Most of the elite college football programs in America have clear identities which often include ties to a particular position on the field, even if these associations sometimes have more to do with our collective memory than recent history. USC, for example, will always be Tailback U, no matter how many quarterbacks and linebackers they send to the NFL, and Penn State remains synonymous with linebackers, not pedophiles.
It's no different with Cardinal football. Long before this current era of excellence, the generally mediocre Stanford football program would occasionally produce a great team that might find its way to a Rose Bowl, but postseason games were not the regular events that they are today. Even so, the Farm became known as fertile ground for producing quarterbacks, with Jim Plunkett winning the Heisman Trophy in 1971, and other luminaries such as John Brodie, Guy Benjamin, and John Elway* going on to become fixtures in the NFL. The Stanford arrival of Andrew Luck** ten years ago and his subsequent All-Pro NFL career only added to this legacy.
But I think there's a deeper legacy running through the history of Stanford football, stretching all the way back to the origins of the game. Back in the Roaring '20s Ernie Nevers, considered by many to be one of the greatest football players of all-time, was a consensus All-America and Stanford's first star. Fifty years later Darrin Nelson burst onto the scene and did things no one before him had, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to run for more than a thousand yards, and the first player ever to rush for a thousand yards and catch 50 passes in the same season, a feat he accomplished three times in his Stanford career.
From there the list continues, with Brad Muster, Touchdown Tommy Vardell, Toby Gerhart*, Stepfan Taylor, and Tyler Gaffney all writing their own chapters in the rich history of Stanford running backs.
And then came Christian McCaffrey*, the best football player in Stanford history, and one of the greatest ever to play the college game.
Ironically, that clip from the 2016 Rose Bowl features a passing play instead of a handoff, but that play, more than anything else, defines McCaffrey and what he meant to Stanford football. The Iowa defense, after spending four weeks watching film and presumably creating a game plan geared towards stopping the most explosive player in America, had their opportunity on the first play of the game. The Cardinal ran a play they had run before, a play the Hawkeye players and coaches had certainly seen on tape, and still the defense had no answer. McCaffrey ran through them as if he were a ringer in a Pop Warner game at the local park. The play, of course, was only the beginning of what would become the greatest game of McCaffrey's career, and possibly the greatest game ever played by anyone in the greatest bowl game of them all. It still gives me goosebumps.
All of this -- especially the brief review of McCaffrey's career -- is critical as we look at what Bryce Love* did last year and consider what we might expect from him in 2018. When I interviewed Love at media day last summer, I asked him about the legacy he was stepping into, and he didn't hesitate. "It's an honor. You look at all the great backs that have been here, from Tommy Vardell to Darin Nelson to Christian, Stepfan Taylor, Toby Gerhart. The list goes on and on. Greatness is here. I wouldn't say it's pressure, but it makes you want to live up to the standard that's been set."
Love has done more than just live up to the standard; he's redefined it. Certainly, we had seen glimpses of Love's explosive potential in his role as McCaffrey's backup, and when he started twice in games McCaffrey missed, he logged 129 yards against Notre Dame and 115 against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, but no one on the planet could've predicted that what Love would do in 2017 would actually eclipse what we had seen from his predecessor. McCaffrey's ability as a receiver and his contributions returning punts and kicks make him the greatest player in Stanford history, but the title of Best Running Back clearly goes to Jonathan Bryce Love.
The cryptic chart to the left tells part of the story about Bryce Love's historic 2017 campaign. Running down the left-hand column you'll see his game-by-game rushing totals, and in the right-hand column you'll see his longest rush from each of those games. The first column adds up to 2,118 yards, a mind-boggling total that surpassed the Stanford record McCaffrey had set only two years earlier. That's amazing enough, but other running backs have run for more than two thousands yards in a season. Instead of being blinded by all that, go back and let your eyes scan down the second column.
In each of the first eight games he had at least one touchdown run of fifty yards or longer, perhaps the craziest number I've ever heard. It got to the point where I actually felt a bit of a let down whenever the Cardinal offense crossed midfield because it was a lost opportunity for another 50+ yard touchdown for Love. When I spoke to Coach David Shaw about his star running back last week, he pointed out an equally mind-bending statistic, reminding me that Love is currently riding a streak of fifteen consecutive games with a run of thirty yards or more. "I've never heard of anything like that," he said.
