Sports

Finally, Dray gets his chance to get back on the football field

Stanford tight end is ready to play against TCU after being injured against Horned Frogs a year ago

Jim Dray gazes out the window of his room at Stanford and probably can't tell the difference between seasons. He's been waking up in the same place for 15 months, and for a New Jersey native used to distinct seasons, not seeing snow for so long may be a little disconcerting.

What Dray, a junior tight end for the Cardinal football team, does understand is football season. To be able to get back on the field again, a year after suffering a severe knee injury, must feel like Christmas all over again.

Even as his last Christmas was spent 3,000 miles from home, Dray stayed focused on rehabbing the knee he injured in last year's game against Texas Christian.

"I haven't seen snow in a while," Dray said. "I hope to see some soon. I haven't been home since June of 2007."

This winter, if his health remains, he'll be allowed to fly home for the holidays. Because of the extent of the injury and the rehab, doctors feared he could develop a blood clot if he flew last year. He was restricted to his college housing, home alone for most of the winter break.

The only thing he could do was work on getting his knee in shape.

"That got me over the hump," Dray said. "I was mad I had to stay but I made a lot of gains with physical therapy, I added 20 pounds and last week I PR'd on weights. I feel stronger."

Dray got to travel to Arizona State last week, his first trip since flying down to Los Angeles for last year's USC contest. He went through non-contact drills last week, knowing there was not a snowball chance in Tempe he would play.

"It was just great to be with the team and get back into the process of travel," said Dray, a 6-5, 255-pound former high school All-American. "It felt good to go through warmups and run onto the field again."

This week, when Stanford (1-1, 1-1) travels to Fort Worth, Texas, for a 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) kickoff against TCU on Saturday, it's for real. The game originally was scheduled for a 4 p.m. start, but the threat of Hurricane Gustav forced the change.

"I want to go out and get hit once to make sure the knee holds up," Dray said. "It's hard not to play. I'd never been hurt before this, never had surgery before. It makes you appreciate the game more."

Dray started 17 of the 18 games he's played over the past two years. He has 28 receptions for 294 yards and two career touchdowns. He's also a noted blocker.

He injured the knee covering a punt against the Horned Frogs (2-0) last year. He saw someone coming at him out of the corner of his eye and planted his foot to make a cut.

"I tried to walk and it didn't feel good," Dray said. "At least I thought it was just sore. When the doctor starts telling you what happened, it's a little scary. That was the worst day, the day it happened."

Fifth-year senior Austin Gunder will still likely get the starting nod. Restricted to special teams and special situations, he made the most of his opportunity as part of Stanford's 21-20 victory over Arizona the nest week. He set career highs of 4 catches and 37 yards.

"It's going to be awesome to have (Dray) back on the field," Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard said. "We came in together and he was one of the guys who played the earliest because of his talent. I've only played two games with him. He knows the offense as well as any one."

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh hopes Dray will get back to where he was last year.

"He's showed tremendous determination throughout the rehab process, doing everything he can possibly do and more," Harbaugh said. "There was a real will in his rehab and recovery."

Dray had plenty of motivation beyond his will to return. His roommate, Fred Campbell, suffered a broken bone in his neck, finished the game with the condition and was advised to retire from football.

"He's all I kept thinking about," Dray said. "He has it a lot worse than I do. I knew I'd come back."

Meanwhile, Harbaugh not only remained noncommittal about the quarterbacking position, he's added a new wrinkle: a fourth quarterback in true freshman Andrew Luck, joining co-backups Jason Forcier and Alex Loukas.

"He is on the depth chart right now at No. 4," Harbaugh said. "We're going to take a look at scenarios where Andrew could see action. Tavita, in terms of seizing the job, has done that. He is the starting quarterback. With that being said, the other guys have talent that we want to be able to use at times. It doesn't diminish Tavita by any means."

Pritchard doesn't think he's in competition with anyone else.

"I feel like I'm just competing to win games," he said. "He's the coach and I'll go in when he tells me to go in and I'll come to the sidelines if he says so."

Forcier was happy for his first taste of action since transferring to Stanford from Michigan.

"It felt great to get back into the swing of things," Forcier said. "I'm for the team. Any decision I'm fine with. At the same time I didn't bury my head. I knew I had a solid camp and I'll keep pushing. I want to continue getting better. I have a grasp of the offense. It's a matter of playing. I know I can move this team."

An MRI on wide receiver Richard Sherman's knee was encouraging.

"It's his patella that has been bothering him," Harbaugh said. "There is no tear. He's working very diligently in rehab and on strengthening his quad."

Pritchard hopes to revive Stanford's passing game this week against the Horned Frogs. He's thrown for 188 yards and one touchdown combined in two games. Opponents have thrown for 749 yards and six scores..

"I'm never content where we're at," Pritchard said. "I look to this game to make a statement and do something in the passing game."

Sophomore Doug Baldwin also thinks this is the week for the aerial attack to take off.

"The focus is on getting the passing game started," said Baldwin, who is tied for the team lead with Sherman and Ryan Whalen with four receptions. "Come Saturday you guys will see our full potential."

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