To return to contention in the Pac-12, Stanford needs to recapture what made it successful but with an updated twist. That twist is multi-talented sophomore Christian McCaffrey.
The son of former Denver Broncos standout wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, Christian showed off some of his genetic skill set in his collegiate debut, taking a pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan 52 yards for a touchdown in the 2014 season opener against UC Davis.
McCaffrey spent much of the season thereafter operating as a gadget player.
“I got a lot of flak from people for not playing him enough,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “But the bottom line for us is we’re trying to start a great career.”
The first real glimpses into just how great a career McCaffrey can have for Stanford were evident in the final weeks of the season. He caught two passes for 34 yards in the Big Game win over rival Cal, then helped the Cardinal stun UCLA in the regular-season finale with 11 carries for 64 yards and a reception of 21 yards.
McCaffrey finished the season with 51 yards on just seven carries in a bowl game rout of Maryland.
“Each week, he [understood] a few more things [in the offense], got more comfortable,” Shaw said. “That only continued in the spring.”
The UCLA game was a true sampling of just how explosive McCaffrey could be with more opportunities to make plays. Heading into the new season, that game could well be the stepping stone Stanford needs to find its answer at running back, and get back to a level of winning to which the program is more accustomed.
Stanford has not just won under first Jim Harbaugh, and now Shaw: the Cardinal won big, reaching four consecutive BCS bowls from 2010 through 2013 and winning the Pac-12 Conference title twice.
But last season, Stanford regressed to 8-5–its worst finish since 2009–with seven regular-season wins–the program’s fewest since 2008. That was current head coach Shaw’s second in the program, working as offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, and the program’s first of several consecutive years with Stanford’s offense employing a reliable, downhill ball-carrier.
In 2008, Toby Gerhart rushed for 1,178 yards and 15 touchdowns, starting a six-year spell in which the Cardinal’s primary ball-carrier eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. All the players to do so — Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney — were through-the-tackles, power-backs.
McCaffrey is not built like any of his Cardinal predecessors at 6-foot and a generously-listed 200 pounds. His style is quite different but it may be just what Stanford needs to open up its offense in 2015.
McCaffrey is a playmaker who operates best in space, a quality Shaw occasionally utilized only with particular formations but not in 2015.
“There is no more ‘Christian McCaffrey package,'” Shaw explained. “He just gets to come in and play running back.
The crowded backfield of 2014, which featured four different ball-carriers but never any one clear standout, lost Kelsey Young. Built in the mold of previous Stanford running backs, Young opted to transfer to Boise State and spend his final year of eligibility playing alongside his brother.
McCaffrey will share the workload with Remound Wright, Stanford’s leading rusher in 2014. Wright totaled 601 yards, falling well short of the 1,000-yard mark every previous Cardinal No. 1 back reached from 2008 on. He did, however, score 11 touchdowns.
Talented Barry Sanders Jr. is back as a change-of-pace weapon.
Between the three of the them, Shaw has a bevy of possible combinations with which to work. The trio could function like Stanford’s 2011 backfield, when Taylor, Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson all contributed significantly.
McCaffrey’s progress is the key to unlocking the unit’s potential, which in turn, is key to Stanford’s entire offense. An effective run game is central to the Cardinal philosophy of smothering the opponent on defense, then grinding on the other end.
If McCaffrey flourishes with more responsibility on his shoulders, Stanford should jump back into the Pac-12 title conversation.
“His confidence is through the roof,” Shaw said. “His teammates’ confidence in him is [also] through the roof, and he’s one of the hardest working guys on the team.”