Stanford Football: Stepfan Taylor

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.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders is one of several Stanford running backs battling for carries this fall.
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.
We continue our look at Stanford's top 5 impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

[+] EnlargeStanford
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsShayne Skov (11) was just one of the many impactful players in Stanford's 2009 recruiting class.
No. 2: 2009

Of the 22 commitments the Cardinal received in 2009, 18 carved out significant roles during their college careers. That percentage -- just over 80 percent -- is hard to beat.

Of those 18 players, 15 received some kind of all-Pac-12 recognition, including first-team honors for LB Trent Murphy (twice), TE Zach Ertz, LB Shayne Skov and DE Ben Gardner.

The five seasons that followed their signing is arguably the best five-year stretch in Stanford history: five bowls, four BCS bowls, two conference titles and a 54-13 record.

Two running backs -- Stepfan Taylor (2012) and Tyler Gaffney (2013) -- had seasons that resulted in All-American honors, and Taylor left the school as the all-time leading rusher.

Both Levine Toilolo and Ertz were among the nation's best tight ends before leaving for the NFL after their redshirt junior seasons. Ertz was a finalist for the 2012 John Mackey Award.

Taylor, Ertz and Toilolo were on NFL rosters last season, while DT Terrence Stephens and CB Terrence Brown were in training camps before being released. Five others -- FB Ryan Hewitt, DE Josh Mauro, Skov, Murphy and Gaffney -- have a good chance to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

The class also included QB Josh Nunes, who led the Cardinal to a 7-2 start in 2012 -- and received a Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honor that season -- before losing his starting job.

Countdown

No. 3: 2007
No. 4: 2010
No. 5: 2006
The countdown of five things we learned from the first half of Stanford spring practice continues.

No. 4: No clear leader at running back

While there was minimal rotation on the offensive line with the first team during the Cardinal's two open practices, running back couldn't have been more different. Four players saw consistent reps with first group: Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young.

It's obviously still early -- Stanford is only halfway through its spring practice season -- but there has been nothing to indicate the Cardinal is in position to lean on one guy. That's a significant change in how the offense has operated the last six years with Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney all serving as feature backs.

Wright is the default leader because of his ability to pass protect, but he doesn't have the open-field skill of Sanders or Young.

Seale is a fifth-year senior, which could work for or against him. On one hand, he has had plenty of time to develop an expert understanding of the offense and its concepts. If the coaching staff feels like he'll be a substantial contributor this season, that'll be beneficial. However, if it's determined he's comparable with Sanders, a sophomore, or Young, a junior, it could be more beneficial to the program's future for the younger players to get the practice reps and, eventually, the playing time.

Countdown

No. 5: The offensive line is set

Spring position breakdown: RBs

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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback

Top 5 position battles to watch: RB

February, 21, 2014
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The countdown of Stanford's top 5 position battles concludes.

No. 1: Running back

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders will be trying to take over at RB for Stanford.
Who to watch: Remound Wright, Barry Sanders, Ricky Seale

Outlook: The last time Stanford didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher was 2007. Richard Sherman led the team in receiving yards, current quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard led the Cardinal to a memorable 24-23 win at USC, and Jim Harbaugh was in his first year as head coach. Since then, Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney have combined to average 1,452.2 yards rushing a year.

Only Gerhart's 2008 season -- when he ran for 1,136 yards -- came out of relative obscurity. He ran for just 140 yards on 12 carries the year before.

If another Stanford running back is to keep the streak of 1,000-yard rushers alive, he'll have to follow a similar path. Wright, Sanders and Seale are all vying for the starting job, but it's likely, due to their varying skill sets, that 2014 will be more of a running-back-by-comittee scenario.

