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Football preview: Taylor, Wilkerson ready to lead Stanford’s high-powered running game

To say that the Stanford offense will have some new faces this season would be an understatement. With a new quarterback at the helm, young contributors at the wideout positions and some talented freshmen joining the offensive line, the identity of each individual component will remain uncertain until the team is tested in game situations. But the one thing that is neither new nor uncertain is the Cardinal’s unwavering trust in its running game.

Nothing can shake Stanford’s steadfast adherence to its run-first principle on offense, not when opposing defenses crowd the line of scrimmage, not when the team is trailing in the fourth quarter and not even when—as was evident last season—the best quarterback in college football is on its side. It’s no secret that the running game is the bread and butter of the Cardinal offense. Just ask head coach David Shaw.

“Nobody in the country is going to talk us out of running the ball,” Shaw said emphatically. “It’s just what we do. [Opponents] can load the box, but that’s fine. We’ll still run it.”

Captain running back Stepfan Taylor, a strong preseason candidate for the Doak Walker Award, enters his senior year with back-to-back 1000-yard rushing seasons under his belt. Needing 1,264 yards to become the all-time Stanford rushing leader, Taylor has worked on his flexibility and ability to read defenses prior to the snap during the off-season. (DON FERIA/Stanfordphoto.com)

At the forefront of the smashmouth offense is senior captain Stepfan Taylor, a preseason candidate for the Doak Walker award that is annually given to the best running back in college football. Taylor, who rumbled for 1,330 yards on 242 carries last season and also garnered second-team Pac-12 honors, has emerged as one of the nation’s premier backs with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Considering that Darrin Nelson and Toby Gerhart are the only other two running backs in school history who can boast of that achievement, Taylor’s credentials can hardly be questioned.

“There are so many things that make Stepfan a great running back,” Shaw commented. “To start, it’s how smart he is. There is nothing he doesn’t understand. He understands blocking schemes, footwork and defenses. He has a low center of gravity and has great vision on the field. He also has great ball security—I think he fumbled the ball just twice in three years.”

A major component of Taylor’s success is his ability to “run downhill,” so to speak, which he has mastered by keeping his body low to the ground and his momentum forward.

“Like every big-time running back that you see, Stepfan never gets hit,” Shaw said. “He gets tackled, but no one gets a clear shot at him. He always gets glancing blows and goes forward for a couple more yards. You never see a really good running back get blown up. That’s why he’s special and where he is yardage-wise.”

Taylor hopes to pick up from right where he left off last season, beginning the calendar year with a brilliant 177-yard, two-touchdown performance in Stanford’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. With Oregon’s LaMichael James now in the NFL, Taylor has a chance to assert himself as the best halfback in the Pac-12. He needs 753 yards this season to pass Gerhart for the number-two spot on the all-time Stanford rushing list and 1,264 yards to overtake Darrin Nelson as the all-time Cardinal rushing leader. Yet for Taylor, the record is clearly not the priority.

“I don’t think much about the career rushing record,” he said. “I hear about it, but that’s not my goal. Our goal is to win games. I don’t want it to be about stats and hurt the team.”

The senior tailback has adopted a gritty and purpose-driven mentality throughout preseason camp. Always the workhorse, he refuses to rest on his laurels and instead focuses on enhancing the skills that will help him earn the extra yardage come game day.

“I tried to get more flexible in the offseason,” Taylor said. “The more flexible I get, the stronger I get, the better balance I’ll have. I’ll be able to break more tackles and stay up. I’m working on reading the defense more before the play happens.”

Stepping into his leadership shoes, Taylor expects just as much out of himself as he does out of his teammates. The personal standard that he has set for this season is to “play every single game with 100 percent execution.” Although Taylor will no longer have guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin blocking for him, he still has an enormous trust in the offensive line’s ability to pave the way and create gaps—crucial in giving him all the more opportunities to break off big gains and take it to the house.

“I’m confident in the [offensive line] to block for all the backs,” Taylor said. “As training camp has progressed, the younger guys have gotten better. And the leaders from last year’s offensive line, like Sam Schwartzstein, David Yankey and Cameron Fleming, they’ve been helping them as well, so I’m very confident in all of them.”

As remarkable and experienced as Taylor may be, it would still be a tough task for him to carry the team on every snap. Luckily, there are other talented Cardinal backs who will help ease the burden and provide extra dimensions to the running game.

Junior tailback Anthony Wilkerson looks to play a greater role in the backfield this season with the departures of Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney. One of the top running back prospects coming out of high school, the speedy, elusive 6-foot-1 Wilkerson rushed for 408 yards on 89 carries as a true freshman. (DON FERIA/Stanfordphoto.com)

Speedy junior Anthony Wilkerson is especially ready to make a bigger impact. Coming out of high school as one of the top running back prospects in the nation, Wilkerson put up an impressive freshman campaign with 409 rushing yards on 89 carries. His production saw a slight dip last season—56 runs for 282 yards—as backs Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney took some of the spotlight. But with Stewart now playing as fullback for the New York Jets and Tyler Gaffney pursuing his professional baseball dream with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wilkerson will be able to grab a much greater role in the running attack.

“I hope to get more reps,” Wilkerson said, “but we have a lot of depth and have a lot of backs who can do different things. You have to be on your p’s and q’s out here. Any back can start at any college. I have to keep doing what I’m doing in practice and see what happens.”

Rounding out the talented halfback core are redshirt sophomores Jackson Cummings and Ricky Seale, redshirt freshmen Kelsey Young and Remound Wright and true freshman Barry J. Sanders.

Sanders, son of NFL legend Barry Sanders, is certainly living up to his pedigree. His display of talent at both the running back and kick returner positions thus far in preseason camp has drawn a heap of praise from the coaching staff.

“There’s a lot [Sanders] needs to learn about all the facets of playing football,” Shaw said, “but he doesn’t have to learn how to run the ball. I think that’s in the genes, if you will.”

Shaw is still wrestling with the decision of redshirting Sanders or not. Electing to redshirt him has its own benefits, but if the young man puts on a show in the first few games of the season, Shaw will be hard-pressed to sit him out.

“We have great depth,” Taylor said. “I feel like everyone’s been having a great camp and everyone’s stepping up to compete because of the talent that’s in the room.”

With the durable Taylor and speedy Wilkerson surrounded by five up-and-coming talents, it’s easy to see why the Cardinal loves to run the ball. And make no mistake: No matter what defensive schemes opponents choose to adopt in their game plans this season, the Cardinal will run the ball at them. The players know it, the fans know it and the opposing defenses know it.

Simply put, run-first is the Stanford way.

 

Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series:

Aug. 2: For outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, reward for hard work is finally in sight

Aug. 16: Workload only increasing for versatile fullback Ryan Hewitt

Aug. 16: Nottingham, Nunes front-runners in tightly contested quarterback race

Aug. 22: Powerful offensive line anchored by freshman talent and veteran leadership

Aug. 23: With Nunes at the helm, Stanford passing game reloads for another big season

About George Chen

George Chen is the President and Editor in Chief of The Stanford Daily. Previously he worked at The Daily as the Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a junior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email eic@stanforddaily.com.