By Joseph Beyda
Much has been made of Tyler Gaffney, the two sport athlete; his departure from the Farm to play professional baseball, his return to Cardinal football before this season and his looming decision between the NFL and a second stint on the diamond.
But what about Tyler Gaffney, the running back?
With two postseason games still to be played, the senior has already racked up 1,485 rushing yards in 2013, which marks the third-best single-season performance by a tailback in school history. He’s likely to pass Stepfan Taylor ’13’s career best of 1,530 yards, set last season, and he also has a small chance to break Toby Gerhart ’10’s school record of 1,871, set when Gaffney was a freshman in 2009.
For Cardinal fans, Gaffney’s startling production — the workhorse’s 284 carries this year are also the third best in Stanford history — has seemingly come out of nowhere. You’d think Stanford’s coaches would be just as surprised. You’d be wrong.
“This is not a secret,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “This is exactly what we thought would happen.”
Wait a second — isn’t that taking it just a bit too far? After all, Gaffney averaged just 4.5 carries per game in the three seasons before his departure, meaning that his legendary 45-carry performance against Oregon in November was literally 10 times more dominant than his previous body of work. Even inside Stanford’s locker room, there’s no way anyone could have seen this coming.
“Maybe he’s a touch better than we’d hoped he’d be,” Bloomgren, to his credit, finished. “I don’t know that he came back [from baseball] better, but he’s certainly better at this point than he’s ever been in his career. In this point in this season, and even with the wear and tear on his body, just, wow. What a stud.”
The word “stud” elicits memories of Gerhart, the imposing, 235-pound power back who made a living laying out defenders and pulling arm-tacklers for yards at a time.
Head coach David Shaw shies away from the comparison with the former Heisman Trophy runner-up, but the similarities are there. Not only did Gerhart play both baseball and football at Stanford, but he was also known for his ability to withstand the physical toll Saturday after Saturday. Gaffney channeled his inner Gerhart at this Monday’s press conference.
“I’m a little banged up, but I don’t believe in missing practice,” he said. “I don’t like to be singled out or act differently or anything when it comes to practice, so I suit up on Mondays and Monday through Friday, grind and get better for the next week.”
Gerhart used to wear a non-contact jersey in practice to ease his weekly recovery. Apparently, Gaffney didn’t get the memo.
Gaffney’s durability has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Stanford. As he had been primarily used out of the Wildcat formation in 2011, his final season before leaving to play baseball, Gaffney had never been given the chance to prove himself as an every-down back.
“He’s always been built really well,” Bloomgren said. “It’s never been tested before this year … I joked after the Oregon game that we rode him like Secretariat, and we kind of did. He’s been such a model of consistency for us.”
One thing that Gaffney has been able to consistently do is fight through a crowd. When the Cardinal’s opponents load the box against Stanford’s power running game, it’s up to Gaffney to take care of the extra man.
It’s the exact same skill that made Taylor so successful last season, especially given Stanford’s shuffled offensive line in 2012. The blocking may be better this year, but Gaffney’s shiftiness can still add to the Cardinal’s success.
“He’s going to get more than what the play’s blocked for,” Shaw said. “He’s going to churn those yards, he’s going to break tackles, he’s going to run through guys. He’s going to turn a 4-yard gain into an 8-yard gain.”
“We’re going to be committed to running the football, and we’re going to do it whether somebody’s going to put an extra hat in there or not,” Bloomgren added. “That’s going to be Gaff’s guy. And Gaff knows that going in, and he’s very comfortable with that … He gets to those linebackers or safeties and he freakin’ wears them out.”
Even this late in the season, Gaffney himself hasn’t become worn out; he’s trying to continue the marked improvement he has undergone since his return. At this point, mental steps are the biggest ones Gaffney can take. Each week, he meets individually with Stanford’s coaches to ask them about his performance, the motivation behind the team’s play calls and where he fits in on any given play.
“At this point, I meet with the coaches and I’m answering my own questions as I’m asking them,” Gaffney said. “Everyone here is on scholarship for a reason; they’re an athlete. Everyone can play. It comes down to the particulars that you really need to focus on.”
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.