Among the three, Wright got the most work last season, but his 20 carries for 102 yards in mostly mop-up duty weren't enough to lend much insight into how he'd be as a feature back. Sanders was the most sought-after recruit and arrived with a lot of expectations because of his famous father, but he had just five carries for 42 yards. It was clear the coaching staff was impressed with his playmaking ability because he was used to return punts, but he didn't get many opportunities to makes plays in that capacity. Seale, who will be a senior, is probably a step below the other two based on how he has been used during his career, but a strong spring could change that.

The countdown
No. 2: Backup quarterback
No. 3: Center
No. 4: Safety
No. 5: Fullback

Notre Dame at Stanford: Did you know?

November, 29, 2013
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As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info and sports information departments for these nuggets.
  • Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is completing 50 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer this season, an increase of 20 percentage points from last season. His 11 touchdowns on such passes lead the Pac-12 and ranks third among AQ quarterbacks behind Bryce Petty (13) and Tajh Boyd (12).
  • Since the start of last season, Stanford has an FBS-high 91 sacks, including 67 when they send four or fewer pass rushers. Last season against Notre Dame, Stanford had three sacks when sending four or fewer pass rushers.
  • Last season, Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor was stopped on two consecutive rushes from the Notre Dame 1-yard line in overtime, resulting in Notre Dame’s 20-13 victory. In the last 10 seasons, teams scored a touchdown on 85 percent of their drives that reached the opponent’s 1-yard line.
  • Notre Dame gave up an FBS-low four yards on goal-to-go situations last season, including just three yards in a goal-line stand against Stanford in overtime. This season, in such situations, Notre Dame ranks 10th in yards allowed (37) and tied for 10th in touchdowns allowed (9).
  • Hogan has targeted tight ends on just 6 percent of his pass attempts this season, down 42 percentage points from last season. That means that his wide receivers are getting more targets; Hogan has thrown 76 percent of his passes and 17 of his 18 touchdowns to wide receivers this season.
  • Tommy Rees is completing 65.6 percent of his passes and averaging 11 yards per attempt when targeting TJ Jones. When targeting any other wide receiver, Rees is completing 47.9 percent of his passes and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
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A few storylines to keep an eye on in the final week of the regular season:

