STANFORD, Calif. – Stepfan Taylor’s teammates call him the country’s quietest 1,000-yard rusher. Overshadowed and underappreciated might fit just as well, too.
Of course, that tends to happen when someone has been playing in the same backfield as the last three Heisman Trophy runners-up.
With Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart gone, Taylor’s time in the Stanford spotlight starts this spring. The senior, aiming for his third consecutive year with at least 1,000 yards rushing, could be one of the keys to holding together a reconstructed Cardinal offense that — in case everybody forgot while No. 12 was tossing passes — prides itself on being a physical, run-first team.
“If anybody could get 1,000 yards quietly, it’s Stepfan,” said quarterback Brett Nottingham, who knows a thing or two about being overlooked after playing behind Luck last season. “I joke about that with guys. He’s so unassuming, just like Andrew was. But people forget how good Stepfan is.
“He’s a guy who never makes a mistake. You can’t find any flaws in his game. He’s not always the flashiest, but he does everything above average. He’s the most consistent guy.”
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Talk to anybody else at Stanford, and they’ll say Taylor has been just that — consistent — for almost four years now.
Not that anybody has really noticed.
While Luck became the face of college football last season, all Taylor did was run for 1,363 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has averaged more than 5 yards per carry over his career — the kind of mark the usually makes NFL scouts salivate — and also had 25 catches for 182 yards and two TDs a season ago. He only fumbled once.
If not for splitting time with three other running backs in Stanford’s complex system, his coaches believe he could’ve topped that elusive 2,000-yard milestone. Or at the very least come close.
The Cardinal racked up 2,738 yards rushing last season — 99 yards shy of the school record set behind Gerhart in 2009 — and shattered the program’s single-game mark with 446 yards rushing in a win against Washington. With another grand on the ground next season, Taylor could join Darrin Nelson as the only Stanford running back with three years of at least 1,000 yards rushing.
Maybe then, that might turn a head or two.
“He knows right now in his heart he’s as good as any running back in the nation, and he wants to prove that,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “He’s the guy who does everything right. He’s the guy who picks up every pass protection. He doesn’t do it with a lot of fanfare. He doesn’t want any pats on the back. He does his job and, really, he sets the tone for the offense.”
Next fall maybe more than ever.
Luck, the presumed No. 1 overall pick for the Indianapolis Colts in this month’s NFL draft, set up so much of Stanford’s offense — predicated on zone blocking and a powerful running game — the last three years. Nottingham and Josh Nunes are competing to replace him, and no matter who’s at quarterback, they’ll be banking on a familiar face in the backfield to bail them out.
Taylor takes that responsibility seriously.
He has assumed more of a leadership role this spring with so many of those familiar faces on The Farm departed. While that’s not usually being vocal — “I know I haven’t been a rah-rah type guy,” Taylor admits — dominating on the practice field and in the weight room keeps teammates pushing for more.
Even in unconventional places, too.
In his spare time, Taylor has trained in Bikram Yoga — usually set in a room at about 105 degrees — since his senior year in high school in Mansfield, Texas. He has increased those workouts this spring, part of his offseason goal to become more flexible and agile while staying at his usual 210 to 215 pound playing weight.
“It’s just hot in there. You’re just dying in there sweating,” Taylor said. “First time I did it, there were little girls in there just doing everything so easily. And I’m like, ‘Really?’ So I just stuck with it after that.”
Taylor’s coaches aren’t expecting much more from the running back this season.
Other than consistency, of course.
Only five other Stanford players have reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season, most recently Gerhart (1,871) in 2009, when he eclipsed the milestone for the second time and started the string of three consecutive Heisman runners-up for Stanford. Nobody is expecting that kind of notoriety for Taylor this season.
If for no other reason than the program’s bevy of backs, which will include highly touted freshman Barry Sanders — the Hall of Famer’s son whom Taylor helped recruit during a campus visit last fall — Taylor’s carries will likely stay the same, a figure as reliable as just about every other part of Taylor’s game.
“I think for Stepfan, in particular, it’s got a chance to be a real breakout year for him, just nationally,” Shaw said. “But he’s not going to do anything differently.”
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