No one has. Love has piled up numbers that are difficult to believe, and in the process he's rewriting the Stanford record book. In addition to the single-season rushing record, he also has the single-game record (301 yards vs. Arizona State), the mark for most 100-yard rushing games in a season, with 12, and the career record for yards per carry (7.76). And even though Shaw has cautioned against focusing on Love's numbers and comparing them to his 2017 output, let's dispense with that idea immediately. We'll be watching closely as Love progresses through the season and threatens to ink his name alongside every major rushing record in Stanford history.
While it could be a stretch for Love to find the end zone twenty times, the other two records should fall easily. Even so, perhaps Shaw is right to temper expectations. After all, few players in history have done what Love did in 2017, so it would be unrealistic to expect him to to do it again, right? Well, maybe not.
If you forget about the numbers you read in the boxscore and instead remember what you saw with your eyes, you'll probably come up with two primary images that define Bryce Love in 2017. First there's the good one -- Love streaking towards the end zone with defenders falling away in his wake. But then there's the bad one -- Love getting up from a tackle and limping towards the sideline.
In the third quarter of a 49-7 blowout of Oregon in the middle of October, Love sprained his ankle and didn't return. At the time he had amassed 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games and seemed on his way to a season so historic that even the sleepy East Coast voters wouldn't have been able to deny him his Heisman Trophy.
But even after sitting out the next game and getting a three-week break, Love was never able to return to anything close to his former self. He limped onto the field, often needed to be helped to his feet after being tackled, and at least a few times a game he'd need additional treatment and re-wrapping of his ankle. In between all of that limping, he was still the best player on the field; he just wasn't as good as he had been during the first half of the season.
His yards per carry average dropped from a meteoric 10.27 to 5.71, and his yards per game fell from 198.1 to 121.8. So what if Love is even better this fall than he was last? What would that look like?
With inexperience and uncertainty at the quarterback spot, defenses routinely stacked their defenders close to the line of scrimmage to slow down the Stanford running game, but Love was still able to find success. In fact, when I asked Coach Shaw about Love, he admitted that his home run ability actually impacts play calling. He said they never worry when a team seems to be shutting him down. With a lesser back, they might've looked to do something different, but with Love, the coaches kept telling each other that he was going to break one any minute. He usually did.
This year I don't think teams will have the luxury of committing so many resources towards stopping Bryce Love. With a more experienced and confident quarterback in K.J. Costello, a deeper receiving corps, two of the best tight ends in America, and an offensive line with four returning starters, Stanford will likely have one of the best and most versatile offenses in America. With defenses scrambling to address all of these weapons, the sharpest arrow in Shaw's quiver will likely take advantage. It won't be a surprise at all if Love runs for two thousand yards again.
With one of Shaw's stated goals being to limit Love's workload this fall, the rest of the running back corps will have to produce as well. Senior Cameron Scarlett made a name for himself last year on special teams, where he led the nation in kick return yardage and always seemed to be just a shoestring away from breaking a long touchdown. As Love's primary backup, he averaged five or six carries a game, and was usually productive, especially in blowouts. He had 8 carries for 59 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Rice, then went for 86 yards and three more touchdowns on eight carries against UCLA.
He struggled along with the rest of the offense when he drew the start against Oregon State while Love was injured, but probably his best game of the season came against Cal. With Love injured on the sideline, the Stanford offense took over with a 17-14 lead and 7:25 left to play. Scarlett carried the ball eleven consecutive times, burning the clock and eventually burning the Bears when his last carry of the day converted a 4th and 1 that sealed the game. The kid can play.
The third running back likely to get a significant number of carries will be Trevor Speights. The junior tailback burst onto the scene with eight carries for 61 yards in the Oregon blowout, then saw an increase in his workload during the second half of the season, getting at least one carry in each game. The pecking order in the backfield is still crystal clear, however, so Speights probably won't see more than thirty or forty carries this fall.
Perhaps the most unheralded position on the field is fullback, but few positions are as important to the Stanford offense as this. Whether helping to clear the way for Love, adding some extra protection for Costello, or sprinting out for a pass, the fullback is alive and well at Stanford, even if the position has been phased out throughout much of college football. Daniel Marx excelled in this role for years, but his departure leaves a vacancy that will be filled with some combination of senior Reagan Williams and sophomore Houston Heimuli. Williams and Heimuli were both part of the same signing class back in February of 2015, but Heimuli's two-year mission delayed his arrival until last summer. Currently listed at 5'11" and 244 pounds, Heimuli brings to mind any number of interesting visuals -- bowling ball, battering ram, locomotive -- all of which make me anxious to see him out on the field.
* Heisman Trophy Runner-Up