  1. Home-field advantage: Who will host the Pac-12 title game? That’s up to Arizona State (and Arizona, for that matter). The scenario is pretty simple. If Arizona State wins, the Sun Devils will finish with an 8-1 record in Pac-12 play and will host Stanford in the championship game. If Arizona wins, the Sun Devils will be 7-2, the same record as the Cardinal, and Stanford will host the championship game by virtue of its tiebreaker over the Sun Devils.
  2. [+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
    Kevin Casey/Getty ImagesArizona tailback Ka'Deem Carey has rushed for 1,559 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
    Home-field advantage (Take 2): Oregon hasn’t lost at home to Oregon State since the overtime game in 2007. Washington hasn’t lost at home to Washington State since 2007. UCLA hasn’t won at the Coliseum since 1997. The Cardinal have a 15-game home winning streak, longest in the country. Arizona State has a seven-game home winning streak. Home-field advantage is obviously important. And for the reasons listed in the first bullet point, the location of the title game is still unknown. But it hinges on the Territorial Cup, and the visiting team has won the past four.
  3. Battle of strengths: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, along with his 155.9 yards per game and 14-game streak of rushing for 100 yards or more, heads to Tempe to face an Arizona State defense that is third in the league against the run, yielding 123.4 yards per game.
  4. The Kelly factor: There are a lot of reasons why ASU is riding a six-game win streak heading into its showdown with Arizona. But one key reason has been the increased use of quarterback Taylor Kelly in the running game. Through the first five games when the Sun Devils were 3-2, Kelly averaged 7.8 rushes per game and 25.8 yards per game with zero touchdowns. Over the past six games, he’s averaging 12.5 rushes per game and 47 yards with eight touchdowns.
  5. Showdown in Tinseltown: The Trojans have won 12 of the past 14 meetings, though the Bruins took out the Trojans last season. Unlike last season's game, there is no bearing on the Pac-12 South title since ASU has already wrapped it up. But there is no shortage of storylines. Is this the game that ends Ed Orgeron’s magnificent run as head coach? Or is it the game that convinces Pat Haden to drop “interim” from his title and make him the guy. It’s a game with massive recruiting implications in Southern California and is always the best game in town, since there is no other football.
  6. Rocky Mountain blues: Neither Colorado nor Utah are going to a bowl game -- again. There is certainly more disappointment in Salt Lake City for a team that had high hopes. But after beating Stanford in October, the Utes have dropped five in a row. Colorado has four wins so far -- which was the total from the past two seasons combined, so coach Mike MacIntyre has things moving in the right direction. At this point, it’s about either team trying to build up some momentum.
  7. Civil showdown: Oregon is looking to extend its Civil War winning streak to six straight over Oregon State. Both teams had a rough November, but an Oregon win would give the Ducks a sixth-straight 10-win season. The Beavers, meanwhile, are trying to snap a four-game skid. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota ranks second in the country in ESPN’s Total QBR ranking, while Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks leads the country with 141.8 receiving yards per game.
  8. Will the real Kevin Hogan please stand up: Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kevin Hogan had a career-high 98.9 Total QBR in Stanford’s 63-13 win against California. Hogan had career highs in passing yards (329), passing touchdowns (five) and 15-yard completions (15). Hogan bounced back from his career-low 23.1 Total QBR in Stanford’s loss to USC last Saturday.
  9. Stanford-Notre Dame quotable: Of course, we all remember how last year’s game ended in South Bend. Notre Dame’s goal-line stand in the rain, Stepfan Taylor failing to cross the goal line in overtime, etc. Coaches love to be reminded of stuff like that, and our own Ted Miller was kind enough to ask coach David Shaw about that play. His response: “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t watch that play again. I think I watched so many times last year that I don’t need to see it again. I know what happened.”
  10. Apples and apples: Washington State reached six wins for the first time since 2006 and could go to a bowl game for the first time since 2003. The Huskies are at the seven-win mark, a hump they’ve failed to get over of late, so this game has a tremendous impact on bowl pecking order. The Huskies are coming off a blowout win over Oregon State where Bishop Sankey rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He’s third in the nation in total yards. WSU safety Deone Bucannon, the Pac-12’s leading tackler, became the first Cougar to post back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles since the turn of the century.

Planning for success: Stanford

November, 27, 2013
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Stepfan TaylorJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast year's game against Notre Dame ended with Stepfan Taylor stopped just short of the end zone.



If there is any lingering anger over the final play in last year's 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame, Stanford coach David Shaw is doing a good job hiding it.

Officials ruled Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor came up just shy of the goal line on what would have been a game-tying touchdown in the first overtime period. Instead, game over. Irish win.

Notre Dame went on to play for the BCS National Championship, while Stanford rebounded to win its final eight games, including the Rose Bowl. A different ruling -- some replay angles made it look like Taylor was in -- could have led to a different outcome, which would have changed the college football landscape.

How so? Tough to say, but Stanford's case would have been as strong as any to meet Alabama in place of Notre Dame.

Alas, No. 8 Stanford isn't looking back and it's not using the trip to Notre Dame as additional motivation.

"Not at all, not at all," Shaw said. "For the older guys. The guys that are here, the guys that lived that moment … those were the guys saying it with me the day after.

"Whether they called it or not, 'Here's what we need to change and here's our attitude going forward.'"

For quarterback Kevin Hogan, running back Tyler Gaffney and wide receiver Ty Montgomery, last year's game doesn't mean a whole lot.

Hogan watched from the sideline, Montgomery was out with an injury and Gaffney wasn't on the roster. Now the trio represents Stanford's most important offensive players.

Montgomery's take away, from his cousin's couch in San Jose: "Wet. Hard to throw the ball. We lost."

