Beyda: Gaffney demonstrates importance of versatility to Cardinal

Gather round, Nation of Nerds. It’s that time of the year again: I’m ready to issue my heartfelt-apology-to-Stanford’s-offensive-star column.

In case you haven’t been counting the days until this much-anticipated event, I’ll remind you that this tradition began last January, when I apologized for my misguided preseason prediction that Levine Toilolo would overtake Zach Ertz as Stanford’s best tight end (and offensive player).

Of course, I put my foot back in my mouth this September, when I wrote that Anthony Wilkerson would emerge as Stanford’s top running back even though Tyler Gaffney had just dominated the playing time in the team’s season opener. The result was a 1,709-yard season for Gaffney — the second-best mark in school history — on a gargantuan 330 carries, and a 353-yard season for Wilkerson on only 84 attempts. Oops.

(Just a week later, I also wrote that junior tailback Ricky Seale would be Stanford’s breakout offensive star. His final numbers: 34 yards on 11 carries.)

Late this season, in an effort to at least partially make up for my mistake, I asked offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren exactly what made Gaffney so special. The answer seemed to be threefold: his strength, his shiftiness and his durability. Gaffney could bounce off a hit at the line of scrimmage, pick through a crowded box and manage to do it all 45 times in a game.

In an offense as diverse as the Cardinal’s, that comes in handy. By the Rose Bowl Game, Gaffney was lining up in the I-formation for power runs as often as he was in the shotgun for read options — not to mention nobody’s favorite, the Wildcat.

If you think about it, that’s the same reason Ertz was such a surprising success last year. Before 2012, we knew him as an underneath route-runner, but as a senior he was shaking defenders downfield as well as his predecessor, fellow NFL tight end Coby Fleener.

Maybe that’s also why we haven’t seen as much as we expected from certain Cardinal players. Game after game, the Red Zone was calling for Barry J. Sanders to party like it’s 1988. Hate to break it to you guys, but word is he can’t run between the tackles as well as the team’s other running backs — not yet, at least. By the same token, Wilkerson has NFL-quality power and speed, but he lacks the eagle-eyed vision that made Gaffney such a consistent, versatile performer.

So over the next eight months, when it comes time for me and my fellow media members to make lofty preseason projections, I’m going to look past the obvious when it comes to the Cardinal. I won’t count out the tight end with a three-inch height disadvantage or the running back who has to transition from minor-league baseball to college football. Instead, I’ll consider which players give Stanford the most flexibility, versatility, whatever you want to call it — come hell or high Wildcat.

Maybe I’ll be wrong again. That’s fine; I like how my foot tastes.

Joseph Beyda contracted his foot-in-mouth disease from his favorite television personality: Skip Bayless. To remind Joey that the enemy of your Shermenemy is not always your friend, email him at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.