Stanford looks to by-committee backfield

By all accounts, the group of running backs at Stanford is a close-knit group, which is why the next few weeks will an interesting social experiment of sorts on The Farm.

Four players -- Kelsey Young, Barry J. Sanders, Remound Wright and Ricky Seale -- are all seeking the same thing: to replace Tyler Gaffney, who is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns last year.

"We're all great friends. We love each other," Sanders said. "We're all hard on each other to hold each other accountable. It's fun to come out and compete against your best friends."

But, yes, it is a competition.

"Just by [human nature] you want to be that guy that is headlining everything, so that pushes you to focus and work even harder so that you can potentially be that role," Young said. "That mindset really helps."

Realistically, as much as they all may want to be the guy, the Cardinal seems destined to employ a running-back-by-committee this year. Yes, that was storyline a year ago at this time, but none of the four guys involved now have the physical stature of Gaffney or Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart before him. All four stand around 5-foot-9 and hover near 200 pounds.

"It just makes you cautious of even thinking you can put 350, 375 carries on a 195-pound running back," coach David Shaw said. "Tyler Gaffney was of the size [6-foot, 220 pounds] that he could handle the pounding every week and come back ready the next. It's hard to say you ask a guy without the same size to go through that."

According to offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, Young enters camp as the de facto starter based on his production in the spring, but there's not much separation. Young's role has changed significantly from a year ago when he also played receiver and was used primarily on jet sweeps. On 28 carries over the past two seasons, he's rushed for 270 yards (9.6 ypc) and three touchdowns.

The biggest obstacle to a bulk of playing time for Young, probably the fastest among the group, is developing as a pass protector -- a key skill in Stanford's scheme. He said he's spent a lot of time watching film of Gaffney and Gerhart to help with that and was noticeably more defined physically on Stanford's first day of camp this week.

"The gauntlet is out there because whoever is our best pass-blocker is going to get more playing time," Shaw said.

After the first session of spring practice, that guy was Wright, but he was suspended for the second session for an undisclosed disciplinary reason and that punishment has carried into fall camp. Shaw said he expects Wright to re-join the team in a little over a week10774202

and seemingly implied he had a lot of ground to make up after being away.

Sanders showed glimpses of the type of player he can be in minimal opportunities last year, but -- along with Young -- seems destined for a much more significant role. As a prep star at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma, he was the No. 9-ranked high school running back in the country and has waited patiently for an opportunity for playing time he likely would have received immediately at other places in the country.

"You come in and basically see what's going on a respond accordingly," Sanders said. "[Taylor] had that phonomenal year my freshman year and then Gaff came back [from playing minor league baseball] and that changed some things."

Seale is the only senior of the group, and based on how he's been used compared to the other three in the past -- he has just 30 carries over the past three years -- it's hard to see him surpassing any of the others. They'll likely have plays or packages in which Seale is featured more prominently, but because there's little incentive to develop him for the future he'll have to really breakout in camp or early in the year.