Saturday's game may or may not be the final home game of the season for the Cardinal. If Arizona beats No. 12 Arizona State on Saturday, Stanford would host the Sun Devils in next week's Pac-12 championship game. If Arizona State wins, the game will be in Tempe.

Despite having little to play for tangibly, Shaw said there would be no looking ahead to next week.

"We talked briefly about the Pac-12 championship game, put it in its context," Shaw said. "I'm no good at ignoring things that are there. We addressed it yesterday. The important aspects of that and set it aside.

"If we don't give [Notre Dame] our full attention, they'll get after us."

No. 25 Notre Dame has won five of six and handed No. 11 Michigan State its only loss of the season. The Irish also own wins against No. 12 Arizona State and No. 23 USC.

Gaffney grinds Stanford to victory

November, 8, 2013
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Much like his performance Thursday night against Oregon, Tyler Gaffney's decision to give up baseball and return to Stanford came in small, grinding increments.

In the midst of his first season as a minor league baseball player, one year removed from the Stanford football team, Gaffney would watch the Cardinal play and miss it a little bit. Then he'd watch another game and miss it a little bit more. By the time the Rose Bowl came around, his mind was made up. He was giving up baseball and returning to play running back for the Cardinal.

Thursday night's performance paralleled his decision -- slow and deliberate. He'd carry the ball for a little bit. And then a little bit more. And when all the numbers were added up, Gaffney had carried a school-record 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in Stanford's 26-20 win over Oregon. His long was 16. His short was minus-1, one time.

With the victory, the No. 5 Cardinal (8-1, 6-1) seized control of the Pac-12 North and kept their national championship hopes alive while severely wounding No. 3 Oregon's (8-1, 5-1).

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTyler Gaffney watched Stanford beat Oregon last season. Thursday, he carried the load.
Gaffney was in attendance for his former team's 17-14 overtime win over the Ducks last season. It wasn't a tipping point, but it pushed him one step closer to coming back to football. And with every yard gained against the Ducks on Thursday night, it reaffirmed his choice.

"It was definitely a progressive decision," said Gaffney, who now has 13 rushing touchdowns on the year. "I did it for myself and what was best for me from a school standpoint and a football standpoint. Every game contributed a little bit. It didn't come down to one game. It was everything I'd seen, and what I wanted to do."

Thursday night, Stanford was the benefactor of that decision.

"We rode him like Secretariat," said Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. "At one point, I got on the head set and asked, 'Is this child abuse?' I asked him if he was doing OK when he got close to 40 carries, and he said he wanted to keep going."

Added Stanford coach David Shaw: "Forty-five carries -- I don't want to do that to anybody. We might have taken a year off his life tonight. But it's what our guys needed, and he rose to the challenge."

The entire team did as the Cardinal snapped Oregon's streak of 18 straight road wins. With the win, the Cardinal improve to 12-1 at home against ranked teams since 2009 -- the lone loss coming to Oregon in 2011.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, 47 of Gaffney's yards came after contact, meaning he was taking some folks with him. As a team, Stanford had more rushing yards after contact (86) than Oregon had for the game (62).

"It was a grinder," Gaffney said. "We made the holes. Oregon is really good at filing in with their safeties and their backside backers. It came down to lowering the shoulders and hope for the best."

Their best was a second straight win over Oregon, 274 rushing yards on 66 attempts, 42 minutes and 34 seconds of possession and 14 of 21 third-down conversions.

"They did a great job of just grinding it, and grinding it and grinding it and getting a bunch of short, third-down conversions," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.

With the Cardinal looking to fill the void of the graduated Stepfan Taylor, the school's all-time leading rusher, the running back job looked up for grabs following the 2012 season. And then Shaw got a text from Gaffney after the Rose Bowl that asked, "Hey coach, can we talk?"

"I knew exactly what that meant," Shaw said. "We had a home stretch toward the end of the year, including the Pac-12 championship game, where he was done with baseball and he was just around. We teased him about coming back. I honestly thought he'd give baseball two years, and then he'd be coming back next year."

