After the departure of Stepfan Taylor, Stanford’s all-time rushing leader, head coach David Shaw hinted that Taylor’s production would be replaced not by one primary back, but by a stable of up to five backs. Yet senior Tyler Gaffney earned the majority of the playing time against San Jose State, making an impressive return from pro baseball with 20 carries for 104 yards, and Shaw still insisted that the team’s other running backs would get their chance. After Saturday’s surprising performance, we asked Daily football writers Winston Shi, Do-Hyoung Park and Joseph Beyda: Will Gaffney emerge as Stanford’s featured back in 2013?
Winston Shi: Stanford has always used a number of options in the run game, and even though the Cardinal is losing Stepfan Taylor, it will be able to run effectively. Even if you’re not convinced about the backs, Stanford’s offensive line looks better than ever — and that will make up for a lot of faults.
Tyler Gaffney got the lion’s share of the carries against San Jose State, and he’s shown no reason why he shouldn’t have. He was critical in getting Stanford towards third-and-manageable and he was a huge reason why Stanford converted an astounding 12 of its 15 third down attempts. He makes good reads both when going inside and when going off-tackle. He catches balls out of the backfield. His pass protection was good as well. Gaffney can do anything Stanford needs from a No. 1 running back.
But we’re still seeing the same cast and crew; quite frankly, it would be alarming if Stanford didn’t run from all sorts of places and with all sorts of players. Just to prevent defensive players from keying in on a specific position or player, Stanford needs to establish the run with a diverse cast of characters. If Kelsey Young and Co. don’t threaten the outside, Gaffney may get stuffed by a crashing safety again and again. If Gaffney runs a lot with one or more fullbacks leading the charge, then opponents will get caught sleeping by the fullback dive. It’s all meant to work together.
Do-Hyoung Park: I see some parallels between last season’s quarterback situation and that of the running backs during this last offseason. In both cases, there were two relatively evenly-matched candidates for the job (Nunes/Nottingham vs. Wilkerson/Gaffney). In both cases, Shaw made a decision (Nunes starting vs. running by committee) and did not stray from that decision in his announcements in the early goings of the preseason and season.
He has been adamant all along this preseason that Stanford would rotate a stable of backs in 2013. But he was similarly adamant that Nunes was Stanford’s starting quarterback during the first half of last season before going from giving Kevin Hogan a few looks in the “Hogan package” to giving him drives to making him starter in the span of a little under two weeks. Who’s to say that he won’t change his mind again this year?
Granted, it is rather early to be making claims like that. But all signs during the season opener against San Jose State pointed to Gaffney having the most significant role out of the running back stable. We saw Gaffney getting touch after touch after touch on all three downs, even when the Cardinal boasted a healthy lead after halftime. Only when victory was certain and Shaw needed to run down the clock did Wilkerson see significant action.
I think that’s rather telling, especially considering that the other three backs — Ricky Seale, Remound Wright and Barry Sanders — combined for only three touches on the night. As Cardinal fans last year found out, on-field results were a better indicator of the ultimate decision than Shaw’s weekly statements.
Like Winston pointed out above, Gaffney looked great in his opportunities against SJSU, but with the Cardinal offense the ball will inevitably be spread around between guys for some plays. With only one more “gimme” game against Army before Pac-12 play, though, I think that if Tyler Gaffney again gets the biggest share of time at West Point, signs will point towards a Stepfan Taylor-like workhorse role for the ex-baseball player, with the other backs finding their niches in a running game very similar to last season’s.
Joseph Beyda: I’ve been wrong about running backs before — my prediction that Ricky Seale would be the team’s breakout player doesn’t look so good after the opener — but I’m going out on a limb once again. Not only do I think Tyler Gaffney will fail to become a featured back this season; I’m betting he won’t even be Stanford’s leading rusher.
That’s where Anthony Wilkerson comes in.
Though Do saw Gaffney earn the bulk of the carries on Saturday, I saw a more political, by-drive rotation, especially in the first half. Consider: Gaffney had four carries on each of the team’s first two drives, while Wilkerson had none, and Wilkerson had six carries total on the team’s next two drives, while Gaffney had none. That is indicative of the coaching staff rotating things around.
Granted, Gaffney had 12 carries (to Wilkerson’s one) on Stanford’s first four possessions after halftime — but if you were trying to break a guy in after a year playing another sport, wouldn’t you give him the ball more in the second half of an an all-but-decided game?
Thus, I don’t think Shaw is bluffing when he says that the two backs are currently neck-and-neck, or that Wilkerson will have 20-carry days like Gaffney’s. So why do I think Wilkerson will eventually gain the upper hand? To me, he seemed to kick it outside quicker than Gaffney on Saturday, which resulted in three long runs (11, 27 and 12 yards) on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. If teams try to load the box against the Cardinal, that speed would be a huge asset. So I think Gaffney and Wilkerson will be pretty close on the stat sheet, with the latter gaining a slight edge by the end of the season.
Winston and Do think that Joseph has made yet another gaffe (pun intended) in predicting the team’s running back situation. Share your views with them at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu and dpark027 “at” stanford.edu. Oh, yeah, you can get in touch with Joseph at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu as well.