Pac-12 Football: Stanford Faces Changes to Run Game in 2013

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing a program’s all-time stats leader isn’t an easy task, but one or more of the Stanford football team’s running backs will have to do just that in 2013.

Stepfan Taylor became the first Stanford player to have three straight seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, and his 4,300 career rushing yards and 45 total touchdowns are both school records. In his senior season, he rushed for 1,530 yards and accounted for 63 percent of the team’s rushing yards in 2012.

Losing a player who shouldered that much of the workload leaves a big hole, which Stanford will try to fill with not one star, but several talented (but probably not Taylor-level) running backs.

At the end of 2012, senior Anthony Wilkerson was expected to be the incumbent number one heading into the fall. He had 50 carries for 224 yards and one touchdown last season — not great stats, but with Taylor contributing so much, the Cardinal simply didn’t need to give Wilkerson many carries. He showed some bursts of speed when he got the chance last season, but in 2013, he’ll have the opportunity to prove he can be an every-down back.

The surprising return of fifth-year senior Tyler Gaffney this spring stole some of Wilkerson’s thunder, but it’s a lucky break for the Stanford offense. Gaffney was the team’s number two rusher back in 2011, averaging more than six yards per carry. A multi-sport athlete, he left the team after his junior season to pursue a professional baseball career.

He was moderately successful in the minor leagues, but Gaffney told Sports Illustrated he couldn’t stand to sit on the sidelines during another football season knowing he still had a year of eligibility remaining. He re-enrolled this spring and re-joined the team two weeks into spring workouts, adding another experienced rusher to the already-deep roster, and at the close of spring, he and Wilkerson were co-starters.

The Cardinal will have more than just the two seniors taking over for Taylor. Junior Remound Wright was used as a short-yardage back in 2012, and he should see more time this season. At just 5’9″, he fits the profile of a smaller power runner who can be effective at the goal line as well as in the passing game.

Stanford used junior Kelsey Young as a hybrid running back/receiver last season, and he used his speed and versatility to carve a spot for himself in the lineup. Head coach David Shaw told the Stanford Daily in April that Young plays a unique position; they simply call it “Kelsey,” and it’s wherever he has the best shot to make plays.

Senior Ricky Seale, who has 19 career carries, and redshirt freshman Barry Sanders, named for his Heisman-winning father, will also have a chance to contribute. Sanders, a highly touted recruit because of his talent as well as his famous father, might be the face of the future for the Stanford offense, but as of spring, his comfort level with the offense hadn’t quite caught up with his tremendous ability.

The running back-by-committee approach can be detrimental, preventing any one back from getting into a rhythm, but it could be to the Cardinal’s benefit to have a little more diversity in the run game this fall. Taylor had a tremendous individual season in 2012, but Stanford’s 4.4 yards per carry was the team’s lowest average in the last five years.

Allowing several backs to share carries will help keep everyone’s legs fresh and give some younger players valuable experience for the future, and it should also ensure another strong year for Stanford’s rushing offense.

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