When I wrote my running backs preview back in August, I talked about offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's spring-time suggestion that Stepfan Taylor was good enough to run for 2,000 yards in 2012. He was good enough, sure, but there were simply too many other options in the backfield for him to get the carries necessary to reach that plateau. Too many other backs, people like Anthony Wilkerson, Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale, Remound Wright, and maybe even Barry Sanders, would see action and be effective enough to give Taylor a rest from time to time.
It didn't turn out that way. Taylor was as good as he was expected to be. Although he dipped below five yards per carry for the first time in his Stanford career, he set career highs in every other category that matters (302 carries, 1442 yards, 38 receptions, and 270 receiving yards) and was named second-team All-Pac-12. He might not have been invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist (the first time since 2008 that a Stanford player wasn't there), but by almost any measure, Stepfan Taylor is the greatest running back in the history of Stanford football.
His 4,212 career rushing yards top the all-time list, and his season totals over the past three years are the second-, third-, and fourth-highest single-season totals in school history, trailing only Toby Gerhart's 1,871 yards in 2009. Also, he's the only Stanford back ever with three consecutive thousand-yard seasons.
But this piece is supposed to be about 2012, so let's return our focus to this season. Taylor had eight hundred-yard games, but unlike some running backs who pile up big numbers against substandard competition, Taylor's yards were meaningful. (He only had a total of 24 carries in Stanford's blowout wins over Duke and Colorado, and he sat out most of the second half once the regular season finale against UCLA was well in hand.)
In Stanford's biggest wins, Taylor was the catalyst. He rushed 27 times for 153 yards in the 21-14 win over USC, 31 for 142 in the overtime shootout against Arizona, 28 for a career-high 189 at Cal to help retain the Axe, and 33 for 161 in the huge upset at Oregon. The bigger the game, the bigger Kulabafi was.
Beyond Taylor, though, things did not go as planned. I've had high expectations for Anthony Wilkerson for two years now, but since his breakout freshman campaign saw him rush 89 times for 408 yards, his numbers have diminished each year. He only touched the ball 45 times this season and accounted for just 193 yards. (Quarterback Kevin Hogan rushed for 209.) While he continues to tantalize at times with flashes of brilliance, he still seems to be missing something. Even so, he'll be a leading candidate to earn the starting job in 2013. And I still believe in him.
One surprise of the 2012 season was the emergence of redshirt freshman Remound Wright. Even though he's much smaller than Wilkerson at only 5'9", Wright gained favor as a short yardage back in some situations, and he proved to be effective. He's fast enough to be an every down back, though, so he'll also be fighting for a larger role next season.
Kelsey Young was probably the most electric player on the roster this season, but I'm not sure if it's right to include him with the rest of the running backs. The coaches decided early on that they needed to get him the ball in space, but they never quite settled on a consistent way to do that. Early on he saw a handful of wide receiver screens, but later in the season they started giving him the ball on the jet sweep out of the wildcat formation. His role never expanded beyond three or four touches a game, probably just because Taylor was the clear focus of the offense, but I'm guessing we'll see much, much more of him next year.
One of the more interesting things about football is also the most obvious -- the effectiveness of one position can have a huge effect on the effectiveness of another, much more so than in any other sport. When Kevin Hogan was installed as the starter at quarterback, the playbook opened up again and suddenly the coaches remembered how crucial the fullback is to this offense. Ryan Hewitt only caught 14 passes this season, but eleven of those receptions came after Hogan took over. Hogan's first completion in the Colorado game went to Hewitt on Jon Gruden's favorite play, Spider 3-Y banana. More than anything, that play signaled a return to what Stanford has done so well for the past three years.
2012 Grade: A-
2013 Outlook: B+
Notes on 2013:
Yes, Taylor will be gone, but Wilkerson, Wright, Ricky Seale, and Barry Sanders all return. The offensive line promises to better, even with the loss of center Sam Schwartzstein, and the running game will benefit by Hogan's continued improvement.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]