By George Chen
In a nation full of jitterbug running backs, Stepfan Taylor stands apart.
Coming into the season as one of the most underrated backs in college football, Taylor has been quietly imposing his will on defenses on a weekly basis. Despite gaining some national attention after the USC upset, he has dropped below the radar for the most part.
But that hasn’t taken away from his high level of performance on the field.
In Saturday’s Big Game, the senior captain put on a show by rushing for a career-high 189 yards, and in the process, surpassed Toby Gerhart to become second on the all-time Stanford career rushing list.
As Taylor singlehandedly ran down the clock and demoralized the Cal defense in the fourth quarter with big run after big run, no player, coach or fan in the stadium could deny that he was taking the game over.
But what exactly is it about Taylor that makes him an absolute beast?
Sure, he’s fast, but he doesn’t have electrifying speed like Oregon’s Kenjon Barner or De’Anthony Thomas. Taylor might not even be the fastest running back at Stanford; if it came down to a footrace, Kelsey Young and Anthony Wilkerson would almost certainly beat him.
At 5 feet 11 inches tall and 215 poounds, Taylor isn’t the biggest guy on the field either. He can and will absorb every hit he takes, but he can’t quite bulldoze over every linemen and linebackers in the way for which Gerhart became famous.
What makes Taylor a special running back is his well-roundedness: he does everything well and nothing poorly.
When it comes to running the ball, efficieny is Taylor’s game. Rarely will he be tackled for a loss in a game, and he has yet to fumble the ball once thise season. For every yard that the offensive line blocks for him on any given play, he’ll gain an extra yard. And while he may not be able to knock defenders off their feet every time, he has no problem with dragging them along for the ride. Whether it’s barrelling ahead out of the I-formation or darting past on a draw play out of the shotgun, Taylor’s low center of gravity virtually guarantees positive yardage, even when blocks are missed.
Not only that, but Taylor has also shown that he’s dangerous in the screen game and his pass blocking has developed tremendously in the last couple years as well.
Head coach David Shaw will be the first person to tell you how special Taylor truly is, even comparing him to Jacksonville Jaguar tailback Maurice Jones-Drew. When asked about Taylor flying relatively under the radar, Shaw simply replied, “You know who knows about him? NFL scouts.”
Regardless of whether college football appreciates Taylor’s talents or not, he will probably still be selected in the third or fourth round of this year’s draft come April.
Taylor has rarely been mentioned in the Heisman conversation. In truth, the chances of him clutching the trophy in December is slim. (Although I don’t really understand how Kansas State’s Colin Klein is now all of the sudden a frontrunner just because managed to shred an awful West Virginia secondary.)
Just as unfortunate is that Barner or Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson are currently primed to take the Doak Walker award. After all, it’s hard to make a case against a player who’s making viewers hold their breath every time he touches the ball and gaining almost seven yards every carry, or a player who’s averaging 156 yards and almost two touchdowns per game.
Saying that those accolades have no significance to Taylor would be as silly as saying that the Heisman Trophy didn’t mean anything to Andrew Luck last year. But just like his former teammate, Taylor is completely team-oriented. He puts in the same amount of effort in blocking for Josh Nunes on a pass play as he does in carrying the ball himself. The legacy that he leaves for Stanford football isn’t one that consists of only rushing yards and touchdowns; it’s his legacy as a selfless teammate that parallels what Luck meant to the program.
It’s only fitting then that by the end of his collegiate career, Taylor will go down as one of the best running backs, if not the best running back in school history and be more than prepared to embark on a distinguished NFL career.
No, he won’t talk about the school records that will soon fall at his feet. No, he won’t get the national spotlight that Barner gets every weekend. But he will continue to be the dependable, special running back that he is in his own quiet way.
In many ways, that’s the best you could ever ask out of a college football player.
George Chen is usually right, although his editors think it is George who is crazy for not having Optimus Klein as the Heisman favorite. Give him your best Transformers impressions at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DailyGChen.