Since his return, Gaffney has scored at least one touchdown in eight of Stanford's nine games. With the defense pitching a shutout through the first 50 minutes, the responsibility fell on Gaffney to muscle first downs (he averaged 3.5 yards per carry) and play the possession game. The Cardinal strung together a pair of 96-yard scoring drives -- including a 20-play, 96-yard drive to close out the first half that ate up 8:26 of clock and ended with one of Jordan Williamson's four field goals.

"We knew we were going to grind, and we knew we were going to grind with Tyler," Bloomgren said. "Did we think it was going to be 45 carries? No. You never expect that. But he's the type of guy that can handle it. So we just gave it to him and let him loose."

Q&A: Stanford's Kevin Danser

September, 6, 2013
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Stanford kicks off its season tomorrow night against San Jose State, and offensive lineman Kevin Danser couldn’t be more ready to start his fifth year. Danser, a 6-6, 295-pound guard who prepped at nearby Bellarmine, took some time to chat with the Pac-12 blog about the regional rivalry with the Spartans, the expectations for the Cardinal in 2013 and what the perfect offensive lineman would look like if he got to play Dr. Frankenstein.

The San Jose State game obviously isn’t as big of a rivalry as Cal, but being from the Bay Area, do you get the sense that a rivalry exists?

Kevin Danser: Of course. The San Jose State coach (Ron Caragher) is actually a former Bellarmine Bell, so we have that connection. There are a lot of local guys on the team. It’s huge bragging rights as well. You want to beat every team in the Bay Area and this is a great game to kick it off. My brother played for San Jose State so there are also some in-house bragging rights.

Last year, there was so much talk about who is going to replace Andrew Luck, seemingly lost in that shuffle was the fact that you had to replace David DeCastro. Not easy. Did you feel that pressure and what was it like being the guy that had to follow David?

KD: Obviously he was probably the best offensive lineman to ever come through this program. I never felt too much pressure. I came in and did my job. Listened to the coaches, they know what’s best. I just came in everyday and put my blue collar shirt on, put my tunnel worker’s hat on and came to work. I never really felt the pressure.

The line is obviously highly regarded -- some say it might be the best in the country. What are the goals you guys have set for yourselves on the line?

KD: Our goal is to be the best offensive line in the country. We want zero sacks. We want at least four yards per every carry. And convert every situation, every third down. We have high expectations for the line. We like to say we’re the forefront of the offense. It starts up front with us. We start it all off.

2011 was a fairly hyped year. A lot of that had to do with Luck coming back. This year you guys have a lot of expectations as well. How similar or different does this year feel going into the season versus 2011?

KD: I like to say every year is a little different. Obviously that year we had a ton of talent with Andrew, David, Moose (Jonathan Martin), great receivers, great running backs like S.T. (Stepfan Taylor). This year also comes with expectations. Through our training camp, we’ve talked about that and we feel OK about the expectations.

You’re going into your fifth year so you've really seen the evolution of this program. What’s it been like to be a part of that and how have you seen the program change in the last half decade?

KD: It’s been unbelievable watching it change. The thing that sets us apart is competition. Every day you are out there competing. Whether it’s competing for your job against Josh Garnett or competing against a defense that is one of the best in the country. No job, no spot is guaranteed. And that’s what’s really helped this program grow.

You’re majoring in biomechanical engineering. If you were biomechanically engineering the perfect offensive lineman, would he look like David Yankey?

KD: I don’t want to throw Yank under the bus, but if I were biomechanically engineering the perfect offensive lineman he’d look like David DeCastro. That guy was a true specimen. He truly was a student of the game as well. The way he studied it and the way he approached it was unbelievable. In all aspects, he was one of the best linemen I’ve ever seen. But Yankey is up there. I don’t want to sell him short. He’s very good as well. He’s not a guy to sleep on.

