College football teams develop indentities over time, but sometimes the perception does not match reality. Such is the case for Stanford Football, a team with a rich legacy at the quarterback position starting with the recently departed Andrew Luck and stretching back through John Elway, Jim Plunkett, Guy Benjamin, Mike Boryla, John Brodie, Bob Garrett, and Frankie Albert. All eight of those men earned first-team All-America honors, a claim few other universities can make.
But as great as those quarterbacks were, the list of running backs over the past thirty years is equally impressive. Darrin Nelson, Brad Muster, Tommy Vardell, Glyn Milburn, and Toby Gerhart were also listed on All-America teams, and the tradition they established lives on in today's Stanford Cardinal.
Even with Andrew Luck leading the way as the best player in America over the past three seasons, Stanford has still been a run-first offense. During the three years of the the Andrew Luck Era, the offense produced the three most prolific rushing totals in school history and ranked 10th, 18th, and 20th in the nation. Quarterback U? Guess again.
Stepfan Taylor, Stanford's leading rusher from the past two seasons, returns as the focal point of the backfield. Taylor currently ranks fourth amongst active running backs, trailing only Wisconsin's Montee Ball (3310 yards), Fresno State's Robbie Rouse (3157), and SMU's Zach Line (2907). With 2770 yards of his own, Taylor has a legitimate shot at catching Darrin Nelson atop Stanford's all-time career rushing list.
Lost in the wreckage of last year's Fiesta Bowl was a small footnote. Taylor set career highs with 35 carries for 177 yards, possibly setting the stage for his best season yet in 2012. During spring football offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton claimed that Taylor had the ability to rush for 2000 yards during his senior season, but when I asked head coach David Shaw about that statement, he quickly brushed it aside.
"He has the ability, sure, but I wouldn't do that to him," he said. "I saw the beating that Toby [Gerhart] took, and I won't do that to him."
Shaw went on to explain that he simply wouldn't have to. Even with the unexpected loss of Tyler Gaffney, the team's second-leading rusher in 2011 who bypassed his senior year when he signed a baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the backfield is still loaded.
Junior Anthony Wilkerson is the clear number two back, but I'm guessing he gets at least ten carries a game this fall. He showed flashes of brilliance during his freshman campaign in 2010, backing up Taylor with 51 carries for 242 yards in his final four Pac-10 games, bringing some to call for an increased role in 2011. But Wilkerson disappointed as a sophomore. His disappearance from the offense was mysterious, as he saw double-digit carries only once (against Washington, when even forty-one year-old bloggers could've gained positive yards) and rushed three times or fewer in eight of the Cardinal's thirteen games.
Wilkerson is a big, fast running back, and there aren't too many of those out there. The hope here is that he'll be more involved in the offense. Assuming that Taylor performs as expected, Wilkerson could be one of the greatest x-factors on the team. If he can top 500 yards, this offense will be difficult to stop.
Behind Taylor and Wilkerson, things get a bit murkier. Three former four-star recruits fill out the depth chart at running back. Junior Ricky Seale and sophomores Remound Wright and Kelsey Young all got a considerable amount of action both in the Spring Game and last weekend's open scrimmage, but it's doubtful that will translate to too much playing time in the fall. When I spoke with Shaw about the running backs last May (at a time when he assumed Gaffney would be returning), he actually sighed when Seale's name was mentioned.
"Ricky Seale is the one player on this team that I don't even like to look at. I just feel so awful for him," he explaine. "Here's a guy who would be starting for most teams in the country, and we just don't have a spot for him. There's nothing I can say to him."
He was, however, much more optimisitc about Young. "We have a depth chart on a board in my office. The receivers are listed here, and the running backs are listed here. Right in the middle, all by himself, we've got Kelsey." He explained that Young is so explosive that the staff has realized they simply have to find a way to get him the ball. It might only be four or five times a game, but I think we can expect to see a package of screens and reverses specifically designed for him.
Behind those five backs, of course, is a freshman named Barry J. Sanders. Sanders is an interesting case. With the embarassment of riches at running back, the Stanford coaches went into last year's recruiting season thinking that they wouldn't sign another runner unless they could find a game changer, and Sanders fits that bill. At his National Signing Day press conference, Shaw explained that even though the different recruiting services all ranked several running backs ahead of Sanders, his staff disagreed. "This is the best running back in America."
Sanders seemed to justify Shaw's faith, tantalizing the crowd last weekend with a handful of spectacular runs, but the backfield just might be too crowded for him to see any carries until 2013. He has gotten a lot of reps returning kicks, so it's possible he could make an impact on special teams.
Running backs have thrived in Stanford's pro-style offense thanks to the presence of great fullbacks. Owen Marecic set the standard under Jim Harbaugh, and converted tight end Ryan Hewitt actually expanded the fullback position last season. His run blocking was excellent (as was that of backup Geoff Meinken), but his pass catching skills offered a new wrinkle not seen with Marecic. He twisted an ankle in Sunday's scrimmage, but there doesn't seem to be much concern about that. Expect him to be an important component of the passing game as something of a safety valve for Josh Nunes as he learns the ropes.
Aside from the linebackers, the running back position will be the deepest and most talented position on the field for Stanford in 2012, and this should come as no surprise. Afterall, it's what we've been seeing for the past three years.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]