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Chen: The (mis)use of Christian McCaffrey

George Chen

Stanford football carries a weapon deadly enough to catapult the team to a third-straight Pac-12 title, but the offense is barely even using it.

Good things happen when freshman running back Christian McCaffrey touches the ball, which is why the electric freshman needs to see the field more — more than he did against Washington State, and certainly more than he did against Notre Dame and USC.

The coaching staff chose to severely limit McCaffrey’s snap count in the first half of the season, especially in the bigger games against USC, Washington and Notre Dame — he touched the ball a total of three times in those three contests. I don’t understand the rationale behind those restrictions. All signs point to the fact that McCaffrey is ready for primetime. He’s had six receptions, and all of them have gone for 12 yards or more, including a 52-yard touchdown reception. He’s also busted for runs of 23 and 24 yards on just eight rushes. Senior tailback Kelsey Young’s longest run of the season is an 18-yard scamper, and he’s had 26 more carries than the freshman.

What mistakes has McCaffrey made on the field to warrant an unreasonably limited amount of playing time? We know the classic rookie mistakes: carrying the football low and loose, missing a critical block and not running the correct route. I have yet to see McCaffrey make a rookie mistake, or any mistake for that matter. He’s made fewer errors than senior halfback Remound Wright, who’s committed two chop blocks (one was questionable, but the other was egregious) and also lost a fumble, and also the penalty-happy offensive line — first-year starters who were supposedly ready to be one of the best offensive lines in Stanford history after a full year of game experience in the jumbo package.

McCaffrey may be the most electric player on offense behind Ty Montgomery. The coaching staff saw McCaffrey’s versatility right off the bat against UC-Davis in the season opener, in which he returned a punt for 61 yards, made three big blocks on special teams and caught a 51-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield. In the following week against USC, McCaffrey didn’t get a single touch. I understand that the Trojans defense is significantly better than UC-Davis, but after seeing what McCaffrey did in his college debut, why not give him a few more touches on a bigger stage? Instead, McCaffrey sat on the bench. It didn’t make sense.

McCaffrey may not be quite ready to be an every-down back running between the tackles, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be on the field for the majority of the plays. As we saw against Washington State, the play-calling is much more creative when McCaffrey is on the field, whether it’s running a jet sweep, lining him up as a slot receiver or dialing up a misdirection play involving both him and Montgomery. And even if he doesn’t touch the ball, he’s an extra threat that the opposing defense has to account for, which is just as valuable for Stanford’s offense. On any given pass play, defenses have to worry about containing Montgomery, staying with Michael Rector on deep routes, bottling up Devon Cajuste and keeping an eye on the tight ends. But if McCaffrey is on the field, you throw the halfback screen and jet sweep on top of all the weapons you already have. That’s a tough assignment for any Pac-12 defense.

Most importantly, though, McCaffrey can provide Hogan with the much-needed safety outlet that the quarterback has been missing since the 2012 season. In 2012, when Hogan’s wide receivers weren’t open — and they often weren’t — he would look to Zach Ertz as the main safety valve. But overshadowed by Ertz’s greatness was the fact that running back Stepfan Taylor had the second-most receptions on the team with 41 catches. Remember how in 2012 Hogan somehow flipped the ball to Taylor as he was getting sacked against Oregon State, and then Taylor manhandled three Beavers defenders to score a 59-yard touchdown? That’s precisely what Hogan has been missing.

If Stanford can effectively use McCaffrey as a receiver out of the backfield, then the coaching staff can simplify things for the quarterback. Hogan has never been one to go through his progressions, but he might not need to if he has McCaffrey as a checkdown. Instead of forcing Hogan to be a traditional pocket-passer (which he isn’t), make the game easier for him: If his first read or first two reads aren’t there, have him check down to McCaffrey, and if McCaffrey isn’t open for some reason, then Hogan can scramble. That’s similar to how Hogan utilized Ertz and Taylor in 2012, and I still believe that Hogan looked more comfortable in 2012 than 2013 or this season.

Sitting in the Red Zone on Friday night, I heard students chanting — almost begging — for McCaffrey to be on the field. That’s how you know a player is already special. When was the last time Stanford fans were clamoring for a true freshman to get the ball?

It’s time to remove the handcuffs. It’s time to free McCaffrey.

In a desperate, last-gasp attempt to get coach Shaw’s attention concerning the (mis)use of Christian McCaffrey, George is planning a #FreeMcCaffrey Twitter campaign. But, wait, that hashtag might result in a boom for McDonalds’ coffee products. Send suggestions for naming alternatives to gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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