You were mentioned for the center job and then David Shaw said you were too good at guard and Khalil Wilkes ends up winning it. What does he bring that Chase (Beeler) and Sam (Schwartzstein) had. What’s the common thread between Stanford centers?

KD: The biggest thing is the experience he brings to the table. He played in 14 games last year. He knows the offense really well. He’s a natural fit. Everyone feels good having him in there. We felt like Khalil brings to the party what we’re looking for and he is of the mold of Chase Beeler or Sam Schwartzstein. We feel good about the way he communicates with us.

Finish this sentence for me. In 2013, Stanford football will be ….?

KD: In 2013, Stanford football will have an epic year.

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 9

August, 20, 2013
8/20/13
10:00
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s top 25 preseason players in 2013 continues.

A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won’t make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2012 postseason top 25 here.

9. David Yankey, OG, Stanford

2012 numbers: Yankey helped pave the way for Stepfan Taylor’s 1,530 rushing yards -- which was the second highest total in school history. He was part of a unit that allowed a league-low 17 sacks during the regular season and 20 in 14 games and he yielded just one sack in 14 games.

2012 postseason ranking: No. 19

Making the case for Yankey: Though his natural position is guard, he started 13 games last season at left tackle. However, at times during the year, he ended up playing four of the five spots on the line and even pitched in at tight end in some of Stanford’s overloaded formations. Playing out of position, Yankey was a consensus All-American, first-team all-conference and he earned the league’s Morris Trophy for top offensive lineman. The 6-5, 313-pounder from Georgia returns this year to his natural position inside where he’s considered one of the top pulling linemen in the nation. He headlines a Stanford offensive front that is regarded by many as tops in the country and will again be a key player in the Cardinal's rushing attack as they return to a by-committee approach following the departure of Taylor.

10. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
11. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
12. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
13. Austin Seferian Jenkins, TE, Washington
14. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
15. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
16. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
17. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
18. Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
22. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
23. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
24. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford

Stanford Cardinal season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
10:30
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We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season in reverse alphabetical order with the Stanford Cardinal.

Stanford

Coach: David Shaw (23-4)

2012 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12 North)

Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OLB Chase Thomas

Key returnees: QB Kevin Hogan, OT David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds

Newcomer to watch: Stanford loves to rotate its linebacking corps, and outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi is impressive. He was a five- or four-star recruit, depending on which service you follow, and was one of the highest-rated OLBs in the country. He has a strong chance to play his way into the rotation.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford coach David Shaw has smiled a lot since Kevin Hogan became the starting QB late in the 2012 season.
Biggest games in 2013: The eyes of a college football nation will be tuned in on Thursday, Nov. 7, to see Oregon’s trip to Palo Alto. But there are plenty of big games before and after that -- including Arizona State (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 5), UCLA (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 16) and the finale against Notre Dame (Nov. 30). If the Cardinal repeat as conference champs, they will have earned it.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It might have been the running back situation and the fact they have to replace Taylor. But Tyler Gaffney’s return from professional baseball adds experience and depth and bolsters a committee that should be able to mimic Taylor’s production. Receiving production, however, is still up in the air. Five of the top six receiving options from last year are gone -- including tight end Zach Ertz, Taylor and Drew Terrell. Ty Montgomery was sensational in 2011 and if he returns to form, could be a bona fide stretch-the-field threat. Behind him are a host of talented, but mostly unproven players. Look for Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield and freshman Francis Owusu (yes, that name should ring a bell), to work into the rotation.

Forecast: Expectations have never been higher for the Cardinal as they enter the year a preseason top-5 team. This is a veteran-heavy team that’s built to win tight games and grind opponents down in the fourth quarter.

The offensive focal point will be the progress of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who took over last season and went 5-0 as a starter -- including a 4-0 mark against Top 25 teams. He’s got one of the top offensive lines in the country -- headlined by All-American David Yankey -- protecting him, and a stellar defense has his back. Often forgotten is fullback Ryan Hewitt, who returns as one of the best in the country.

