One in a series of articles looking back at the 2013 season and evaluating each position group.
Late on the evening of January 1, 2013, as the Cardinal celebrated a victory over Wisconsin in the 99th Rose Bowl, one of the thousands of Stanford fans in attendance was Tyler Gaffney. He was in Pasadena not as a player, but as a fan, albeit one with deeper connections to the team than the rest of us.
He had come out of San Diego's Cathedral Catholic High School with a four-star rating and the preposterous statistics to back it up -- 2,880 yards rushing and 48 touchdowns in his senior year alone. But with two of the greatest running backs in Stanford history ahead of him (Toby Gerhart in 2009 and Stepfan Taylor in 2010 and '11), Gaffney was strictly a backup during his first three years, carrying the ball only 156 times for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Things were going better for Gaffney on the baseball field, where he was the starting left fielder for the Cardinal nine during each of his first three years on the Farm. He hit .328 as a freshman and .327 as a sophomore before dipping to .245 as a junior, but of the two sports, his future looked to be in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 24th round of the 2012 amateur draft, and he played well in 38 games for their Class-A team, posting a .483 on-base percentage and .925 OPS while stealing 11 bases. He appeared to have made the correct choice.
Perhaps if baseball's off-season didn't coincide with the peak of the college football season, things might have turned out differently. But Gaffney found himself in Pasadena as a spectator last January, and one can only imagine what he must've been thinking as he watched his former teammates celebrating Stanford's first Rose Bowl victory in more than thirty years.
Gaffney has said that he simply missed football, but I'm guessing there was a bit more to it than that. Did he think back to high school and his dominant senior season, the campaign that led many scouts to rank him amongst the greatest running backs in the nation? Was there a sense of unfinished business?
Whatever the reason, Gaffney contacted Coach Shaw soon after that Rose Bowl and asked to come back. It's a good thing he did.
Heading into the season, Gaffney's return was expected to give added depth to the position, and all signs pointed to a backfield-by-committee approach. With seniors Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, junior Remound Wright, and sophomore Barry J. Sanders at their disposal, it seemed the coaching staff would play whichever back best fit the series of plays being called. There was no reason to believe that any of the four might emerge as the lead back -- or so we were told.
From the first game, however, there was a definite leader. Gaffney got 20 of the 32 running back carries in the opener against San Jose State, then 20 of 26 against Army. He topped 100 yards in each of those games, but his production dipped a bit over the next three before he reasserted himself with 16 carries for 108 yards in the Utah loss.
From that game on, not only was he the leader in the Stanford backfield, he was one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. Over the final eight games of the season, Gaffney topped the century mark seven times (he settled for 95 yards on just 16 carries in the 63-13 blowout win over Cal) and rushed for a total of 1,156 yards and 14 touchdowns. In the Pac-12, only Washington's Bishop Sankey and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey rushed for more than that in the entire season.
What Gaffney did this season was historic. After Toby Gerhart's epic Heisman run in 2009, Gaffney's 2013 is clearly the second-greatest season for a running back in Stanford history. Thus far he has 306 carries for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns. Once his Rose Bowl numbers are added to his ledger, Gaffney will have totalled the second-most carries in school history, and he already sits at number two on the school's single-season yardage list. Two more touchdowns will tie him with Tommy Vardell for the second-highest scoring season in Stanford history. It's impossible to imagine what 2013 would've been like without him.
But Gaffney wasn't the only running back to perform well this season. Anthony Wilkerson might not have lived up to the expectations most had for him when he signed with the Cardinal four years ago, but he has been a solid backup, and he gained more than a thousand yards in his Stanford career. Kelsey Young might be listed as a wide receiver, but since he only caught three passes and carried the ball fourteen times, I'll include him here. He should be used more, but since every carry he gets is one fewer for Gaffney, I suppose I can understand why he only had 17 touches in 13 games.
Finally, there's fullback Ryan Hewitt. Even though he only touched the ball twelve times, he was still a critical part of the running game as he developed into an outstanding blocker and was often leading the way for Gaffney, erasing linebackers to turn three-yard runs into eight- or ten-yard gains.
The offensive line deserves half the credit, but there can only be one grade for a unit that will finish the season as statistically the best in school history.
Overall Grade: A
Future Outlook for the Position: B+
We can't assume that Gaffney's production will be easily replaced, but there is still a great deal of optimism about the running backs currently on the roster and one who will likely join them. Remound Wright looks more and more like Anthony Wilkerson -- a back who will play for one series in each half to give the starter a bit of a rest -- but Barry J. Sanders has the potential to be an elite running back. Not only could he rush for more than a thousand yards next season, he could even emerge as one of the top backs in the conference.
Beyond that, we assume, there will be Christian McCaffrey. Though still a senior in high school, McCaffrey has committed to the Cardinal, and some observers see him as one of the best running back recruits in school history.
The future is definitely bright.