Behind the Numbers: Examining Tyler Gaffney, Stanford's Run Game, and a Streamlined Offense

Steve Dykes

Tyler Gaffney has been an absolute beast the last few games - so how can Stanford add weapons around him?

With 12:13 remaining in the fourth quarter against UCLA, up by 7, Stanford embarked on a drive appeared to be definitively Stanford: power rushing, with no pretense. 5, 16, 5, 11, 5: those were five successive rushes from Tyler Gaffney, and it was a perfect translation from architect’s blueprint to reality.

Well, it was -- until Anthony Wilkerson came in. He lost three yards on first down and rushed for no gain on 3rd and 3. That drive has been emblematic of the problems the Stanford offense has run into the past three games: an inability or an unwillingness to identify the proper tailback to spell Gaffney.

Perhaps the coaches could’ve continued to run Gaffney to good effect, but given his workload -- 36 carries on the day -- it’s hard to argue the playcalling wrung less than the maximum from Gaffney.

So Gaffney needs a competent backup, and that hasn’t been a problem for Stanford football since its emergence: Toby Gerhart had Stepfan Taylor; Taylor had Wilkerson in 2010; Taylor had Gaffney in 2011; Taylor had Wilkerson in 2012. In each case the yards per carry of the backup were not a huge dropoff from the main man, but in 2013, the gap between Wilkerson and Gaffney has grown quite large. While Wilkerson’s 4.5 YPC were in striking distance of Taylor’s 4.7, the former has declined in effectiveness (down to 3.9 YPC) while Gaffney has surged, relative to Taylor, at 5.3 yards a pop. (Of course, part of it is surely the improvement in the line and the increased threat downfield, but Wilkerson ought to benefit from that as surely as Gaffney.) So there’s a problem here, particularly disturbing as Gaffney is hitting a midseason stride. Table time:

Gaffney Carries/Game Yards/Game YPC
First Five Games 18.4 92.4 5.02
Last Three Games 24.7 141.3 5.73

But contrast that to Gaffney’s sidekicks:

Sidekicks Carries/Game Yards/Game YPC
First Five Games 23 114.2 4.97
Last Three Games 11.3 40.7 3.59

Calls -- rather frequent, even from Stanford’s own players -- to run more must be put into that context. Stanford’s ability to run more is limited by the number of carries Gaffney can shoulder; it’s probably not realistic to expect him to be able to handle too many more than 30 carries a game.

But the redistribution in some ways is good. Viewed from one perspective, it’s good coaching: the plays are going to the most effective players. That’s an improvement from the passing side of the attack, which decided targeting Jordan Pratt and Charlie Hopkins four times total against Oregon State was an effective use of its limited opportunities.

But viewed from another perspective, it’s a disappointment: in order to run more, there has to be a sidekick. And for whatever reason, the coaches have not been able to find a player they trust to handle 5, 6, 7 or more carries a game, as Wilkerson has been gradually marginalized, presumably due to ineffectiveness. But this inability is quite strange, as there are plenty of players who are dangerous toting the ball. Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector could be utilized more frequently as fly sweep and reverse runners off the edge. Or we could see more Kelsey Young targets. We were promised the Young would be a hybrid player over the offseason, which makes it all the more strange that the kinds of plays Young runs has decreased rather than increased.

Here’s three plays against UCLA last year:

Young doesn’t get the ball in all of these plays, but he gets to run multiple types of plays and is generally more interestingly used than he is this year. The second play -- the TD pass to Terrell -- is especially worthwhile. Maybe I’m just fooled by correlation, but the slight confusion in lining up combined with the blown coverage to Terrell just might be connected.

This year, the vast majority of plays Young’s gotten are fly sweeps or reverses, with one of those wideout screens against Oregon State and a garbage time intermediate route against Washington State. On some level, that makes sense: the fly sweep’s a good play and Young is really good at it. Players should mostly do what they’re good at. But the current offense takes that too far. Why has Young gotten to run fewer plays despite needing an additional runner? He is slightly less effective per touch than last year, but it’s hardly to the point of outright ineffectiveness.

This is the most mysterious part of the offense. I’m actually not terribly concerned by playcalling; I am, however, very concerned by personnel: the offense simultaneously uses too many and gets the wrong ones the ball. The offense has had significant time and targets for players like Eddie Plantaric, Charlie Hopkins, Jackson Cummings, Rollins Stallworth, Jordan Pratt and Jeff Trojan. With no offense to any of these guys, it’s hard to see the superior contributions they offer. Pratt, for instance, was targeted three times in critical situations against Oregon State, and came up short on all of them.

Meanwhile, Kodi Whitfield is a fine possession receiver and a superior athlete, and Michael Rector has a per-catch average of 39.5. Most of the time, that means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked -- the marginal opportunity for Rector might be quite high. Yet while I might be mistaken, Oregon State marked the first time Rector was targeted closer than 25 yards or so. Kelsey Young has demonstrated explosiveness. Barry J. Sanders has generally looked effective. I don’t actually have a lot of faith that this will be corrected. Here’s a Mike Sanford interview with Andy Drukarev -- (it’s in context of an answer about up-tempo offense, why Hogan looks effective in it, and why Stanford nevertheless won’t run it more frequently):

We're going to get the best personnel on the field to do the best that we can do. Part of what we do well is getting the best personnel on the field and mixing up personnel. When you go up tempo a lot of times you limit your personnel groupings.

This is the exactly wrong line to draw. There are too many personnel being run out there. Despite the huge numbers of players running in an out, five skill players dominate statistically: Gaffney, Montgomery, Cajuste, Rector, Whitfield. These players should be accentuated even more, and joined by guys like Hewitt, Sanders and Young. These are your best players, focus on them. This is also why I think criticisms of the offense’s creativity and playcalling are off the mark. If anything, it is too creative, too willing to try cute groupings and plays.

The offense doesn’t need more; it needs less. It needs to be streamlined.

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