Big Shoes to Fill
Stanford was seriously considering platooning the running back position entering last season. David Shaw did ultimately (somewhat) divvy up the workload among his horses, but unless one considers the second most productive individual rushing effort in school history to be part of a legitimate platoon, it's clear that Tyler Gaffney stole the show.
Gaffney, in fact, assumed the role of an old-fashioned bell cow for the Farm Boys. His 45 carries against Oregon shattered the program record, and his 330 runs on the season were the second most in Cardinal history. Anthony Wilkerson ended up doing a fine job in a supplementary position, but Gaffney earned recognition as one of the most successful backfield bruisers to ever put on a Stanford uniform.
Stanford Rushing Efficiency: Through the Years
||Yards Per Carry
||% Runs > 10 Yards
||% Runs > 20 Yards
As the table above illustrates, the Cardinal's rushing attack was very efficient a year after posting its worst averages and explosiveness figures since 2007. Good news moving forward: The continued development of the program's post-Andrew Luck passing attack can aid this rushing improvement moving forward. Bad news moving forward: There will be personnel losses to overcome on the ground in 2014.
Gaffney, Wilkerson, and five of the Cardinal's six primary blocking starters (four linemen and fullback Ryan Hewitt) have finished their collegiate careers. How will run game coordinator Mike Bloomgren replace the 2,062 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 1,468 pounds of beef that paved the way up front?
They've Been Here Before
It's important to remember that this isn't a foreign problem for Stanford. The Cardinal have proven remarkably adept when it has come to replacing graduated rushing production over the past several seasons. Recruiting and player development along the offensive line and in the backfield has been sturdy enough to absorb the losses of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, David DeCastro, and Jonathan Martin -- a remarkable feat.
We'll deal with the offensive line's turnover later on in this series. To the running backs:
Ask almost any fan (at least those who lobby on Twitter) about the Cardinal's answer to backfield attrition this time around, and Barry Sanders is the sexy answer. Though the Hall of Famer's son is cut from a shiftier cloth than Stanford's power running predecessors, 2014 certainly beckons as a year of great opportunity for him. But don't forget that Remound Wright and Ricky Seale -- both of whom saw more action than Sanders last year -- return, too.
Diverse Skill Sets in the Backfield
It appears that the idea of a true platoon in Stanford's offensive backfield may actually materialize in 2014. Each prospective runner brings unique strengths to the table: While Sanders' darting style may not be an ideal mesh with the Cardinal's power running attack on its own, it can potentially work well in conjunction Wright and Seale, two decidedly punishing runners. At five-foot-nine, 204 pounds, the former is built and runs like a tank.
Other potentially season-changing wild cards come in the form of speedy veteran Kelsey Young and a pair of electric newcomers. It's unclear if Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Brandt-Sims will be immediately ready to absorb the physical punishment of the college game, but the electricity that emanates from their tape (above) is certainly noteworthy. Young's 2014 production in limited chances (14 carries, 120 yards, 7.9 yards per carry) begs for more opportunities, and there's a strong chance that he'll shift to a more standard backfield role as a result.
Stanford used Young and wide receiver Ty Montgomery (who has a frame that's sturdy enough to handle snaps from the running back position) to keep defenses honest with lateral runs in 2013, and that type of play will certainly remain in the arsenal. If either Brandt-Sims (blazing speed) or McCaffrey (impressive elusiveness) proves physically ready to handle some of that perimeter change-up action, it'll become more feasible for Young to shift over to the standard backfield to complement Sanders, Seale, Wright, and potentially even Montgomery on standard hand-offs.
Declining Backfield Aerial Production
||Yards Per Catch
While Stanford's rushing efforts have remained relatively steady, receiving production out of the Cardinal's backfield has taken a nosedive over the past two seasons. The table above shows the alarming drop in running backs' catches, and that's something the Farm Boys must address this offseason.
The decline is symptomatic of Stanford's failure to establish a consistent short-to-intermediate range passing game in 2013, a problem that was likely a big contributor to painful red zone inefficiency during some of the season's biggest moments. Shaw can hope that the evolution of the team's backfield talent is conducive to a renaissance in this short-range passing game, which is critical to offensive stability. Sanders, McCaffrey, and Brandt-Sims have certainly shown potential in open space.
Memories of Hewitt, Marecic
For the first time in the Harbaugh-Shaw era, Stanford will venture through a season without either Ryan Hewitt or Owen Marecic. The importance of the fullback position to the Cardinal's power running scheme has been well-documented, and the duty of lead block bulldozing will now be completely passed on to Lee Ward -- who's been very effective paving the way -- and Pat Skov.
The staff views incoming freshman Daniel Marx as the future of the position on The Farm. Shaw called him the best fullback prospect in America.
"He's a combination of Owen Marecic and Ryan Hewitt," he said earlier this week.
When all is said and done, Stanford's track record of keeping its offensive backfield afloat amidst personnel turnover should not be taken lightly. If the Cardinal can repeat the effort in 2014 and parlay another extra year of Kevin Hogan maturity into greater short passing success to the runners, Shaw will be able to feature his most complete offense since the age of Andrew Luck.
For Part I (Future of the QB Position), click here.
This is Part II of our extensive look into the state of Stanford football moving forward given the infusion of talent that the 2014 recruiting class has provided. Be sure to check back frequently for our position-by-position updates.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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