Tyler Gaffney leaves Stanford as one of the most versatile athletes in school history. Given the school's illustrious history in that department, such a claim certainly carries some weight.
It's justified with a quick examination of the weapons Gaffney featured in his arsenal.
Speed was there. Look no further than his burning 69-yard edge touchdown run to open the Pac-12 Championship Game.
So was agility. Gaffney's opening score at USC in 2011 featured a catch in the flat followed by shake-and-bake and a sideline tightrope job in traffic.
Power? If there were any questions regarding that prior to the 2013 season, there certainly weren't any after it. Gaffney churned out 1,709 rushing yards in Stanford's phone booth offense, racking up a single-game school record 45 carries against stacked boxes in the season's monumental win versus Oregon.
Then there was his ability to pass block, an especially difficult weapon to master. Obstructing a charging opponent while dealing with a 50-pound weight disadvantage is a challenging requirement for running backs in the Stanford system. Gaffney, though, also mastered this art of backfield pass protection.
Oh, and as a bonus, he boasted that whole hand-eye coordination thing, too. Before his remarkable senior football season, Gaffney established himself as a successful professional baseball player: His .483 on-base percentage playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates' single A affiliate in State College, PA put him on track to advance through the minor league ranks.
But even when Gaffney was on the baseball diamond, he brought a decided football flavor to his game. He wasn't afraid of contact in the batter's box: Pitchers drilled him 20 times in 151 plate appearances. While the rugged nature that suited the gridiron perfectly also helped Gaffney succeed in the ballpark, it also screamed the inevitable: One day, no. 25 was going to return to the football field.
It was just a matter of time.
That time came a few weeks after Stanford's 2013 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The magnet of Stanford Stadium had been tugging at Gaffney for some time, and he could no longer resist it. He returned to David Shaw's program just before his eligibility expired and ended up delivering one of the finest rushing seasons in school history to spearhead another Rose Bowl run.
The critical leg of that tear came on November 7, 2013, when Oregon waltzed onto The Farm, thirsty for revenge after the 2012 game at Autzen Stadium, a Stanford overtime win that Gaffney watched from the stands. A year later, Gaffney administered the physical beating himself -- from the field. His 45 carries allowed the Cardinal to eat over 42 minutes of clock.
In a beautiful piece of symmetry, that workhorse performance came four years to the day after Toby Gerhart had smashed the Ducks program with a bruising 38-carry effort of his own. That 2009 masterpiece, which came when Gaffney was one of Gerhart's freshman understudies, announced Stanford's physical arrival on the national scene.
By 2013, Gaffney was no longer the pupil. He made his own November 7 mark, and it reaffirmed Stanford's physical control of the Pac-12 while sending a resounding message: Dominance on the ground was a constant for The Farm.
Of course, plenty happened in Gaffney's college career between those two November 7 milestones. He accounted for 117 of Stanford's rushing yards in the record-breaking 446-yard beatdown of Washington in 2011. He also formed the glue of Mark Marquess' lineup at Sunken Diamond. But that unflinching, bruising, and ultimately triumphant Thursday night against Oregon will live on as the lasting memory of Gaffney's time in a Stanford football uniform. He beat the Ducks into submission that night.
The Carolina Panthers selected Gaffney in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, so he'll immediately enter a crowded backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner, and fullback Mike Tolbert. It's possible that the Panthers may begin by using Gaffney in goal line situations. They did, after all, have great difficulty scoring there against the San Francisco 49ers in last year's playoff loss.
Many questioned Gaffney's speed leading up to the NFL Draft, but his 4.49 40-yard dash time assuaged worries that likely arose because of Stanford's extreme power running style, characterized by packed-in formations which can limit a back's ability to sprint in the open field. Gaffney himself is more than confident that his speed will transfer to the next level. He's certainly shown the power, durability, and intelligence necessary to put up a strong fight in Carolina's crowded backfield room.
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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