In less than 24 hours, what initially seemed like a promising off-season for Stanford football took a shocking twist.
Stanford’s second-string running back, junior Nathaniel Peat, entered the transfer portal Tuesday afternoon, and starting RB junior Austin Jones followed suit on Wednesday morning.
With Jones’ and Peat’s departures, the Cardinal will enter the 2022 season without their top two producers in the backfield.
Peat sparked Stanford’s upset of No. 14 USC in September with an 87-yard rushing touchdown, the fifth-longest in program history, and led the Pac-12 in kick return yards in 2021. Jones was a standout in the team’s shortened 2020 campaign with 550 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in six games.
Jones’ and Peat’s early departures as the established starting running back rotation are rare and concerning setbacks for a program looking for answers after its second losing season in three years.
Numerous Stanford players have left the football program as graduate transfers in recent years, but the two backs are the only players to enter the transfer portal prior to their senior year since at least 2016 (with the exception of then-sophomore defensive end Joshua Pakola, who entered and withdrew from the portal in 2020 and is no longer listed on the team’s roster).
Jones is now the fourth regular starter from Stanford’s 2021 roster to enter the transfer portal this off-season, along with fifth-years fullback Houston Heimuli, defensive end Ryan Johnson and outside linebacker Gabe Reid. Next year, Stanford will also need to replace two key starters, senior defensive end Thomas Booker and fifth-year defensive tackle Dylan Wade-Perry, who declared for the NFL Draft.
Before Jones’ and Peat’s surprise transfers, Stanford had managed an encouraging start to the offseason. Despite finishing with the worst record of head coach David Shaw’s career, Stanford inked the top-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12 on Early Signing Day, announced the return of star junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly and added senior safety Justin Fields, a starter and All-Big 12 honorable mention at Oklahoma, as a graduate transfer.
Even with these additions, Stanford’s dismal run game from last season still looms large and, if Jones and Peat leave, will become an even greater concern for next year. In 2021, the Cardinal ranked 126th out of 135 FBS teams with just 86.9 rushing yards per game. Jones and Peat contributed the bulk of those yards, combining for 782 of Stanford’s 1051 yards on the ground.
Despite their departure, the Cardinal’s running back room remains deep with sophomores E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins, who both showed potential in limited playing time in 2021. Stanford will also have sophomore Caleb Robinson, freshman Brendon Barrow and incoming four-star recruit Arlen Harris.
Stanford’s offense also foresees all other starters returning for 2022.
The pressure now shifts to Smith and Filkins, who will be tasked with taking charge of a new backfield in the fall — perhaps a year earlier than either of them expected.