As a dual-sport, double-major beast at Stanford, Tyler Gaffney is back on the gridiron barreling through defenses after taking a year to play professional baseball. Recently, the Cardinal running back has started to hit his stride toting the rock for Stanford thanks to his rare combination of size, strength and speed. Despite having 22 fewer carries than Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and 33 fewer than Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Gaffney ranks third in the Pac-12 in total yards and yards per game. There are only three players in the nation with more rushing touchdowns.
Stanford battles Oregon on the Farm this Thursday, and if the Cardinal have any chance of shooting down the high-flying Ducks, they’ll likely have to play “keep away,” relegating Marcus Mariota to the sidelines for as long as possible. Tyler Gaffney would play a major part in that plan.
I went Inside the Mind with @TyGaff to get his thoughts on Stanford’s matchup with Oregon and learn what motivates him to achieve his goals on and off the football field.
Coach Shaw is an incredibly inspiring teacher, mentor and leader. What has he said or done that has stuck with you?
Humility. He teaches us to always stay humble and play within ourselves. That’s the feeling around here. We get these rankings, upset alerts, but the message he instills is to stay even keel. We’ve won all these games, but a lot of them didn’t even feel like a win. Coach teaches you to never be satisfied. You’re not playing against the other team, you’re playing against yourself. If we don’t play at the level we expect ourselves to play at, then we didn’t win.
How about inspirations off the field? Is there anything that your mother Tiffani or your father Gene has taught you?
They taught me that nothing is going to come easy and that everything has to go through a process. Stay humble, work it out, and everything will be good eventually. My dad has made sure that nothing was ever given to me. Work hard to earn what you want. He’s instilled that in me my whole life. To get what I want in life, I have to stick to the process. My mom taught me that each of us needs to live our truth. This is our life, and what matters is what is in our heart and what we’re passionate about.
Is there anything else that anyone has told you or taught you that has inspired you?
I’ve had my grandpa. He passed away. I think he’s had a big impact on my life. He always emphasized, before I would go out with friends during high school, to be the good guy. He always challenged me to be on another level. He’d say, “If you’re going to work, to hang out, or to friend’s house, be who you want them to see. Be the good guy.”
You have a rare combination of speed and size. Who are your inspirations at the running back position?
You can’t help but think about Bo Jackson for obvious reasons. He’s an all-around athlete.
I talked to Shannon Turley and Bill Hughan, and they said people are going to be shocked about how strong and fast you are. Did you do anything extra or unique to prepare for this season?
I got the opportunity to actually get into the weight room and get after it a bit, when normally halfway into the spring I’m still playing baseball. But this year being able to train with the team for the entire offseason was a great benefit.
I do balance drills religiously. Juggling on a BOSU ball, staying balanced on one leg with a football in one hand, while bouncing a ball off of a wall with the other hand without letting the football come away from my body — making sure I’m aware of keeping the ball protected at all times. I also stand with my eyes closed on an Airex pad or on an unstable surface to work on my balance.
I’ve been in the weight room and I’ve seen you train. What goes through your mind with each set and each rep. Is there a thought or mental image that motivates you?
This season is a little different for me because I feel like I have something to prove to everybody. There’s that stigma of me being a baseball guy and that I’m just dabbling in football — or vice versa. I want it to be known that whatever sport I’m playing I’m a serious about it.
Do you do anything unique to achieve your goals?
I write all my goals down. I live in a planner right now. I have that certain spot in my planner that is there every day and it has what I’m trying to accomplish. Whether it’s what I’m trying to accomplish that day or that month, it’s there. Before it had my physical goals: to be this strong, this fast, this heavy. But now that the season is here, it’s to maintain my weight, to go to class so that I can finish my degree, to make sure I’m taking care of my body so that I can stay healthy throughout the season. The goals are always changing.
