Choosing a replacement for Stanford's stalwart running back Stepfan Taylor from those remaining on the football field was never going to be an easy task for head coach David Shaw.
So he went to the baseball diamond.
Okay, so it’s not as if Shaw was scouring minor league baseball games in the sticks for talent. Tyler Gaffney was the Cardinal’s second-leading rusher in 2011, but left the university to pursue a baseball career in 2012.
Gaffney was a 24th-round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012. He pursued the opportunity and appeared in 38 games for the Pirates’ Short Season-A affiliate State College Spikes. Gaffney even recorded solid statistics, batting .297 with a 0.925 OPS.
Good as he might have been there, he's been better at running back for Stanford. His reintegration into the Cardinal offense has been seamless, as he’s emerged as its primary rusher through each of the first two games this season.
Last Saturday at Army, Gaffney carried for 132 yards and a touchdown in Stanford's 34-20 win over Army. On the season, he's been good for 239 yards and three scores, demonstrating the same speed that resulted in 11 stolen bases last baseball season on his rushes this football campaign.
Exchanging a bat and glove for helmet and pads this fall has suited the San Diego native. He hasn’t just played well upon his return to the Cardinal football team. He’s played with passion.
“Stanford is something special and you can’t get that feeling anywhere else. I am blessed to be a part of it," Gaffney told reporters in his postgame press conference Saturday, per GoArmySports.com.
His exuberance and acclimation back in the collegiate environment is evident to his coach, as Shaw detailed in his teleconference call on Tuesday.
"I think he missed (football). He missed his teammates," Shaw said. “Pro locker rooms are not the same as college locker rooms. He’s got his buddies…He’s just loving football again.”
Happy as Gaffney is to be back, Shaw may be more so. The running back's presence gives Stanford a workhorse in the run game, something that the team's offense has had each of the last four seasons whether it was Taylor or Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart.
Such a back opens the field for quarterback Kevin Hogan not just by forcing defenses to adjust to the rush, but also as a blocker in pass protection.
While a full-season layoff could have rusted Gaffney's game, he actually found the opposite to be true.
“I was a little ahead of schedule (transitioning in the winter and spring as opposed to) coming from Stanford baseball and just showing up in the summer,” Gaffney said.
His break from baseball afforded Gaffney the opportunity to hit the weight room especially hard.
“I knew when I saw him when he first came back (to Stanford), I could tell he’d gotten bigger,” Shaw said. “He didn’t look like a guy who was just going to be a baseball player.”
With 220 pounds on his 6’1” frame and an excited spring in his step, Gaffney has left no doubt that he’s the Cardinal’s feature back. Saturday he faces his first major test in Arizona State, a Pac-12 foe with some of the most talented players in any front seven around the conference.
His ability to establish a consistent rush against the stout Sun Devil defense will set the tone for the Cardinal offense. Gaffney will also be an important cog in the blocking scheme, picking up the frequent and tenacious blitzes on which head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Paul Randolph have built the Sun Devil defense.
On Saturday and throughout Stanford's pursuit of another Pac-12 championship, the joy Gaffney's expressed in returning to football will no doubt spread throughout the Cardinal fanbase.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.