If you went looking for running back Anthony Wilkerson in the waning moments of Stanford’s close win over Arizona State last November, you’d find him taking a seat.
He wasn’t injured or surrounded by training staff. Nor was he in the stands to watch the action after the Cardinal went ahead 17-13 with just minutes to play. Instead, he was inbounds on the Sun Devils’ 4-yard line, with the ball in his hands and not a defender in sight.
After breaking free from 23 yards out with just over 1:30 remaining, the freshman planted himself on the turf to ice the game, passing up what would’ve surely been just the third touchdown of his collegiate career. Several offensive linemen, quarterback Andrew Luck and then-head coach Jim Harbaugh met him with friendly embraces on his way back to the bench, thanking him for doing the unselfish thing.
And for Cardinal running backs, that’s just business as usual.
To account for the departure of Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, Stanford coaches instituted a running back by committee last year, with five players splitting carries on a consistent basis. While Gerhart took over 80 percent of the handoffs in 2009, the Cardinal’s leading rusher last year — rising junior Stepfan Taylor — only took half.
“It’s not a selfish group of backs, and that’s what I love about it,” Taylor said. “We all have better talents in certain situations, and the coaches know that we’re unselfish players.”
Stanford’s group of backs — Taylor, Wilkerson, junior Tyler Gaffney, redshirt senior Jeremy Stewart and redshirt sophomore Usua Amanam — ended up totaling more yardage in 2010 than Gerhart alone had the year before. And of the five, only Amanam, who has since been converted to corner, will not be in the backfield again this year.
So as the Cardinal moves into training camp, playing time must be earned yet again, even by the man who led the squad on the ground last season.
“Our system makes us all compete,” Taylor said. “You can’t take a day off because we all know everybody’s gunning for the spot. But we help each other…we’re all working together to help the team.”
That ideal is epitomized perhaps best of all by Stewart. After finishing a close second on the team in rushing behind Anthony Kimble in 2007 — when he also played a big role down the stretch in Stanford’s memorable upset over USC — he had to take a back seat to Gerhart for two years. Ever since, he has been plagued by injury, never coming close to making a full comeback after the season mark of 359 rushing yards he set his freshman year.
Stewart showed some flashes of brilliance in last year’s Orange Bowl, including a 60-yard run that opened the scoring for the Cardinal. But fresh in his head are the days when even making a bowl was out of the picture, a perspective that’s unique on a squad with only two players that saw game action in 2007.
“My first year here was just after they went 1-11, so a lot of people took us as a game off,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely a lot different now, with us coming out ranked whatever we are in the country, so I think a lot of teams are going to be gunning for us.”
Regardless, Stanford’s multi-tooled running game won’t be easy for opponents to handle. The speed of Taylor and Wilkerson — who finished second on the team in rushing after a surprising first season — contrasts well with the power style of Stewart and Gaffney.
Though there are few questions at running back, they abound elsewhere. Most notable is the loss of fullback Owen Marecic, the lynchpin of the Cardinal rushing attack for the last three years.
“The day I got here, watching him and seeing his work ethic, he was like my hero,” Taylor said. “Owen’s Owen. He’s just that guy.”
Known for his mane of blond hair and his hard-nosed athleticism on both sides of the ball, Marecic paved the way for Gerhart and Taylor’s success on the ground. His blocking was so effective that the Cardinal faithful had good cause for worry about the run game coming into this season.
Stanford fans had to do a double take, however, when a fullback with curly yellow hair strode out to play for the Cardinal at this year’s spring game. As Marecic’s understudy, redshirt sophomore Ryan Hewitt flew almost entirely under the radar despite playing in all 13 games last season. He’ll see his fair share of the spotlight this year, though, as the strong favorite to take over for the Cleveland Browns’ recent fourth-round pick.
“Hewitt, coming into spring, surprised a lot of fans,” Taylor said. “Inside the team, we knew that he was just as good as Marecic…Hewitt came in as a tight end and is stepping up in the fullback position, where he has to go head to head against linemen and linebackers every time. That shows he loves the game.”
And how does the hair compare?
“I think Marecic just cut his, so I might as well go with Hewitt,” Stewart said.
Hewitt’s skillset — and his curly locks — might just be a perfect fit. Yet the supporting cast’s personnel turnover extends far beyond fullback. The offensive line, nicknamed the “Tunnel Workers Union” by former left guard Chris Marinelli in 2009 because it “opens up holes,” ironically sports some of the deepest ones on the team, thanks to the departure of three elite offensive linemen. All-American center Chase Beeler, right tackle Derek Hall and left guard Andrew Phillips combined for 81 starts on the Farm, but now leave seniors David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin to rebuild the Cardinal’s tunnel-digging mechanisms.
“I think that their leadership and experience were huge,” DeCastro said. “They started a lot of games for us. They knew what they were doing. A lot of times you could depend on them if you needed a call, maybe a slip or something like that, and now it’s kind of turned on me and Jonathan.”
Besides its superb run blocking, the old line allowed just six sacks, the second lowest total in the nation. DeCastro attributes much of that success to Luck’s speed and the blocking done by backs and receivers.
However eager the returning linemen may be to deflect the credit, they have earned national acclaim heading into the season. DeCastro, considered a preseason All-American favorite by many analysts, doesn’t buy into all the hype — at least not completely.
“It’s one of the things that you have to hear and acknowledge and that you can’t just completely ignore,” he said. “But at the same time, once you hear it, it goes in one ear and out the other. All I can do right now is play to the best of my ability, and I can’t really control all that stuff. All I can control is how I play.”
Some of the open slots still have to be filled, but leading candidates are junior Sam Schwartzstein at center, sophomore Kevin Danser at left guard and fifth-year senior Tyler Mabry at right tackle. Getting the new starters ready will be a team-wide effort.
“We have great offensive linemen in DeCastro and Martin, so they’re going to help bring those guys up to speed,” Stewart said. “We’re going to step in when we can to help them out, but we’re just focused on everybody doing their job, and I think we’ll be fine if that happens.”
This is part three of a four-part series previewing the 2011 Stanford football team. Stay tuned next week, as we take a closer look at the Cardinal passing game.
Part One: Front Seven (July 28)
Part Two: Secondary (Aug. 4)