This is the first of a 12-part preview of the 2016 Stanford football season. Future parts will discuss the quarterback battle, defense, and the tough schedule ahead.
In a nutshell
Head coach David Shaw and company have a lot on their plates these days: finding a new starting quarterback, managing the reloading process on both the offensive and defensive lines and getting their team ready to handle a schedule that promises to hit like a freight train right out of the gate.
But if there’s one position group helping the Stanford coaching staff sleep better at night, it has to be the running backs. The Cardinal have hung their hats on a physical, run-centric brand of football for the better part of a decade now and feature one of the most talented backfields in the entire nation — a Diet Coke-Mentos type of combination that looks poised to erupt in the face of any defense in its path.
Stanford has had no shortage of deep backfields during Shaw’s tenure with the 2011 murderer’s row of Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and Jeremy Stewart serving as perhaps the best example. However, has any previous Stanford running back stable featured two stallions leading the charge quite like Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love? Both return to action in 2016 after playing key roles for a high-powered 2015 Stanford offense and are reported to be bigger, faster and more explosive this time around.
In addition to the Cardinal’s two leading men in the backfield, the supporting actors have also generated quite a bit of buzz on The Farm, giving Shaw and Lance Taylor, the reigning national running backs coach of the year, plenty of intriguing options.
High expectations abound for the Cardinal in 2016 and if Stanford is to live up to the preseason billing of competing for a conference championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff, the elite talent in the backfield will surely play a major role. Let’s meet the key cogs in the Stanford running game machine below:
Christian McCaffrey — How about we lead things off with the reigning AP Player of the Year who just put together the most statistically impressive season in the history of college football? In 2015, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards mark by racking up 3,864 yards in nearly every possible way. Lest you question McCaffrey’s production as a pure runner, the Heisman trophy runner-up also wrested away Stanford’s single-season rushing record from Toby Gerhart after amassing 2,019 yards on the ground, becoming Stanford’s first 2,000-yard rusher in a season.
As the unquestioned alpha dog of this group, McCaffrey will once again be the centerpiece of the Stanford offense and a much-needed dose of stability as the Cardinal break in a new quarterback and three new starters on the offensive line. With the departure of short-yardage specialist Remound Wright, No. 5 might also see added time on the field in goal-line situations and potentially find the end zone more often than this eight trips to the promised land last season. Though he may not match his absurd numbers from a season ago with defenses laser-focused on containing him, McCaffrey will again pace Stanford with his production on the ground. As a team captain and battle-tested veteran, his leadership will also be a valuable asset for the Cardinal, especially at the start of the season.
Bryce Love — After providing a vital spark to the Stanford offense last season, Bryce Lightning looks poised to burst into a full-fledged flame in this upcoming campaign. His 2015 stats, 29 rushes for 226 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 15 receptions and 250 yards and another touchdown, might — in a vacuum — raise concerns about sample size, but it was the manner in which Love tallied those numbers that have fans and coaches alike ecstatic about his future. His shiftiness, ability to break tackles and scorching straight-line speed led to numerous highlight-worthy plays a season ago. Since then, the sophomore has continued to impress with dominant performances during spring practice with McCaffrey held out of action and throughout training camp.
Love’s emergence as a dynamic running and receiving threat could very well be the X-factor that pushes Stanford from “very good” into “elite” territory. It also provides the Cardinal with the ability not only to take some of the load off McCaffrey, but also to pair the two playmakers together in the backfield or as receivers to wreak havoc on the Pac-12. Last year, we saw the massive jump McCaffrey made in year two under Shaw, Taylor and strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley; Love just might be in line for a similar explosion.
Daniel Marx — Shaw was extremely effusive in his praise for Marx during training camp, telling reporters, “If there’s a better fullback in the country, I haven’t seen him.” Marx, a junior who saw his 2015 season cut short to 11 games following a leg injury, will return to action in the ever-critical starting fullback role for the Cardinal. Once again, Marx will be called on to serve as a battering ram to open up lanes in the power running game and clear bodies out of the way in Stanford’s “jumbo packages.” Despite not receiving any carries last season, Marx might be poised to receive the football more often this time around with Stanford searching for a short-yardage specialist. The Cardinal love throwing to the fullback in their west coast passing attack (Spider 2 Y Banana, anyone?) and Marx could have more receptions in his future after making three grabs for 25 yards last season.
Chris Harrell — Harrell returns to The Farm for his fifth and final season after stepping up to fill Marx’s starting fullback role in Stanford’s critical final three games of last season, including the conference championship and the Rose Bowl Game. He may not see as much action on offense with a healthy Marx back in the fold, but he brings a veteran presence and crucial game experience against strong competition to augment the depth in the backfield.
Newcomers to watch for
Cameron Scarlett — At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Scarlett, a sophomore who redshirted last season, has at least 20 pounds on both McCaffrey and Love and could find a role in the Stanford offense as a more traditional power back. Scarlett could also be a candidate for short-yardage touches given his large build. With McCaffrey and Love both returning, Scarlett likely won’t be in line for many carries a game, but he very well could carve out his niche in specialized packages and be a power running nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. As with all Stanford running backs, his ability to see the field will also hinge on his skills as a blocker in pass protection.
Trevor Speights — One of the jewels in a historically good 2016 recruiting haul, Speights will probably redshirt in his first season at Stanford with a crowded backfield of returning contributors. Nevertheless, the freshman has already generated plenty of excitement about his potential, especially after racking up the fourth most rushing yards in the history of Texas high school football and scoring a surreal 50 touchdowns in his senior year. Though Speights might not play a major role in the running game right away, the future of the Stanford backfield looks awfully bright.
Remound Wright — Wright’s name has come up a few times already and for good reason — his role for the Cardinal in 2015 was critical to the team’s offensive success. In the latter part of the 2014 season, Wright found his identity as a short-yardage savant and never looked back; his knack for knowing just how to pick up those needed one or two yards in any given situation — jumping over the top, bulldozing his way down the middle or bouncing to the outside — played a significant role in Stanford reigniting its red zone offense. Wright was also one of Stanford’s most capable pass blockers in the backfield and his 15 total touchdowns from last season leave a gaping hole that needs to be filled. Christian McCaffrey, as one of the most talented football players in the country, seems to be one natural candidate to claim those short-yardage snaps, but Cameron Scarlett and fullback Daniel Marx could also emerge as candidates during training camp.
Barry Sanders — Sanders, who completed a graduate transfer to Oklahoma State during the offseason, never put up eye-popping numbers during his Stanford career but displayed dazzling evasiveness on multiple occasions and made massive strides as a pass protector. While he likely would have seen his snaps again limited with the presence of McCaffrey and Love, Sanders provided Stanford with an envious amount of depth and his absence will prompt the Cardinal’s younger running backs, particularly Scarlett, to step up and fill the No. 3 slot in the backfield.
Projected Depth Chart
- Christian McCaffrey
- Bryce Love
- Cameron Scarlett
- Pat McFadden
- Trevor Speights
- Dorian Maddox
- Daniel Marx
- Chris Harrell
- Reagan Williams
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.