work the first week-plus of the Cardinal's preseason training camp. Now as we move into the third week of camp, the verdict is in for the right tackle starting job. Tuesday morning, Harbaugh named redshirt sophomore Chris Marinelli as Stanford's starter in the offensive line's fifth and final spot.
Marinelli started five games last season but missed the spring, summer and the first week of fall camp as he continued to rehab and train, following off-season shoulder surgery. He debuted in camp on Sunday August 13, and for the most part since, he and redshirt junior Ben Muth have equally split the first-team offensive repetitions since. That changed yesterday, when Marinelli took hold of the snaps throughout practice on the first-team offensive line.
"It's a great honor," Marinelli says. "I worked my ass off to come back from that injury, and to get out here, learn the system and get ready to go."
"I think Marinelli brings a lot to the table," offers Fletcher. "Obviously he has the starting experience from last year. I think his strengths as a football player are his toughness and the physical nature of his play. I think if he keeps working, keeps practicing hard and adds more game experience, that can translate into some really good football play."
The naming of Marinelli as a starter comes somewhat as a surprise, not necessarily in the verdict but instead in the timing. Right tackle has been one of the most focal position battles for Stanford this year, and the Cardinal have conducted just one live scrimmage this camp. Their second scrimmage is set for Thursday, and we expected the offensive coaches to wait for those results and evaluations before making this call.
Not only was the decision for Marinelli apparent enough at this juncture, but also naming the starter at the beginning of this third and final week of training camp gives the starting five on the offensive line more time to play together and gel as a unit before their season opener on September 1.
"It's just good because we're coming out here and trying to get some unity with that number one group," Marinelli offers. "We're trying to learn each other's timing, and then we'll be ready to go."
"I think Coach [Chris] Dalman wanted us to practice as five guys at least a week and half before UCLA so that we can play with each other," Fletcher adds. "Obviously Benny and Chris were rotating, and there has to be some chemistry between the players who play together. The identity is a big thing."
On the other end of the stick is Muth, who upon learning yesterday's news is now staring at a reserve role to start the season. While that is a major disappointment for him, there is a strong silver lining to the battle he waged with Marinelli this camp. Muth clearly elevated his play with the competition and is clearly now a better right tackle than we had seen of him before. Particularly improved were his sets in pass protection, and that gives Stanford a comfort level of depth at offensive tackle in 2007.
"It was one of those things where it could have been either guy. For both guys, it's been unbelievable camps," Marinelli offers. "Like I've said before, Benny played his ass off. I've never seen Benny play anywhere near that well. He was so physical, so good."
"The right tackle competition was great for the line because both Chris and Benny played the best football I have seen out of them," Fletcher concurs. Benny really stepped up and improved dramatically from last year, and I think that the competition brought that out."
The same can be said of Brewer, who had a less tightly contested battle for his starting job at left guard, but his play has visibly matured and his consistency significantly improved in this preseason.
"I was just trying to do what the coaches asked and work hard. That's pretty much all I've got," offers the fifth-year senior. "I think I've improved my pass sets and improved my intensity on my run blocking. It's knowing assignments and working hard."
Brewer offers a chunk of the credit to his new offensive line coach and former Cardinal, Chris Dalman.
"I think it's been working on the smaller points of the position, like working a lot on the form and little technique in taking steps," Brewer says. "Things like that have really improved and really helped out."
There has also been a focus for the fifth-year senior on one position this year, which has given Brewer the chance to hone his craft as a guard rather than try to be a jack of all trades.
"The thing about Brewer the last couple years is that he's always been a swing guy, having to back up guard and center," Fletcher opines. "He's had to take so many reps at guard and center that he never really got a feel for one position. I think since he has been taking exclusively left guard reps, it has really helped him with this technique and all of his assignments."
And what will Stanford get out of their new-and-improved starting left guard this fall?
"Brewer is the type of guy that once he gets latched onto you, he has really good feet and it's tough to get away from him," Fletcher offers. "He has a really mean streak, too. He does bring a level of toughness to the table maybe we haven't had. But I think more importantly, he is a fifth-year senior."
If all five can stay healthy, Stanford now has its starting offensive line set for the approaching fall campaign. All five own significant starting experience and are at least in their third year of the program. There is a confidence in the Cardinal's front five that we have not seen in recent seasons, and they have high expectations for what they can do for their running backs and their fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander.
"We'll do a lot. It's pretty exciting," Brewer beams. "We're going to keep T.C. clean, that's for sure. Keep him clean and get a lot of yards running."
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)!