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December 16, 2012Stanford has enjoyed a remarkable run of productivity out of its running back position for the last half decade. Beginning with Toby Gerhart's 1,000-yard season in 2008, Stanford has produced 1,000-yard rushers in five straight seasons.
However, for the first time in years, there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the position heading into 2013. The question marks don't stem from a lack of talent in the position - to the contrary, Stanford has numerous highly rated and ranked backs on the roster.
Rather, the departure of Taylor, who holds several Stanford records and is among the top backs to ever play at Stanford - leaves a significant void at the position.
"He was a workhorse this year," running backs coach Mike Sanford said of Taylor. "He's always been such a good football player and he's put so much good stuff on tape. When I go out and I'm recruiting all over the country people consistently say they enjoy watching him play so much because he's so tough. I thought he was able to exhibit that characteristic this year just because of how much we depended on him. As our offensive line was gelling and getting together and meshing the way they ended up towards the end of the year, he was just being patient with it, he kept pounding away and pounding and pounding and eventually he would kind of find that point where he could start taking over a game. His year was really special and we're looking forward to it continuing for one more game."
Despite his college success, there's no clear consensus on how Taylor will fare at the next level. Based on discussions with NFL personnel, however, Sanford is confident that Taylor will be successful.
"He's going to be outstanding," Sanford said. "I can't wait to see what he does at the next level. All the scouts I've spoken to, multiple scouts, they just say that (they're) looking hard and can't find a flaw in his game. And the thing that's so great about him, which is what's so important to us about recruiting, is that his greatest attribute is what he actually does on tape. What he does in games, it's not necessarily the height, weight, size, speed all that stuff. It's what he does when he's playing football."
Five Stanford running backs (plus receiver/running back hybrid Kelsey Young) received playing time in 2012: Taylor, Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Anthony Wilkerson and Jackson Cummings. A sixth, Barry Sanders, redshirted this year, but will likely be in the mix to play next season.
Of that group, three Cardinal backs received the bulk of the carries in the rare moments when Taylor was on the sideline: Wright, Wilkerson and Seale.
Cardinal Sports Report asked Sanford to break down the contenders to succeed Taylor alongside Kevin Hogan in the backfield.
Sanford on Wilkerson: "I think he battled an unfortunate and really unnecessary injury against USC that we weren't too excited about how it happened. We're just glad that he was able to bounce back and get to form. He's starting to run again and we're looking forward to seeing what he can do. As long as he stays patient as a runner he can be really, really good, because he's so fast and big."
Sanford on Wright: "I think a lot of people saw that he's a very well-rounded player. He didn't have as many niche-type roles as maybe Ricky Seale did as even as Anthony Wilkerson did. He's just a really well-rounded player. I look forward to seeing what he can do next year. He's going to be right in the thick of it competition-wise."
Sanford on Seale: "(He) is just such a natural runner. He is really good with the zone schemes. We don't run a ton of zone schemes but a lot of times when we did we had him run those. He had a really good run against UCLA and it was good to see the way he finished that run in that first game against UCLA he ran over a really good safety and finished through him and you could see some of his explosiveness."
On Cummings and Sanders: "Jackson Cummings, he came in and did really well against Colorado and showed he's a tough player. And during these bowl practices, Barry had a really good day today. We were scrimmaging the non-travel roster. Today was a day where we were out there in the rain and the mud and it's cold and we got to see a little toughness from him, so he's doing some good things too."
Whereas Stanford narrowed down its quarterback competition to two primary candidates (Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes) well in advance of the beginning to the season, the running back competition might be contested until only days before the season opener.
"(The competition will) probably be open longer," Sanford said. "There's just going to be a stiff competition really up until the last week of training camp. That's what I see happening."
Stanford would rather see one player emerge as a starter than ask two or three to share carries equally. Ideally, Stanford's backs would rotate like they did in 2011, with one player (then Taylor) getting the bulk of the carries, but several others contributing consistently.
"I really like what we did last year," Sanford said. "I thought last year was fun because we really found those guys roles last season. It was really fun to see those guys really have a chance to expand their roles and you could see that they took their roles and ran with it. This year Stepfan was so dominant and we needed him to be so good at so many different things and he is so good at so many different things."
At this point, the competition is still wide-open.
"Honestly I think that they would all say that it's going to be extremely competitive," Sanford said. "They understand this is an extremely talented group and they know that it's going to go down to the wire."
Of slightly less visibility but also of paramount importance will be Sanford's search for a scout team running back. Since the Cardinal don't plan to sign a back in the 2013 class, there aren't any obvious candidates to fill the scout team role.
"It's going to be a challenge next year identifying a scout team running back," Sanford said. "I've been thinking about that a lot because we have so many guys that you can utilize their roles. That's going to be a challenge because we have some really, really quality players."
Sanford and the Stanford coaching staff have identified three key attributes that will help determine the outcome of the running back competition.
"I think probably the No. 1 thing is just that they can make things happen when it's not perfectly blocked," Sanford said. "So just as a runner, we're looking for a great running back, and that's who Stepfan is. He's a guy that it might have been blocked for two yards but he gets more than that. So yards after contact, patience and just ability to let the blocks develop to set up blocks, that's No. 1.
"Pass protection I'd say is probably No. 2. No. 3, which is probably overall No. 1, we just want a guy that's not going to turn the ball over. So far we haven't really had many guys that have fumbled at that position. We definitely emphasize that a lot. If you're a fumbler you're not going to play here."