- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Toby Gerhart preceded him at Stanford. Then came Oregon's LaMichael James, casting a big shadow for two seasons. While 2012 seemed like it set up well for Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor to finally see his name on the college football marquee, he's nonetheless looking up at Oregon's Kenjon Barner, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin in the pecking order of Pac-12 running backs.
Taylor has practically become famous, in fact, for being overlooked and underrated. It's a perception that is frequently noted just before a coach or player praises Taylor for his all-around skills as well as his character.
"For some reason, I don't know why, I think he is extremely underrated," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks play host to Taylor and Stanford on Saturday.
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, "He epitomizes what we are all about."
Taylor, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, is hardly anonymous. You don't become the first player in Stanford history to record back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and be known only as What's His Name.
He is 169 rushing yards from reaching 4,000 in his career and 203 yards from breaking the school's career rushing record held by Darrin Nelson. Taylor’s 36 career rushing touchdowns are third all-time on The Farm. He needs one more to tie "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell for second.
Taylor presently ranks 22nd in the nation and fourth in the Pac-12 with 106.1 yards per game. He's also the Cardinal's second leading receiver with 28 catches for 184 yards and two scores. Last week in the win over Oregon State, Taylor fumbled for the first time in nearly a calendar year, snapping a streak of 261 consecutive rushes without a fumble dating back to Nov. 26, 2011.
Oh, and he can block, too.
"He's the best pass-blocking running back in our conference, and it's not even close," Shaw said.
You put this all together, and the most popular conclusion is that Taylor's payoff will be in the NFL, where his toughness, ability to run between the tackles and diversity of skills will be more fully appreciated.
"Oh, gosh, I think he's a really, really good player. I really like him," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "I think he's an NFL back. He's powerful, he's quick, he's smart, he's durable. He just keeps pounding at you. Of course, that's kind of Stanford's mentality, and he fits into it really well."
Riley knows firsthand. The Beavers own one of the nation's toughest run defenses, but Taylor gashed it for 114 yards on 19 carries in a 27-23 victory last weekend. However, it was a screen pass at the end of the third quarter that earned Taylor the most kudos. He took the short dump pass 40 yards for a critical touchdown that started the Stanford comeback, and just about every Oregon State defender had a shot at him but couldn't get Taylor down, most notably safety Anthony Watkins, whom Taylor dispatched with a brutal stiff-arm at the 12-yard line.
As for Taylor being underrated and underappreciated, the person who seems to care least about that is Taylor.
"I don't really think about that," he said. "I feel like people who watch football recognize what I do. I just go out there and play my game, control what I can control. That's the main thing. And try to get the win. That's my main focus."
Said Shaw, "He's the last person who wants to talk about himself."
Taylor might have to talk about himself if the Cardinal upset the No. 2 Ducks. By just about every estimation, Taylor will have to come up big for Stanford to have a chance. Stanford must run well and possess the football against a beaten-up Oregon defense, thereby keeping the Ducks' explosive offense on the sidelines.
Oregon pounded the Cardinal the previous two years, both times handing Stanford its only regular-season loss. While Taylor said, "It's the next game on our schedule; it just happens to be Oregon," he also admitted veteran Stanford players might have something of a "chip on our shoulder" when it comes to the Ducks.
And Taylor might be ready for his national close-up.
If he were to put up big numbers in a win over Oregon on Saturday, here's a guess that he'd become suddenly popular among fans of many college football teams, including Notre Dame, Kansas State and Alabama.