You had 56 total touchdowns in high school as a senior at Cathedral Catholic, which is the fourth-best single-season total in California history, but you’ve also been a multi-sport stud. You set out to play professional baseball last year, and now you’re back on the football field. What is your ultimate goal?
I’m a day-by-day guy at this point. The opportunities that present themselves determine what I do each day, and I’m trying to be successful in all that I do. In a perfect world, I’d like to be Bo Jackson. I don’t know if that’s allowed or even possible nowadays, but in a perfect world that’s my goal. I’m going to be a believer until I get shut down.
You’re a double major in sociology & psychology. One major would have sufficed. Why both?
I picked up psychology because I came back and I have an entire year to take care of it. Sociology and psychology go kind of hand in hand. People are far too interesting not to learn about why they do what they do. Those majors are applicable to what I want to do if sports don’t work out.
ON THURSDAY’S GAME VERSUS OREGON
How will you guys be able to match points with the high-flying Oregon Ducks?
We just have to keep possession and not make mistakes or turnovers. That’s how you beat the Ducks. You keep their offense off of the field and capitalize on your opportunities.
The Ducks’ defense is strong as well. What gives you the best chance to move the ball against them?
Execution. Doing everything right and fighting for extra yards, blocks, and ways to get open. They are athletic. They are fast, and they all run to the ball without any hesitation. We need to do everything right this game more than ever.
What does their defense do really well that concerns you guys?
Like I said, they are fast. But what I have been impressed with is their ability to shed blocks and make plays. Just when you think you have an open lane to run and break a big run, they break off their block and make the tackle.
Who are the defensive players for Oregon that coach has said you guys must be aware of?
Our coach didn’t point out any players in particular. They are all solid. They all get the job done and they are all fast. We need to be aware of all 11 at all times.
BETWEEN THE LINES
The run game has really started to click. What has changed?
I am just understanding how to run the rock better and better each game. Understanding our run game and how each lineman does his job. This is my first year playing as much as I have, and I took a solid amount of time away from the game. Getting back into the swing of things is what’s happening, and it should only get better from here.
Last year, Stanford had a more methodical approach with a run game and a short to intermediate pass game. This year’s style of attack is a bit different. Have the coaches talked about big plays being a larger part of the identity of this offense?
Obviously big plays are part of it, but [coach] just says we’re going to run our offense and take advantage of what they show us. When a team puts ten in the box to stop our power run game, we have some guys who are going to run by you if you try that. Certain games, we’ve taken advantage of that. Then, later in the game it opened up the run.
So there’s not a magic formula that has suddenly allowed guys like Ty Montgomery to execute these home-run-hitting type of plays?
I think we’re just emphasizing it, whereas before the deep ball wasn’t an option. Now, it is far more of an option.
Which run play is really hitting for you right now?
Any of the run plays that I get the ball. [Laughs]
Your offense is 22nd in nation on third down. You’re converting almost 50 percent of the time. That’s pretty darn good. Enlighten me briefly about the philosophy of your offensive attack at Stanford.
You say that, but in our meeting room we’re not good on third down. We’re not meeting our standards. That starts with getting four yards on first down and going from there.
What do you like most about Kevin Hogan’s game? What does he do well?
He makes things happen that may not be drawn up. It may not happen exactly the way we scripted it, but he’s good at figuring it out. Whether it’s dumping it down to a running back, or taking off and running the ball, he manages more often than not to get us out of bad situations.
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What sound or noise do you really like?
The crack of a wooden bat.
What sound do you hate?
Birds outside the window in the morning.
“Kill Me If You Can” by James Patterson.
What is your power animal?
If coach Shaw said you could play another position for the rest year, which would you most like to play?
Least like to play?
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you like to see play the lead role?
Brad Pitt, but the “Fight Club” version.
If you could be a superhero, what would you want your one superpower to be?
I don’t know if it’s a superpower, but I’d be the Wolverine.
If you could trade places with any other person for a week – famous or not, living or not, real or fictional – with whom would it be?