Stanford had one of the nation’s most prolific offenses in 2011, led by the likes of Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener and linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.
All of them, along with several other offensive stars, have departed The Farm for the NFL, but one key returning player is senior RB Stepfan Taylor.
Taylor has been a bit under the radar for the past two seasons, but in spite of his lack of national acclaim, he is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender for 2012.
Skeptical? Read on and find out why.
28 total TDs in 2010-11
Taylor, who was second team All Pac-12 in 2011, has rather quietly put up big numbers that attest to his talent and durability.
At 5’11”, 210 lbs, Taylor has athleticism, vision and balance. He's powerful enough to gain tough yards up the middle, and with 4.5 speed, he has a home run burst.
In 2010, he rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He added another 266 yards and a receiving touchdown on 28 receptions.
In 2011, he was even better, averaging 5.5 yards per carry as he totaled 1,330 yards and another 10 touchdowns. He had over 30 carries of 10 or more yards, including a dozen of 20 yards or longer.
For good measure, he scored twice more on receptions and had 25 total catches.
Taylor handled his biggest workload in Stanford’s most crucial 2011 games. In the triple OT victory at USC, he carried 23 times, for 99 yards, and scored twice. In the loss to Oregon, he again rushed 23 times, for 99 yards.
Then, in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, Taylor set career highs as he ran over, through and around the Cowboys with 35 carries for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Taylor should be a lock for a third 1,000 yard season in 2012, which will put him alongside Darrin Nelson in an elite club of two Cardinal RBs ever to rush for over 1,000 yards three times.
Stanford will play another high profile schedule in 2012, featuring Pac-12 rivals and aspiring national championship contenders USC and Oregon, along with Notre Dame, UW and Cal. Not to mention other rejuvenated opponents such as Wazzu and Arizona, sporting brand name coaches Mike Leach and Rich Rod.
2012 will be the inaugural season for the Pac-12 Network, which will provide the Cardinals and the rest of the conference with unprecedented national television and media exposure.
All of which should add up to plenty of air time for Stepfan Taylor.
While Stanford’s spring practices did not unequivocally identify the Cardinal’s starting QB, Taylor should thrive no matter who calls signals, thanks to what again looks to be one of the best OLs in the nation.
Despite the loss of DeCastro and Martin to the NFL, the Cardinals boast three returning starters in C Sam Schwartzstein and honorable mention All Pac-12 performers Cam Fleming (RT) and LG David Yankey.
They will be joined by a spectacular incoming class of freshmen, featuring 5-star recruits Joshua Garnett, Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy.
Taylor’s power, speed, vision and instincts should ensure another season of tremendous production, no matter who ends up replacing DeCastro and Martin.
Stanford has, in recent years, become synonymous with Heisman Trophy candidacy. In 2009, RB Toby Gerhart was runner-up to Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman vote ever.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, there was a QB who, like Gerhart, placed second in 2010 to Cam Newton, and then in 2011 to RG3. You may have heard of him. He will be playing for the Colts starting this fall.
While past performance is no guarantee of future results, Stanford’s presence in the Heisman race over the past three years should help propel Taylor into contention if he plays to expectations.
Without Luck, Fleener and WRs Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen, Stanford's 2012 offense will have one undisputed marquee player—Stepfan Taylor.
All four of the RBs who have won the Heisman in the past 15 years—Ricky Williams, Ron Dayne, Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram—were similarly the focal point of their offense.
To be sure, Stanford will have plenty of talent at WR and TE, but Taylor will be the team's bell cow.
If he picks up where he left off at the Fiesta Bowl (35 carries for 177 yards and 2 TDs), he should be an integral part of the Heisman conversation this fall. If he gashes more opponents with those Fiesta Bowl-like numbers, he will be at the Heisman award ceremony in December.