STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw swears he understands. Shaw, the Cardinal head coach, knows there's a limit to how many times junior Christian McCaffrey can take the ball and be effective. The latest test comes Friday night, when the No. 7 Cardinal play at No. 10 Washington (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"He can't take every single rep and be able to survive a 13-, 14-game season," Shaw said. "He can't. Even at that age, in the best shape of [his] life, and a phenomenal athlete, probably one of the best-conditioned athletes in the nation. Somebody else has to take some reps."
Over the course of McCaffrey's record-breaking 2015 season, the running back carried, caught or returned the football 424 times. That's 30.3 times per game, way more than any other FBS player in the nation. It worked out pretty well for him. He broke the single-season all-purpose yards record (3,250) set by Barry Sanders in 1988. McCaffrey finished with 3,864 yards.
When Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren stand on the sideline and look down at their call sheets, they seem to become every 10-year-old who ever ripped open a one-pound bag of M&Ms. How do you stop?
"It takes a concerted effort among the coaches," Bloomgren said. "If we say, 'Who is the best for this [play]?' It usually comes up being 5 (McCaffrey's number). You have to be really careful. If we put 25 pounds on him, I'd probably play him at guard. At the same time, we say it every time we watch a game. 'Hey, he played X number of plays. And it's too many.'"
Three games into his junior year, McCaffrey's workload has ticked upward -- 32 times per game. He has 79 carries, 12 receptions, three kick returns and two punt returns for a total of 635 yards (211.7-yard average). The 91 carries and catches are 59.9 percent of Stanford's total this season. That's 13 percentage points higher than the second-biggest ball hog in the FBS, Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State.
OK, it's not fair to call McCaffrey a ball hog. He isn't calling plays. And in Shaw's defense, sophomore running back Bryce Love missed the opener against Kansas State, and quarterback Ryan Burns played little before winning the starting job in August.
We live in an age of specialization, with personnel groups shuttling on and off the field every down. Yet McCaffrey is as evergreen as the tree in the Stanford logo. How much is too much? What is the limit?
The Stanford coaches don't think in numbers. Shaw mentioned 25 carries, give or take. He checks the halftime stats to see if McCaffrey has too many touches, or too few.
"The other thing that's hard?" Bloomgren said. "The kid doesn't want to be out of the game a single play. If he were asking, 'Can I get a break?' that would make it so much easier for all of us. But he's the last one that wants to take a play off."
McCaffrey dismisses the pitch count, too, although he said the USC game, when he had 31 carries, three catches and a kick return, has been the toughest to recover from.
"Sometimes you'll have 30, 40 touches in the game, and you'll feel better than if you had 22," he said. "It depends on where you get hit and how you get hit."
McCaffrey expected his workload to increase this season. He is playing more as a slot receiver, hoping to get one-on-one with some poor linebacker unable to match his rare combination of speed and strength. Shaw stressed the difference in McCaffrey between last season and this, the physical maturation of a 19-year-old who turned 20. But there's also a big difference in his preparation.
McCaffrey assesses the condition of his body with the care of an NFL veteran, spending a total of three to four hours before and after practice to prepare for and recover from the workload. Foam rollers, stretches, Pilates, one minute in the hot pool, two in the cold, and back again for 30 minutes.
"Last year, I was doing stuff where I didn't know if that was necessarily the best thing for me to do," McCaffrey said. "This year, OK, I'm having a little bit of tightness in my adductor. I know I need to get my glutes back firing. I know my body a lot better. I can pinpoint and find exactly what I need to do."
The result is a fresher back. He feels better on Monday than he did last season. He accepts that he isn't going to do much physical work on Monday. He understands that Love needs the reps.
"Last year, we would sit him out of practice on Mondays and he would pout," Bloomgren said. "Body language. Now he understands it's part of the process."
As Burns matures, Shaw and Bloomgren hope the quarterback will be able to take more of the responsibility for the offense. Love has proven in the past two games that he is an effective counterpunch to McCaffrey. Until that really happens, however, Shaw said, the offensive burden is going to be on the offensive line and McCaffrey.
"Going into a game, I know that I'm going to run a lot," McCaffrey said. "I know I'm going to have a lot of volume, and I know that I'm going to get hit a lot, which is great. Sometimes we try to deliver some blows, too, try to break as many tackles as possible. We know it's going to hurt the next day. That's why we love the game."