- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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All indications are that Stanford is going to be a running-back-by-committee team in 2014.
You’ve heard this one before, right? Wasn’t that the word out of spring this time last year?
Then Tyler Gaffney galloped in, fresh off a minor league baseball career, and the Cardinal rode him to the tune of 330 carries, 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Now the Cardinal are once again looking for a “starting” running back. This time, however, there will be no Gaffney; no baseball transfers (does Mark Appel have any eligibility left?); no veteran back with tons of experience to carry the load for Stanford’s ground game.
With Stanford into its second session of spring ball, its running back competition is one of the most intriguing and hotly contested position battles in the Pac-12. Because recent history suggests that whichever of the four potential backs emerges as the No. 1 option, he’s likely to have a stellar season. Stanford has produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2008. But picking that No. 1 could take some time.
“I don’t know how you pick a starter today, because they all have something they do better than the other,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren.
When you think of Stanford’s rushing attack of late, it evokes images of bell cows and dust and a trio of yards. And the last couple of seasons, that’s exactly what it’s been. In 2013 Gaffney accounted for 56 percent of his team’s carries and 59 percent of its rushing yards. The year before that, Stepfan Taylor carried 322 times and accounted for 58 percent of the rushes and 62 percent of the yards on the ground.
But that’s not necessarily the identity that Stanford head coach David Shaw is most comfortable with. Sure, if he has a back who can haul it more than 300 times in a season, he’s already shown that’s what he’s going to do. But backs who can carry that kind of workload don’t grow on trees.
“When you hit the middle of the season, you’d like to have three or four guys who are still fresh,” Shaw said. “It’s just kind of how it happened the last couple of years. The 300-plus carries are gasping. But doggone it, Tyler Gaffney was 220 pounds and in great shape and he can carry it. That’s not normal. Toby Gerhart wasn’t normal. Fortunately we were OK with Tyler holding up. But I’d prefer not do that to anybody again if we don’t have to.”
This year’s quartet of potential backs -- Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders -- smacks more of Stanford’s 2011 stable. That year, Taylor carried 242 times. But other backs had their roles and niches. Gaffney (pre-baseball) and Anthony Wilkerson played supporting roles to Taylor. Jeremy Stewart was a short-yardage monster. Even the fullbacks combined for 22 carries. And of Stanford’s 518 rushing attempts that year, Taylor accounted for only 46 percent. That kind of distribution is more preferable to Shaw.
The 2014 Cardinal running game might have a similar look. And that’s not a bad thing. Unlike a quarterback competition, where a potential starter could be sitting on the bench because the guy in front of him is simply that much better, running backs have various roles they can fill. One guy might be better in short yardage. Another might be stronger in the screen game. Yet another can hit the edge better than the guy who goes up the middle. The ability to be multiple is more on par with what the Cardinal want to do.
“We have a lot of versatility at that position,” Shaw said. “But we also feel like any one of those guys in any given game could come in and carry it 20-plus times and potentially get over 100 yards. All of them have that ability. But we also feel good about the different combinations we can create with those guys.”
According to Bloomgren, Wright seems to be the “steadiest” of the four carrying the ball and in pass protection. Seale has improved his pass protection and has displayed good cutting and vision. Bloomgren described Young as “lightning in a bottle.” Recall he was used as more of a scat back before moving over to running back full time. And finally there’s Sanders.
“It’s hard to talk about Barry last, but when you talk about those other guys age-wise, that’s where he falls,” Bloomgren said. “He’s done some things that are unbelievable. He’s had a couple of those moments in scrimmages where he dead-legs people and leaves them in his wake … we just need him to be a better pass protector.”
So once again, the Stanford staff is preaching running back by committee. And this year, it looks like they really mean it.