Gallagher: Injuries helped pave the way to football success

Sept. 29, 2011, 1:46 a.m.

Sports are wildly unpredictable. It’s why we love them. It’s why we hate them. It’s why we watch them.

But the hatred is always rooted in intense competition–we want to beat the best team possible. We seek an equal to conquer, and when things don’t go our way we curse, scream and vent. But this hatred is far better than the empty feeling of despair and hopelessness that comes with injuries.

The sadness and anger following a loss to a bitter rival is tempered by its brevity–the next week you have the opportunity to beat another team, collect a W and make it to the playoffs the Corporate Sponsorship Bowl. An injury is wildly different, especially a season-ending one to a star player.

As I’m sure you know by now–unless you’re in FroSoCo–Shayne Skov is out for the season. But out of this injury springs opportunity for several players, and this opportunity is rooted deep in recent Cardinal history.

In 2006, the Cardinal struggled through an injury-riddled campaign to a 1-11 finish. During the season, a starting wide receiver, a starting fullback and star quarterback Trent Edwards–a future third-round pick in the NFL Draft–all went down with season-ending injuries. A multitude of other injuries at wide receiver got then-freshman Richard Sherman playing time at wide receiver. Sherman was a veteran leader of the Cardinal defense last year after switching to defensive back.

After the season, head coach Walt Harris was fired and athletic director Bob Bowlsby said that injuries were a big factor in the team’s performance that season. The program hadn’t had a winning season since coach Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame following the 2001 season. Harris’ replacement was Jim Harbaugh, then the head coach of I-AA University of San Diego.

Fast-forward a bit. Eight games into the 2009 season, middle linebacker Clinton Snyder, the defense’s best tackler and emotional leader, went down for the season with a knee injury (sound familiar?). Snyder’s replacement? Stanford fullback Owen Marecic. When Snyder went down, true freshman Shayne Skov took advantage of extra playing time to make five tackles against then-No. 7 Oregon. Skov started every game for the rest of the season and finished third on the team in tackles.

Last year, Skov missed the first two games of the season with an injury. Max Bergen filled in for him and recorded eight tackles and a forced fumble against Sacramento State and three solo tackles against UCLA.

Let me be clear here–the loss of Skov is huge. But the Cardinal defense is more than capable of weathering the storm.

Redshirt junior Chase Thomas is one of the best and most underrated ‘backers in the conference and leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Thomas, now the de facto leader of the LBs, said he won’t alter his play since Skov’s injury.

“Bad things start to happen when you feel like you have to do too many jobs or do too much,” Thomas said. “We have faith in Jarek Lancaster stepping in. We have great depth at linebacker, so there should be no issue. I know [Shayne] is one of our top leaders and best players so it’s harder to replace him, but at the same time we have full faith in Jarek and we’ve just got to trust that he’s going to do his job and we’re going to do our job and we’ll be fine.”

Joining Thomas at outside linebacker is Trent Murphy, who has been very solid thus far with three tackles for a loss and two sacks.

Bergen won the open competition for Marecic’s old starting spot in training camp this year and has played well, recording 14 tackles and a sack. Now, the task of replacing Skov falls to a platoon of AJ Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster. Sophomore Joe Hemschoot and true freshman James Vaughters will also be in the mix.

Tarpley and Lancaster have already seen a good deal of playing time this season, as they have rotated in for Bergen and Skov and played late in big wins. Both Tarpley and Lancaster said the training camp battle for Marecic’s spot helped the linebacker corps grow closer together and push each other every day to improve.

Molding this tight-knit group has been the responsibility of first year linebackers coach Jason Tarver. Tarver was offered a position with the San Francisco 49ers by Harbaugh, but turned it down to work with new Stanford head coach David Shaw.

Tarver has experienced this same scenario with the Niners. In 2007, starter Manny Lawson suffered a season-ending injury in the second week. Tarver helped develop backup Parys Haralson into a sack machine. Tarver said the lessons he learned from the Lawson injury have helped him guide Skov through his injury and fill his starting spot.

Tarver and several linebackers spoke to Skov’s intense preparation–both during the week and in games–and intensity on the field. Luckily for the Cardinal, he has been helping his replacements study film and working with them at meetings. As for his intensity, Tarver said this “Skov-ness” has rubbed off on other players.

For the Cardinal, devastating injury is familiar territory. Its now up to Tarpley and Lancaster to step up and make the most of their opportunities, as Marecic and Skov did before them.

For Billy Gallagher, the past is prologue. Send him more gratuitous Shakespeare references at wmg2014 “at” stanford.edu.

Billy Gallagher is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has previously worked at The Daily as editor in chief, a managing editor of news, news desk editor, sports desk editor and staff development editor. He is a junior from Villanova, PA majoring in Economics. He is also a writer for TechCrunch.

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