The running back group will be interesting to watch. Coach David Shaw strayed from his preferred by-committee method last season as Taylor carried 322 times -- most of anyone in the Pac-12. But he was that reliable. Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Barry Sanders et al should all contribute and carve out their niche in the offense.

Aside from the aforementioned receiving position, many are eager to see what tight end Luke Kaumatule can do stepping in as a full-time player. The Cardinal were spoiled the past few years with Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener. Now it’s Kaumatule’s turn to carry the torch for what has been the nation’s most productive tight end-driven offense the past couple of years.

There are no real weak spots on Stanford’s defense. Five of the front seven are back from last year -- including DE Ben Gardner, ILB Shayne Skov and OLB Trent Murphy. The defensive backfield features, arguably, the nation’s top safety tandem in Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards and Usua Amanam doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves as an outstanding nickel.

As noted above, the Cardinal play a very difficult schedule -- including four straight rivalry games to close out the season. This may seem daunting, and it is. But the Cardinal could have as many as 18 juniors or seniors in the starting 22, so chances are there isn’t a situation they haven’t seen or played through before. That experience will be invaluable as the Cardinal look to defend their conference title and try to make a run to another Rose Bowl -- or beyond.

Biggest play of 2012?

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
5:30
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If we ask what was the biggest play of the Pac-12's 2012 season, the one thing we know before we start to debate is it will involve Stanford.

SportsNation

What was the biggest play of the 2012 season?

  •  
    3%
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    25%
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    53%
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    5%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,113)

Stanford not only won the Pac-12 because it came out on the better end of many of those big plays, it also was involved in plays that decided the national championship.

Consider:
  • If Stanford beats Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish don't play Alabama for the national title.
  • If Stanford loses at Oregon, the Ducks probably would have played Alabama for the national title.
  • Stanford first exposed USC as a national title pretender.
  • And the Cardinal have plenty of their own "what ifs" in losses to the Irish and Washington.
But what was the biggest individual play of the Pac-12 season?


We see four choices.

  • With the score tied at 14-14 in the fourth quarter against USC, the Cardinal faced a 3rd-and-10 at midfield. Then starting Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes dropped back, but couldn't find anyone and was under pressure. Yet the not terribly mobile Nunes scampered 12 yards for a first down. Two plays later, he connects with tight end Zach Ertz for a 37-yard go-ahead touchdown.
  • Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor is stopped -- well, sort of -- just inches short of Notre Dame's goal line in overtime, giving the Irish a 20-13 victory, the signature win of their season. Of course, Cardinal fans will tell you that Taylor scored, not once but twice, on the final set of downs.
  • In the first quarter of their 17-14 victory at Oregon, backup safety Devon Carrington caught Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota from behind, preventing him from getting the final 15 yards of what looked like a sure 92-yard touchdown run. The Cardinal defense then held when the Ducks were stopped on fourth-and-2 on the 7-yard line four plays later.
  • Facing a 3rd-and-15 early in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 title game against UCLA, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, under intense pressure, connects with Drew Terrell for a 26-yard, game-tying touchdown. Without that play, Stanford might not have played in its first Rose Bowl since the 1999 season.

Or is there another play that was bigger this past season?
All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Player series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.

Stanford: LB Shayne Skov

2012 production: Led the Cardinal with 81 total tackles while recording nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

[+] EnlargeShayne Skov
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWhen he's healthy, Shayne Skov is one of the top linebackers in the country.
Why Skov is so important: You could easily make an argument that whoever wins the running back competition could occupy this spot. After all, Stanford's offensive philosophy is ground-and-pound and that's not going to change with the departure of Stephan Taylor. But the fact that Stanford will take much more of a by-committee approach in 2013 than it did in 2012 leaves that point open for debate.

There is no debate, however, about what Skov means to this team. Before his season-ending knee injury at Arizona in 2011, he was slotted as a potential first-round draft pick. He returned in 2012 and was very good. But not quite back to where he was pre-injury.

