Toby Gerhart focused on erasing early-season struggles in matchup with Colts
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There once was a time when Toby Gerhart was the big man on campus at Stanford while Andrew Luck was a redshirt freshman alternating between seeking the approval and avoiding the disapproval of coach Jim Harbaugh.
But Gerhart’s days of averaging more than 26 carries a game and rushing for 28 touchdowns in a season seem as distant as ever after two regular-season games with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who rank last in the NFL in both rushing yards and total yards.
One thing both Gerhart and Luck have in common: Both of their teams stand at 0-2 as the Jaguars head into their home opener Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
"I love Toby, love Toby," Luck said Wednesday during a conference call. "Great guy, great football player. I got to play with him for one year, and that was a real magical year."
Gerhart ran for 1,871 yards in 2009 and finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy on a Stanford team that finished 8-5. While Luck didn’t come off looking like someone who would evolve into the first pick in the 2012 draft, memories of the talent he displayed even before becoming a starter are still fresh in Gerhart’s mind.
"When he was red-shirting, there were times where he was running the scout team and he’d make a scramble, throw off his back foot 50 yards across the field and complete it like nothing," he said. "And Harbaugh and I would look at each other and just shake our heads and laugh because we knew this guy was going to be something special. Now he’s doing big things and making myself and the alumni proud."
Luck threw for three touchdowns Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that had defeated the Jaguars 34-17 the week before. The second of those enabled Luck to move past Harbaugh into fourth place for the most touchdown passes in franchise history.
Gerhart’s start to the season has been far less auspicious. He gained just eight yards on seven carries against Washington as the Jaguars all but abandoned their running game after falling behind 21-0 halfway through the second quarter.
His average of 2.0 yards per carry is the second-lowest among the top 50 rushers in the AFC. Oddly enough, the only player with a lower average is the back he was signed to replace, Maurice Jones-Drew, now with the Oakland Raiders.
"Obviously it’s frustrating," Gerhart said. "We want to be able to run the ball. But we’re a work in progress. There’s a ton of room for growth, and we’re going to keep pushing it and keep our nose to the grindstone and eventually we’re going to break through and we’re going to get on the same page."
If that somehow happens against the Colts, it will be with two new starters on the offensive line. Sam Young, whose only four previous starts came in 2012 while with the Buffalo Bills, will open at right tackle following the release of Cameron Bradfield. Rookie Luke Bowanko has been named the starting center in place of Jacques McClendon, who had never started a regular-season game at that position before the Jaguars faced the Eagles.
Gerhart’s progress has been slowed by an injury he suffered on a horse collar tackle by Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox. Originally described as an ankle injury, the Jaguars are now listing it as a foot injury.
"I think everybody has something that’s hurting after the first week of the NFL season that’s going to last the rest of the year," said Gerhart, who did not practice Wednesday. "It’s sore, but I’ll push through it."
Given the success the Eagles had against the Colts on passes out of the backfield to Darren Sproles, the Jaguars might use Gerhart more as a receiver. He has four catches through two games, but the longest of those was for only 11 yards.
"There were some times probably where Toby would like to break one or two of those (runs)," offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. "But the run game is on everybody. We have to make sure that every block is sustained on the perimeter. We have to make sure that up front, we target the right people."
In addition to Luck, there are two other former Stanford teammates of Gerhart’s on the Colts in tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver Griff Whalen. As much as he would like to impress them, avoiding an 0-3 start is his utmost priority.
"Yes, there’s urgency. Yes, we need to get it right," he said. "But when it becomes emotional or becomes stressful, a lot of bad things happen. So there’s no panic, just urgency."