Nobody took Christian McCaffrey seriously & now he can't be stopped
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- On his various trips to camps and all-star combines in high school, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey found out what it’s like to be stereotyped. “A lot of times I got confused for a kicker,” said the then 5-foot-10, 180ish-pound running back. “And I’ve been compared to every white player in the NFL.”
Watching from the stands, his mother, Lisa, heard the skepticism firsthand from the other parents.
“They’d laugh at him,” she said. “Or I’d hear after, ‘We thought your son was going to suck.’”
If only those dismissive parents knew the bloodlines of the kid they were dissing.
McCaffrey’s grandfather (Lisa’s dad), David Sime, was a world-record sprinter who took silver at the 1960 Olympics in the 100 meter-dash. His uncle, Billy McCaffrey, played basketball at Duke and Vanderbilt in the early ‘90s. Lisa herself played soccer at Stanford. And his father, Ed – you may remember him as a former All-Pro receiver for the two-time Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
In fact, an off-handed joke by Lisa in a 1998 Sports Illustrated profile on Ed has proven prophetic. With then 2-year-old Christian and 4-year old brother Max (now a senior receiver at Duke) running afoot during their interview, she joked to reporter Michael Silver, “That’s why Ed and I got together -- so we could breed fast white guys.”
Heading into Thursday night’s game against No. 18 UCLA, McCaffrey, a sophomore, leads the Power 5 in all-purpose yardage (229.8 per game). On Sept. 25 he shredded Oregon State for 206 yards on 30 carries while adding a 38-yard catch. A week later he averaged 9.2 yards per carry against Arizona for 156 rushing yards and broke a 67-yard kick return. His speed and versatility allows No. 15 Stanford (4-1) to use him not only as a running back but a receiver, kick and punt returner.
The Cardinal’s offense has rebounded from a nightmarish 16-6 opening week loss at Northwestern to average 46.0 points in three Pac-12 victories. Though fourth-year quarterback Kevin Hogan’s sterling play garners most of the attention, McCaffrey’s emergence as an every-down back – something many college coaches could not envision – is a major factor.
“This kid’s been blessed with great genes for this sport -- speed, quickness, an explosive physical nature,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “But at the same time, he has this mentality that’s developed. He’s ultra-competitive and ultra-hard on himself because he wants to be great at everything.”
Shaw, a Stanford teammate of Ed McCaffrey’s in 1990, recalls the first time he watched Christian’s tape from Denver’s Valor Christian High School. “He looks like he’s going at a different speed than everyone else,” Shaw said. Roughly two years later, Christian took the field for his first preseason camp as a Stanford freshman and, “It was just like high school,” Shaw said. “He’s at a different speed than everyone else.”
Shannon Turley, Stanford’s head strength and conditioning coach since 2007, said McCaffrey runs a 4.50 laser-timed 40, fastest of any running back to come through the program during his time there. “Mom, dad, God and a lot of hard work leading up to Stanford got him that way,” Turley said.
But despite McCaffrey’s obvious explosiveness, Shaw resisted using him as much more than a spot player his freshman season despite the Cardinal struggling their way to a 5-5 start. “I took a lot of flack for not playing him every single down,” said Shaw, “but I don’t think he was ready for that.”
McCaffrey teased Cardinal fans with an increased role during Stanford’s season-ending three-game win streak, including 138 all-purpose yards in a bowl win over Maryland. Over the offseason, Turley went to work remaking the body of a guy who his school generously lists as being 6-foot and who arrived on campus weighing less than 200 pounds. With Turley’s help, McCaffrey went from 197 pounds to 202 pounds while dropping his body fat from 13.1 percent to 9.7 percent – effectively gaining 10 pounds of lean muscle mass.
Shaw’s plan for McCaffrey coming into the season was to get him at least 20-25 touches per game, which he’s hit in all but the opener. Watch McCaffrey closely and you see a patient runner who can find even a small crease, hit it, bend back and then fly.
“Losing that body fat goes a long way,” Turley said. “Just the way gravity affects your body, he’s able to put more force in the ground with every step he takes and create more speed and power.”
McCaffrey’s position coach, Lance Taylor, spent four seasons in the NFL before joining Shaw’s staff last season.
“I’ve been around some great running backs -- Shonn Greene in New York, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina,” he said. “All of those guys are great running backs, but I wouldn’t say all of those guys are great at multiple things. Christian is probably the best guy I’ve ever been around in terms of, anything you ask him to do, he does it well.”
But that wasn’t most observers’ initial impression upon watching him in high school. Despite leading Valor Christian to four state titles and twice earning himself All-Colorado player of the year honors, McCaffrey did not initially rack up many national accolades.
“I felt like I could play with anybody,” he said, “but some people felt differently. … The tape doesn’t show that white guys can be fast.”
Christian racked up scholarship offers from the likes of Oregon, UCLA, Ohio State and Duke, but coaches primarily saw him as an “athlete” without a defined role. Stanford was among his earliest suitors, and he committed in the spring of his junior year.
“I thought maybe people that have relatives that played in the NFL would have an advantage,” said 6-foot-5 Ed McCaffrey, “but you find out real quick, coaches get paid to win football games, and they don’t care where you come from. It’s their job to evaluate the best players. His dad isn’t going to play for you.”
Christian earned a late invitation to the January 2014 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, where a nifty punt return and impressive practice performances helped him to jump into the national Top 100 on the major recruiting sites.
“Whenever he left the state, he had to re-prove everything,” Ed McCaffrey said. “Nothing was ever given him.”
The McCaffreys are going through the recruiting process yet again with Christian’s brother Dylan, a junior quarterback for Valor Christian, who already has offers from LSU, Michigan and others. Luke, a freshman quarterback, may be next in line after that.
All are taller than Christian, who, despite his genes, actually turned out to be a much different type of athlete than his father.
“Ed likes to think he was just as fast as [Christian],” Lisa said. “In Ed’s defense, he was really fast, he just took a lot of strides. Christian’s always had a thicker, lower body, so he was able to juke and drive. It’s fun to see.”
Ed and Lisa split their weekends traveling to either Durham or Palo Alto (or to Duke and Stanford’s road games). Sometimes the high school travels out of state as well. And wherever he goes, Ed has to be back in time Sunday to serve as a color analyst for Broncos games.
“It’s not unusual to have three or four flights in a weekend,” he said.
If Christian continues to put up big numbers and if Stanford keeps winning, their travels may well take them to New York in December – if not this year, then next. So, does that mean Lisa’s grand plan from that 1998 article worked?
“Time will tell,” she said. “Christian’s pretty fast. He’s been fast since he was little.
“I guess … mission accomplished?"
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.