He is now. And that bodes very well for one of the top defensive units in the country.

"Talking to him at the end of spring, he estimated that he was between 90-95 percent and you could see when he got back for our second session in April, he was passing guys again like he used to," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "He was passing up other defenders on his way to the ball.

"He was excited to feel that explosion back. To feel that speed back that he never really felt all year. He was healthy all year. He had the strength all year. He wore the knee brace. But the knee could protect itself and he was not at risk of injury. It was just that explosion is always the last thing to come back. And everybody is different when that does come back. I think it's finally back and he's going to start training camp at 100 percent and hopefully better than ever."

And offensive coordinators around the league just felt a chill down their spines.

Skov is obviously impactful for what he does on the field -- especially if he truly is 100 percent. Because an 80-percent Shayne Skov in 2012 was still pretty darn good. But what he can do off the field is just as inspiring.

Watch some of his locker room speech before the USC game and you'll get an idea of what Skov does for this team.

He is the kind of player who can motivate the entire team with his play on the field and inspire them with his fire off it. Flanked by a front seven that was No. 5 nationally against the run, No. 2 in tackles for loss and the best in the country at tallying sacks, Skov will be looked upon again to be the leader of a defense filled with leaders.

Skov's decision to come back -- made in congress with outside linebacker Trent Murphy and defensive end Ben Gardner -- gives the Cardinal three of the top players nationally at their positions in the front seven. The defense is expected to be even better than it was in 2012. And there's little doubt that a 100-percent Skov will be its leader on the field and in the locker room.
Unlike last year, there is no quarterback competition at Stanford. But the recently released post-spring depth chart does reveal some potentially interesting developments to eye-ball heading into fall.

Starting on offense -- there are only two running backs listed -- Anthony Wilkerson "or" Tyler Gaffney as the starter. Both are trying to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, though it's widely believed the Cardinal will take more of a committee approach than they did last year, when Taylor led the Pac-12 with 322 carries. There is plenty of depth, albeit mostly inexperienced, behind Gaffney and Wilkerson.

Also of note offensively is the addition of Kevin Danser on the depth chart at center. He's slated to start at right guard, though there is also an "or" separating Khalil Wilkes, Conor McFadden and Danser at center. It will be interesting to watch in the fall if Danser continues to get work at center. And if he wins the job, it would allow the Cardinal to insert Josh Garnett into the starting rotation at guard. That would give the Cardinal a starting front of Andrus Peat (LT), David Yankey (LG), Danser (C), Garnett (RG) and Cam Fleming (RT).

With the news of Josh Nunes' retirement yesterday, Evan Crower is locked in as the backup to Kevin Hogan and, for now, Devon Cajuste looks like he'll start opposite Ty Montgomery at receiver.

Fullback Geoff Meinken also announced he'll retire after struggling to return from a knee injury that kept him out of 2012.

At tight end -- Stanford's go-to receiving position the last couple of years -- Luke Kaumatule and Davis Dudchock are separated by an "or." However both will probably get a ton of work in Stanford's two-tight-end sets.

Defensively, there are only two "ors" on the depth chart. Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro have a good competition going at defensive and Blake Lueders and James Vaughters are undecided at the outside linebacker spot to release Chase Thomas. Though the Cardinal rotate backers and defensive linemen so frequently that "starter" is more of an honorary title.

Worth noting also that Devon Carrington, who has spent his career at safety, is also listed as a backup with Usua Amanam at right cornerback behind Wayne Lyons. Amanam is Stanford's go-to nickelback and Carrington is also backing up Ed Reynolds.

Looking at the specialists, up for grabs is the punter, which could go to either Ben Rhyne or Conrad Ukropina. Montgomery looks set at kick return while it's a four-way race between him, Kodi Whitfield, Keanu Nelson and Barry Sanders to return punts.

You can see the complete depth chart here and interpret it as you see fit.

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