Much of Stanford's football history is marked by outstanding quarterbacks ranging from John Brodie to Jim Plunkett to John Elway to Andrew Luck, four of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the college game, but it's been a generation or two since the program was defined by the men under center.
When Jim Harbaugh arrived at Stanford in 2007, he immediately went about changing the culture of the football program, instilling toughness and physicality by emphasizing the running game and a pro-style offense. The Cardinal has thrived since then, and even as leadership has transferred from Harbaugh to David Shaw, the blueprint remains. In a five-wide world, Stanford football is a quaint reminder of yesteryear.
How dramatic has this change been? The Harbaugh-Shaw Era has seen six of the seven highest single-season team totals in school history, including the three highest and 2013's record total of 2,904 yards. The key, though -- as revealed in the chart to the left -- has been the balance. Only in 20110 and '11, when Andrew Luck was at the peak of his powers, did the passing yardage reflect a significant percentage of the total offense, a formula that leads to first downs, time of possession dominance, and BCS bowl games.
But as important as these team numbers are, a team's running game is often only as good as its lead back. The proliferation of wide open offenses has made 3,000 yard passing seasons less impressive (fifteen quarterbacks reached that mark in 2004, but thirty-three did so in 2013, including ten who topped 4,000 yards), but one thousand yards remains the standard by which running backs are measured.
The Stanford offense has featured a thousand-yard back in each of the past six seasons. How significant is this? Only one team in America -- the Oregon Ducks, owners of a seven-year streak -- can match that accomplishment. If you look at the list to the right, you'll notice Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor, two of the top three Stanford rushers of all time.
A year ago at this time most observers were wondering how the offense would replace the lost production after Taylor's graduation, and Shaw did his best to convince anyone listening that he'd turn to a committee of running backs to fill Taylor's shoes. He refused to name a starter, saying that instead he'd simply send out the back that best fit the situation at hand. Anthony Wilkerson, Remound Wright, and Ricky Seale were expected to share carries with Gaffney, but that idea didn't last long.
Gaffney had 20 of the 33 running back carries in the season opener against San Jose State, accounting for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and neither he nor Shaw looked back once. Gaffney went on to rush for 1,709 yards, the second highest total in Stanford history, while scoring 21 touchdowns (third best). Those numbers vaulted him to seventh on the all-time school rushing list and third in career touchdowns.
Now that he's gone it looks like Shaw might finally have his running back by committee. With Gaffney and the second-highest gaining running back, Anthony Wilkerson, both lost to graduation, the only players returning with any significant experience are Remound Wright, Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale, and Barry Sanders.
That group totalled only 50 carries for 292 yards, but there is reason for optimism. Wright is probably the player most likely to be on the field for the opening snap against UC Davis, as he fits the physical profile and performs well in pass protection, a must for any Stanford back. Shaw clearly trusts him in key situations, as Wright emerged as something of a short-yardage specialist in 2013. It remains to be seen how he might fare with twenty carries a game, but the opportunity is definitely there for him.
Observers who watched spring practice reported that Kelsey Young was the most impressive back in this group. He's long been one of the fastest and most talented offensive players, but he's been a man without a position during his first two years on the field. Even during his redshirt freshman year the coaching staff openly admitted that they didn't know quite how to handle him, but they realized he needed to have his hands on the ball in space. He rarely took a simple hand off. Instead he'd get the ball on jet sweeps or short screen passes, anything to give him a chance to make a play. In 2013 his position was officially switched to wide receiver, but that didn't change much for him on the field. I've been calling for ten touches a game for Young for quite some time, but last season he had a total of just seventeen -- three receptions and 14 rushes. In 2012 he had twenty-two touches. Hopefully this will be the year that gets his chance.
Two years ago Shaw said that he felt bad for Ricky Seale because even though he was good enough to start for most teams in the country, he was buried on the Stanford depth chart. He arrived at Stanford with quality credentials, but fans have seen little evidence of that. In three years he has gained just 34 yards on 11 carries.
If we're being honest, though, the running back that most Stanford fans want to see more of is Barry J. Sanders. He arrived on campus with the hype you'd expect given the fact that his father was probably the greatest running back in college football history and on the short list of all-time NFL greats, and Shaw did his part to increase anticipation. When introducing his recruiting class on the evening of National Signing Day in 2012, Shaw admitted that since they didn't really need a running back at the time, the staff had decided only to sign one if something special was possible. Sanders, he declared, was special. He said he believed Sanders was the best running back in America, and hearts started beating faster throughout Cardinal Nation.
We've seen glimpses of Sanders's brilliance, most notably on an electric sequence of plays in the Washington State game last season, as well as a few punt returns, and the idea of watching young Sanders skipping through the line and jitterbugging past mystified linebackers is enough to send us all to bed with visions of Heisman Trophies dancing in our heads.
Beyond these backs also looms the possibility of true freshman Christian McCaffrey, whom some expect to be Stanford's next Heisman-caliber running back. Another Stanford player with a famous football father, McCaffrey has long since made a name of his own and is certainly talented enough to see the field this season, even with the thick group of backs ahead of him.
While the string of thousand-yard backs could come to an end this season, we will see another year of dominant performances from the Stanford running game. The names may change, but the blueprint remains the same.