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He's a perfect fit for a retro jersey

November 13, 2009|David Wharton

This is all you need to know about Owen Marecic: He has busted two helmets this season, both his own, from hard hits.

"Yeah, I've cracked a couple, but it's no big thing," he says. "Luckily we have spares."

An old-school attitude makes sense for this Stanford player caught in a time warp.

When the Cardinal faces USC at the Coliseum on Saturday, Marecic will start at fullback and middle linebacker, two of the toughest positions on the field, going both ways as if it were the 1950s.

USC Coach Pete Carroll calls it "an enormous challenge" and says Marecic is "such a good football player that he's making it."

Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who played with such legendary tough guys as Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis, goes a step further.

"When I was a young football player, that was what I always dreamed of, being a player like him," Harbaugh says. "In 30 years of being around football and football teams, I've never seen a guy like this."

A 6-1, 224-pound junior who rarely touches the ball but deserves much of the credit for Stanford's ground attack, clearing holes so running back Toby Gerhart can rank second in the nation in rushing with an average of 135 yards a game.

On defense, Marecic (pronounced Marie-sick) was pressed into action last week after middle linebacker Clinton Snyder suffered a season-ending injury.

He responded by leading the way for Gerhart's 223 yards rushing while holding the defense together against Oregon's complex spread offense, helping the Cardinal to a 51-42 upset victory.

"I feel like if I played defense, I wouldn't be back there playing linebacker," USC fullback Stanley Havili said with a laugh. "I'd be back there trying to play safety."

It was last spring that Harbaugh first sought to add depth to his roster by looking for players to go both ways. Marecic was a logical candidate, a star defensive back at Jesuit High in Tigard, Ore.

"I was kind of excited to see if I still had it after a couple of years at fullback,' Marecic said. "Did I maintain some of my defensive athleticism?"

It soon became apparent that he had, and he practiced at both positions through training camp and into the season. Though he rarely played defense through the first eight games, physical demands were only part of the challenge, Marecic hurrying between meeting rooms.

"He carries an offensive playbook under one arm, he carries a defensive playbook under the other arm," Harbaugh said. "Every single day."

But don't expect him to complain. Or boast.

"I'm definitely a quiet guy," Marecic explained. "I don't say much of anything."

Nor does he fully appreciate the historical context of what he now does on Saturday afternoons.

In football's early years, everyone played both ways. Then, after the United States entered World War II in 1941, rosters shrunk because so many players enlisted and the NCAA allowed broader substitutions.

Coach Fritz Crisler instituted a "two-platoon" system with separate offensive and defensive players at Michigan a few years later. While the idea gained momentum, detractors viewed specialization as robotic, even unmanly.

The NCAA banned the practice in the early 1950s and a decade passed before two-platoon football returned to the college scene.

More recently, two-way players have been rare at the Division I level, confined mainly to smaller bodies doubling as defensive backs and receivers.

The idea of going more than 100 plays with heavy contact seems improbable. Unless you are Marecic, who -- once again -- sounds like an old-timer discussing the subject.

"There are a lot of breaks now in football, with all the TV timeouts and stuff," he said. "I guess it's not too bad."

If anything, the rigors of double duty intrigue him. As a human biology major, he is curious to see what happens, saying: "A lot of football and athletics is getting to know your own body, how it functions, how it responds to stresses in the environment."

Against USC, those stresses will include blocking against a defense that, despite recent struggles, still leads the Pacific 10 Conference in fewest points allowed. And trying to slow a Trojans offense that averages better than 400 yards.

"From a hitting standpoint, I would see that as being really hard," USC defensive lineman Armond Armstead said.

Marecic reiterates that he doesn't mind the extra workload. Even if it means breaking another helmet.

"It's part of the game," he said. "But I think the guys in the equipment room are getting a little irritated."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

The Cardinal's Owen Marecic

On offense: As a fullback, his blocking has helped tailback Toby Gerhart rush for 1,217 yards and 16 TDs. Marecic has also rushed for two TDs.

On defense: Has assisted on one tackle since becoming a starting linebacker last week.

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