For the first time since 2009, the Stanford Cardinal are facing the prospect of entering a season without a clear workhorse running back, a starter to carry the load and cruise to 1,000 yards.
The three-down workhorse is a luxury they have leaned on for the better part of a decade.
From 2010-2012, Stepfan Taylor topped 1,100 yards annually. In 2013, Tyler Gaffney broke out to the tune of 1,709 yards.
Following a dicy 2014 season (the Cardinal still topped 1,000 rushing yards in their only questionable season on this run) Christian McCaffrey scorched the earth in 2015. The young runner broke Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record, coming just short of the Heisman. McCaffrey returned in 2016 to post over 1,900 yards from scrimmage. He was followed by another Heisman runner up; Bryce Love and his 2,000 plus yard season in 2017.
Most teams are lucky to have back to back great running backs, but Stanford ran through seven years of exceptional running backs largely uninterrupted. Now, the Cardinal are embarking into uncharted waters.
The cast of characters in the backfield has promise, but nowhere near the elite production, the program has come to call standard.
The backs equipped to demand snaps are Cameron Scarlett, Trevor Speights, Dorian Maddox and Nathaniel Peat.
Cameron Scarlett is the top back on the roster by default, with a modest 300 rushing yards over the past two seasons balanced by 17 total touchdowns.
Speights was electric in high school; a bowling ball that could get vertical in a hurry possessed sound field vision and could fight through arm tackles. He has since fallen flat on the college field, offering little in the way of hope as the ‘next back up.’
Maddox may be the most intriguing; a smaller, almost Giovani Bernard type back. He is the shifty, twitchy runner that could potentially break a defense as a change-of-pace tailback. But at his best, Maddox touches the ball 10 to 15 times in a game, not 25 to 30.
Even an entertaining, young prospect like Nathaniel Peat cannot stabilize the backfield on his merits alone.
More discomforting still is where the rest of the offense finds themselves. The tug felt last season for a change in offensive identity has now turned into a desperately rushed facelift.
Key receivers J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and Kaden Smith, are all gone. In their place; a group of unproven players and Osiris St. Brown, who vastly underperformed to pre-2018 expectations. The lone proven asset on the team is tight end Colby Parkinson, who gathered seven touchdowns and averaged 16.7 yards per reception last season.
The bottom line: Stanford’s turbulence at the running back position comes at an inconvenient time for a Cardinal offense changing over crucial skill position players seemingly everywhere. The most obvious route for success in such a climate will require three key factors, all stemming from the running back position.
First: The phrase “running back by committee” applies to no one more than it does the Cardinal. They will necessitate the embodiment of the term this season, with as many as four running backs potentially seeing six to 12 touches every outing.
Second: K.J. Costello will need plenty of help from the backfield outside of running the ball. Each tailback will not only need to run the ball but play mistake-free blocking and pick up plenty of slack in the passing game. As it stands right now, it is naive to trust this receiving core to carry their weight, which means receptions from the backfield will be crucial.
Third: The red zone offense has to be a different beast than any other version of Stanford’s machine. Spreading out an opponent and playing fast-paced, pass-happy football is the transition that started back in 2018 for the Cardinal offense. But in the red zone, the Cardinal need massive doses of I-formation, ground and pound football. Passes should find their way to big-bodied tight ends bullying defensive backs in the end zone. Scarlett and Parkinson should be featured every time the Cardinal pass the opponent’s 20.