STANFORD, Calif. -- Imagine what it's like for Stanford head coach David Shaw to walk the sideline on an autumn Saturday, a 6-foot, 201-pound Swiss army knife in his hip pocket.
Check that -- this is Nerd Nation. Let's attach the Swiss army knife to his belt loop.
How should a coach best deploy sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey? McCaffrey leads the FBS in all-purpose yardage, averaging 241.6 yards per game. He can run. He can catch. He can block. He can return punts and kickoffs. He threw a touchdown pass last Saturday against Colorado.
"One-handed catches, making guys miss, finishing 40 yards into the end zone, it's just every day," Shaw said. "And he comes back, and there's no fanfare. A lot of guys, 'Hey, did you see that?' He comes back and it's ready for the next play."
So maybe not a Swiss army knife. Maybe McCaffrey plays as if he had been designed two miles down the road from the Stanford campus, in Elon Musk's dream factory. Like a Tesla, McCaffrey runs fast, turns at top speed, and doesn't make a sound.
There have been nine games this season in which an FBS player has gained 300 yards. McCaffrey has three of them, including the season high of 369 yards against UCLA.
They all have their favorite plays. Shaw gushed about McCaffrey's 70-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation against the Bruins. The play is designed to go to the left. McCaffrey followed his blockers for two steps, at which point he saw a lane on the back side, behind the flow.
McCaffrey, Shaw said, "just explodes through it, full speed, no hesitation, no indecision. It's not where the play is designed to go, but he saw it and he put his left foot in the ground and he just took it."
Center Graham Shuler remembered being bull-rushed by a UCLA defensive lineman. "Out of nowhere," Shuler said, "my guy just goes limp and kind of backs off a little bit. I look down and it was Christian right there under my right arm. He just came in and nailed the guy for me."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren scrolled through his video of the 30-28 victory over Washington State to find quarterback Kevin Hogan throwing a pass to McCaffrey in the left flat. Linebacker Jeremiah Allison closed in. McCaffrey did the Hokey Pokey -- he put his right leg in, and when Allison arrived, McCaffrey put his right leg out. Allison whiffed. What should have been a 2-yard gain becomes a 9-yard gain.
"It's the difference between having to look at your call sheet for a play for third-and-3, or first-and-10," Bloomgren said. "I know which is easier."
There's a running gag among the Stanford offensive coaches.
"When Christian does something freakish on film, whether it's practice or a game," Bloomgren said, "we say, 'Hey, great coaching, Lance. Good job, bud.' "
Running backs coach Lance Taylor accepts the jibes with their intended good nature. Taylor spends the most time with McCaffrey. And he best captured McCaffrey's greatest asset.
"Obviously," Taylor said, "he's super-, super-talented and comes from a very athletic family and tree. He's got a ton of God-given abilities."
McCaffrey is well-known as the son of former Stanford and NFL receiving star Ed McCaffrey, and his mother, Lisa, played soccer at Stanford. Her father, David Sime, once held the title "World's Fastest Human," as the world record holder in the 100-yard dash in 1956. Sime won a silver medal in 100 meters at the Rome Olympics four years later.
Yet, in the end, this is not a story about the magic that McCaffrey performs on the field. Describing McCaffrey's exploits wearing No. 5 -- his shout-out to vacated Heisman winner Reggie Bush -- misses the point. What has made him one of the best running backs in the FBS is not his versatility, not his ability to get to top speed faster than anyone chasing him or make a cut once he gets there.
"What separates him from the other 99 percent of our population," Taylor said, "is he works to be great. It's easy to look at him and say, 'He does everything well. Must be nice. That must be easy. It's easy for Christian.' But he works at it."
He's a grind. On a campus where it's cool to work hard, McCaffrey is Nerd Nation's biggest football nerd. Take, for instance, what he expects of himself.
"God help us if he makes a mistake," Taylor said.
"He is the hardest on himself of anyone on the team," Hogan said. "It's even after he makes a great play: 'I should have carried the guy 10 yards further, or gotten the first down.' You see him get tackled at the 1. He's beating himself up because he didn't get that extra yard. It's just so impressive that he's so successful, but he's still not satisfied with it."
Director of Sports Performance Shannon Turley described McCaffrey as the most prepared freshman he has come across in nine seasons at Stanford. McCaffrey said he has not gone a full week this year without working out. When he described taking "a solid six days off" during the summer, he sounded like a history professor describing a six-month sabbatical.
"I'd like to think of it as a healthy addiction," McCaffrey said.
At the end of spring practice, Taylor called McCaffrey into his office for his player evaluation. He gave him some video cutups of NFL back LeSean McCoy to illustrate how he wanted McCaffrey to be more patient, to wait for his blockers to do their job.
"The next day I go out on the road recruiting," Taylor said. "Out here it's 9 or 10 at night. It was after midnight where I was. And he texts me: 'Hey coach, on Play Three of the cut-up you gave me..."
The day after the grind of spring ball ended, McCaffrey was up late, watching video. Naturally, he scored on that play from nine yards out vs. UCLA.
"It was perfect," Taylor said. "His patience, waiting on his blockers up front, and then once the pullers got out in front of him, he hit the hole.
"He came to the sideline and he said, 'That was just like the cut-up you gave me,' " Taylor said. "... A lot of guys say they want to watch extra films or do the extra little things, but then you never see them in the office. He'll ask you, 'Hey coach, can I come watch film tomorrow at noon?' And he'll be there at noon."
That description dovetails with the classic description of Stanford students as ducks. On the surface, they glide across this idyllic campus. Underneath, they paddle like hell. In that sense, McCaffrey is one more overachiever at a university filled with them.
"I go to class every day with the future Facebook and Twitter and Google employees, the future innovators and entrepreneurs who might have the next big thing," McCaffrey said. "Knowing that and seeing their success and work ethic makes you want to be successful. It impresses me every day. It humbles me, too.
"Most schools, the football players are kind of the kings in school. You get here and you got guys working on creating nervous systems for prosthetics and doing the most amazing things in the world. It puts you back down to earth."
Leonard Fournette has become such a celebrity at LSU that he needs a state trooper to drive him home from Tiger Stadium. McCaffrey has had a season similar in impact to Fournette on the field. And the Stanford campus has erupted, right?
"Honestly, no. It's the same," McCaffrey said.
No state trooper?
"Postgame, we walk from the locker room, and get our bikes, and bike back to the dorms," McCaffrey said. "You walk into the dorm, and there are people on their computers, doing homework, and you walk into your room and go to bed."
So when his teammates call him "GOAT," as in Greatest of All Time, he takes it as locker room teasing. Except they might mean it. You hear about McCaffrey's ability to perform Turley's unique conditioning drills, such as pushing a John Deere cart loaded with coaches around campus, or about the night he took down a teammate in a freestyle rap.
The captains chose McCaffrey to carry the American flag as the Cardinal runs onto the field, an honor not awarded a sophomore since the custom began several years ago.
McCaffrey's all-purpose yardage has dipped the last two weeks. Washington State refused to kick off to him. The pooch kicks resulted in Stanford having average starting field position at its 41-yard-line. He accounted for 220 yards against Colorado, which doesn't include the 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper.
The NCAA might need to come up with a new category for McCaffrey. How about Swiss army yardage?