Between Stepfan Taylor's junior and senior year at Mansfield High School in Texas, the Tigers underwent a complete offensive overhaul. In came a new coaching staff. In came the pro-style offense. Out went the spread attack.
No one was happier than Taylor.
"I really feel the switch we made when we got to Mansfield has helped him in his collegiate career," said Jeff Hulme, Taylor's coach at Mansfield. "We run a pro-style offense with a lot of downhill running, counters and play-action passes."
Taylor had rushed for a very respectable 1,586 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior. Pretty puffy numbers for a running back in the spread. But once he became the focal point of the offense, Taylor -- and his numbers -- simply exploded. He went on to set a single-season school record of 2,463 yards to go with 33 touchdowns. He graduated as the school's all-time leading rusher with 4,792 yards.
"There are not enough adjectives to describe Stepfan," Hulme said. "He was amazing to watch not only in games, but also how he practiced. He never took a lazy step on the field or in the classroom. He was one young man who I never had to worry about. He was a leader that led by example, and when he spoke everyone listened."
Now the Stanford junior is in a similar offensive system. The competition is a little stiffer so the numbers aren't quite as gaudy. But for the second straight season, he's the No. 1 guy amongst a very deep crop of running backs.
And he's humble.
"You go in when the coaches tell you to go in," Taylor said. "We don't have any selfish players. I think that's why we're as successful as we are right now. We all have our own special talents and abilities and what we bring to the field. The coaches see that and they are going to pick the right time to get us on the field."
Taylor's time just happens to come a little more frequently. He's coming off a career performance against the Arizona Wildcats, rushing for 153 yards on 22 carries. His run of 49 yards is the longest of the season (eclipsing fullback Geoff Meinken's 40-yard run against Duke, something he playfully vowed to do last week).
The No. 5 Cardinal (3-0, 1-0) are on bye this week before resuming play Oct. 1 when they host UCLA. Through three games this season, he's rushed for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He's coming off a sophomore campaign where he carried 223 times for 1,137 yards. At this pace, he'll pass last season's yards. And it's likely his workload will increase in the coming weeks.
In the first two games, Stanford wasn't challenged in the fourth quarter, so a lot of work went to some of the other backs. But against Arizona, coach David Shaw needed Taylor to be reliable in the third and fourth quarters. And Taylor didn't fail his coach.
"We haven't needed in the second half to be as physical or leave Stepfan in the first two games and we've rotated quite a bit," Shaw said. "It's the first time we've been in a tight game in the second half where we were going to pound the rock and be physical. We put Stepfan in and he played great. Every time we've counted on him he's come through for us."
By this point in the season, Stanford's depth at running back shouldn't come as a surprise. Anthony Wilkerson finally had a break-out run against the Wildcats. Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart have been reliable and explosive in relief of Taylor. The fullbacks have also gotten their carries and performed well.
But Shaw went out of his way to call Taylor "special" following the Arizona win.
Taylor has added on some extra weight this season. The good kind. The kind that allows you to drag linebackers a couple extra yards without losing the ability to outrun safeties.
"He's stronger. He's more powerful. And he's more explosive," Shaw said.
But Taylor doesn't want to talk about his accomplishments. He touted the offensive line -- as any good running back should -- and praised the tight ends for their blocking and pass-catching abilities.
"We need to be able to stretch the field and running the ball well will help us in the passing game," Taylor said. "It's a good feeling to have a big game. But it was a big game for the offensive line and the tight ends as well. They all played their tails off. But it was a nice feeling knowing that when you're patient, those big runs are going to come."
And more are likely on the horizon. UCLA ranks 108th out of 120 FBS schools against the run, yielding 215 yards on the ground per game.