Stanford backs share the load


Reporting from Palo Alto

They had to subtract the Heisman Trophy runner-up from the backfield at Stanford when Toby Gerhart graduated to the NFL, and then Coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t come up with someone to replace him.

So he found five instead.

It’s something like running back by committee for the Cardinal, and even though Harbaugh doesn’t like that label very much, the evidence is right there. That’s really what it amounts to if you just look at the crowd of tailbacks all trying to move closer to offensive coordinator David Shaw on the sideline, as if proximity means playing time.

Five Stanford running backs carried the football in last week’s 52-17 victory over Sacramento State, and they combined for 147 yards rushing in 31 carries. Because Gerhart averaged 143.9 yards a game last year, the question may no longer be Toby or Not Toby, but instead whether they will even miss him.

Do five running backs — Usua Amanam, Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Jeremy Stewart and Stepfan Taylor — add up to one Gerhart? One game against an overmatched foe is not enough of a representative sampling to know for certain, but Harbaugh said he wouldn’t be changing the game plan Saturday night when the Cardinal plays UCLA at the Rose Bowl in the Pacific 10 Conference opener for both teams.

“We’re prepared to play the talented guys, and if one guy rises up and is the lone carrier of the ball, then that’s the way we’ll play,” Harbaugh said. “[But] if you want me to make a prediction, it’s probably going to be like it is now.”

No running back carried more than eight times or gained more than 50 yards against Sacramento State, but the Cardinal still wound up with 213 yards on the ground.

Amanam ran eight times for 50 yards, Gaffney eight times for 33 yards, Wilkerson carried seven times for 27 yards, Stewart five times for 21 yards and Taylor three times for 16 yards. Backup quarterback Alex Loukas was actually the leading rusher, with 57 yards in two carries.

If running the ball was Stanford’s strength last year with Gerhart, passing might be its best weapon this year because of quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 17 of 23 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns Saturday.

Luck acknowledged he was unsure how the five-headed running back tactic would perform in its debut against Sacramento State.

“Yeah, I was wondering how it would go, not because of the Toby factor but because it was the first game and we were curious,” Luck said.

He is no longer curious.

“We won,” Luck said. “Big plus.”

Wilkerson, a 6-foot, 218-pound freshman from Tustin High, has an upside so high that Harbaugh has invested in him right away instead of giving him time to develop as a redshirt.

Wilkerson, Gaffney and Stewart all had rushing touchdowns Saturday, and Taylor, a sophomore, scored on a 59-yard screen pass from Luck.

Taylor said he is usually the one standing closest to Shaw on the sideline. He knows that the five-tailback rotation is in vogue right now and says more touches for fewer running backs even makes some sense to him.

“Running backs do need to get into a rhythm, but with all these tailbacks it makes us compete,” Taylor said. “We’re all waiting for an opportunity. I know I didn’t feel any added pressure replacing Toby, but we all have our different types of running styles and that’s why we use all these different running backs.”

Against UCLA, the party of five might be down to four. Stewart is day to day because of an injury that Harbaugh would not disclose.

Wide receiver Chris Owusu, a junior from Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, is also day to day, which means Stanford might also be without its top kick returner and second-leading receiver from last season. And tight end Levine Toilolo is out for the season and needs anterior cruciate ligament surgery after a helmet-to-knee incident on the second play of the Sacramento State game.

Whether there will be continued emphasis on the Cardinal running game as a result is not something Harbaugh really wants to debate. He likes the way things are running right now.

Just one thing.

“Don’t call it running back by committee,” he said. “Call it a football team that has some good running backs.”