Gaffney’s return to Stanford exceeds expectations

Tyler Gaffney attended last year’s Pac-12 championship game as a

fan, milling around the sidelines at Stanford Stadium before

kickoff and spending the rest of the night in the stands.

This time he’ll be the featured attraction.

After playing baseball in the minor leagues last year, Gaffney’s

remarkable return to football is one of the biggest reasons

seventh-ranked Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) has a chance for

consecutive Rose Bowl berths. He has run for 1,485 yards and 17

touchdowns entering Saturday night’s showdown at No. 11 Arizona

State (10-2, 8-1), turning in one consistent performance after

another, which will likely land him in a different draft next.

”He’s put on film that he’s a potential high-round pick in the

NFL, because that’s how NFL backs run,” Stanford coach David Shaw

said Monday. ”He’s done it every game. He’s caught the ball out of

the backfield. He’s pass protected. He’s come back and shown that

he’s a complete back. I’m excited for him. This is maybe even more

than what he envisioned coming back for.”

Shaw began fall practices talking about how he planned to

replace Stanford’s career rushing leader, Stepfan Taylor, with a

rotation of up to six running backs.

”An embarrassment of riches,” Shaw called them.

Instead, Gaffney emerged as the featured running back because he

seemed to always find the right holes – or plow them. He has

quietly moved just 386 yards away from Toby Gerhart’s celebrated

school record of 1,871 yards rushing in 2009, when he was the

Heisman Trophy runner-up to Alabama’s Mark Ingram.

Gerhart needed only 13 games to set that mark. Gaffney will get

14 because of the Pac-12 title game. And with everything he has

accomplished this season, Gaffney will get to make a major life

decision for the second time in a year: go back to baseball, or

head to the NFL? In all likelihood, it will be the latter.

”I would love to play in the NFL,” Gaffney said. ”That’s an

opportunity that doesn’t knock on many people’s doors.”

In his first three seasons at Stanford, Gaffney ran for 791

yards and 12 touchdowns on 156 carries. He also caught 17 passes

for 187 yards and three TDs as Taylor’s primary backup.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Gaffney in the 24th round as an

outfielder, and he said he couldn’t turn down a chance to play

professional baseball. He had a solid season with the Class-A State

College Spikes, batting .297 with a .483 on-base percentage.

Gaffney got the urge to resume his football career after

watching his Cardinal teammates win the Pac-12 title and the Rose

Bowl last season. He also wanted to finish his degree –

doubling-majoring in sociology and psychology – and chase his own

championship, the two things missing from his Stanford resume.

Now he has a chance to fulfill both.

”Speaking for myself, this is awesome,” Gaffney said. ”I’ve

never been to the Rose Bowl. I was a fan, I watched and it looked

like an incredible place to play. I know what’s going on around

now, so I think from both perspectives. I can appreciate the game

and what goes into it. There was the big food and everybody was

hanging out. I’ve never seen so many Stanford fans. They were

coming out of the woodworks. To be a part of that, not to speak

ahead, but I would love to be a part of that.”

The recent success of former Stanford running backs such as a

Gerhart (Minnesota Vikings), Taylor (Arizona Cardinals) and Jeremy

Stewart (Oakland Raiders) should also bode well for Gaffney’s NFL

future.

Stanford runs a pro-style system predicated on power and

patience. And other than Gerhart, perhaps nobody has perfected

those qualities more than Gaffney on The Farm.

Gaffney has averaged 23.6 carries per game, which has increased

steadily all season. His most memorable performance came in the

victory over Oregon on Nov. 7, when he ran for 157 yards and set a

school record with 45 carries.

”The crazy part is how many carries he can do,” said Stanford

linebacker Blake Martinez, a former running back. ”I just think

back to high school, at the end of the game or on Saturday when we

watched film, I’d say, `Hey, coach, how many carries did I get?’

He’d say, `Around 15.’ I’d say, `Are you kidding me? I feel like

I’ve been doing about 50.’ And just thinking of him actually doing

around 50 carries is remarkable.”

In a perfect world, Gaffney has always said, he would play both

football and baseball professionally. But he realizes that’s

unlikely, so he’s put all his effort into whatever sport he’s

playing at the time.

Gaffney said he parted on good terms with the Pirates, and the

organization would welcome him back. And while he’s not ready to

declare for the NFL draft just yet, those around Gaffney believe

it’s his best option after the season.

”I’ve seen him play baseball for a couple years. I know he’s

good. He’s got a lot of tools. He’s an outstanding hitter, he’s a

great baserunner. I think he’s a really good fielder. But I think

he’s an NFL back,” Shaw said. ”I don’t know where he’ll get

drafted, but it’s going to be in the first couple rounds.”

Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at:

www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP