By Joseph Beyda
Big, bulky running backs have been a cornerstone for Stanford football during the Harbaugh-Shaw era.
This year, the speedsters are taking the reins.
Senior Kelsey Young and junior Barry J. Sanders are competing to lead a running back by committee that — at least at the top of the depth chart — is likely to be one of the most explosive on the Farm in recent memory. But with the departure of bruising, 226-pound back Tyler Gaffney, the position group also loses something it’s valued for so long: size.
For each of the last seven seasons, the Cardinal’s roster has included at least one running back that weighs over 215 pounds. The heaviest tailback this year, senior Remound Wright, weighs in at 204. Stanford’s backs are still muscular and physical, yet there’s an inherent size disadvantage in play in 2014.
That means the Cardinal’s running backs now face an uphill battle in terms of pass blocking, an aspect of the position that head coach David Shaw has emphasized throughout training camp.
“Right now, there’s no separation: They’re all decent,” Shaw said of his running backs’ pass-blocking abilities last week. “I’m waiting to see when — and if — somebody becomes exceptional…But the gauntlet’s out there, because whoever’s our best pass blocker is going to get the most playing time.”
Shaw acknowledged on Thursday that there still isn’t a leading candidate in that area, which Gaffney, in particular, excelled at. Devon Cajuste’s 57-yard touchdown pass against Washington State didn’t just exemplify the slot receiver’s speed; it exemplified Gaffney’s physicality, as he completely outmuscled an oncoming linebacker to give quarterback Kevin Hogan time to throw.
“You’ve got to keep the quarterback clean,” Sanders said. “It is tough, especially coming in as a freshman, not really ever having to pass protect a whole lot. But I think I’ve come a long way. I’ve still got a long way to go.”
New running backs coach Lance Taylor, who joined the staff this offseason after four years as an NFL assistant, said that even though this year’s tailbacks have improved a lot since the spring, their work isn’t done.
“Now we just have to do a better job of being physical in the pass game,” Taylor said, “because as you know, we’re usually taking on a linebacker or even a looping defensive lineman that may outweigh us. We may be overmatched, but we’ve still got to protect our quarterback. So that’s going to be the biggest thing: who’s going to be the most physical.”
After seven years of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Gaffney, a smaller set of running backs could also spell fewer yards after contact this season. But if this group is as fast as anticipated, opposing defenders will have their hands full making contact in the first place.
When Cardinal fans think of speed, they think of Kelsey Young. He broke onto the scene during Stanford’s first Rose Bowl run in 2012, emerging as the team’s jet sweep specialist with plays like this one.
Though Young matched his 14-carry total in 2012 with 14 more last season, his role in the offense diminished slightly as the slightly faster Ty Montgomery was used on end-arounds as well. Young actually had fewer touches overall in 2013, as he caught only three passes, compared to eight the year before.
But this spring, Young demonstrated his abilities as a straight-ahead runner for the first time, prompting Shaw to call him the favorite for the starting job entering camp.
“I’ve been really pleased with Kelsey, the way he’s running the ball really tough in between the tackles,” Taylor said. “He’s been running with great pad level, and we’ve all kind of known him as the guy on the perimeter who can run the ball because of his speed, but he’s been doing such a nice job running the ball tough, in between the tackles, taking hits, making spin moves, running through arm tackles.”
Wright, who was thought to have an edge in the starting competition before spring ball because of his ability between the tackles, missed the second half of spring practice with a disciplinary issue that also kept him out for the start of fall camp.
Since then, the conversation has been all about Young and Sanders. Young missed Thursday’s practice with a hurt ankle, and when he left the Spring Game early with an arm injury back in April, it was Sanders who took over at tailback and showed off his shiftiness with a 29-yard gain.
Young is known as the more explosive player in the open field, while Sanders likes to plant his foot, change direction quickly and make defenders miss, as he demonstrated against Washington State last season.
Yet Sanders’ highlight is not the one that Stanford coaches have been talking about the most this offseason. That honor belongs to another son of an NFL great: freshman Christian McCaffrey, whose father, Ed ’90 M.A. ’91, had a 13-year pro career as a wide receiver after graduating from Stanford.
It’s not just that Christian set Colorado state records for career touchdowns (141) and all-purpose yards (8,845); it’s the way he racked up those numbers. Take a look at his high school tape, but sit down first — you’re about to be floored.
It will be much tougher sledding for McCaffrey at the collegiate level. Still, Shaw didn’t hesitate to say that he is the freshman most likely to see playing time this season.
“We all saw his highlight and what he does with the ball in his hands, and I think he’s done the same thing for us out here on the field,” Taylor said of McCaffrey’s first few weeks of practice on the Farm. “Off the field, he is very mature. He has really taken time to delve into the playbook and ask questions. He does a great job in the meetings and studying beforehand. So mentally being prepared really helps him, and then physically, he’s got a great set of tools.”
McCaffrey has a chance to throw a wrench into the Cardinal’s fairly fluid situation at running back, but to do so, he’ll have to learn fast.
Fast just seems to be the name of the game for Stanford these days.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series