Remember when Barry Sanders committed to Stanford? It happened not too long ago, right?
It was two years ago to be specific, though it feels more like yesterday. That's likely because Sanders, who carries the same name as his all-time great father, a former running back at Oklahoma State, hasn't played a prominent role in the Cardinal offense—yet.
Though Sanders played in 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman, he did so in a limited role. The former 4-star prospect rushed five times for 42 yards, caught four passes for 31 yards and returned seven punts for 71 yards.
In this case, however, limited doesn't mean forgettable. In a 55-17 win over Washington State, Sanders showed just how good he can be in traffic on a screen pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan. Evading defenders, Sanders picked up 16 yards while making it look easy.
He also ran for a season-long 22-yard touchdown against the Cougars. That's basically his highlight reel.
That tape could be—and should be—a lot longer in 2014.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw hasn't rushed Sanders into anything, so to speak. There are two ways to look at that: On one hand, it could have meant he wasn't ready to carry a bigger load. On the other hand, Stanford was set in the backfield.
John Reid of the San Jose Mercury News agreed with the latter. Here's what Reid wrote about Sanders last October:
No, Shaw is doing the right thing by spoon-feeding Sanders a table spoon at a time. No sense rushing him, especially when he isn't needed to win games. Stanford is 4-0, outscoring the opposition 41.2 points per game average to 19.5 points per game.
Why get Sanders banged up with a ton of reps? Stanford's offense is as balanced as can be, averaging 219.5 yards per game on the ground, 221.2 yards per game passing.
That safety net is gone, however. There's heavy turnover at running back, and 2014 seems like Sanders' time to shine.
Senior running back Tyler Gaffney ran the ball 330 times for 1,709 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. In all, Gaffney accounted for about 56 percent of Stanford's rushing attempts last season. Hogan and senior running back Anthony Wilkerson combined for roughly another 30 percent of the carries.
With Gaffney and Wilkerson gone, so is a sizable chunk of the Cardinal's production in the ground game. The only returning running back with more yards than Sanders is Remound Wright (102). Someone has to step up, and Sanders has shown he's not lacking the wow factor.
The biggest question about Stanford's offense next season is how it's going to look. If the offense doesn't churn out a 1,000-yard running back, which it has every year since Jim Harbaugh took over the program in 2008, that could mean a greater dependence on the passing game with Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery.
Or, it could mean the running back spot is played by committee. That seems to be the early vibe, according to the Cardinal's Kelsey Young (via Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle).
"Everybody's goal is to be 'the guy,'" Young said. "The reality is we have so many guys that have great talents and are very versatile. I'm working to be that one guy, but I'd be happy with a committee."
Whether Stanford remains a ground-and-pound team or deviates from that could be dictated by how the offensive line plays. Tackle Andrus Peat returns, but that's about it from the Cardinal's senior-laden group.
That's not to say Stanford's line will be porous—the program has shown the ability to reload before—but it is an area to watch.
Where Sanders fits in with that is his ability to make people miss. In short, he could be doing a lot of that in 2014 if Stanford's line play isn't up to par, whether in the ground or passing game. Instead of running right at defenses all the time, Shaw may incorporate more plays in space. That suits Sanders' skill set the best.
Shaw is an excellent offensive mind who knows how to maximize a player's potential. Though Sanders gives the Cardinal offense a different look, it should still be a productive one in 2014. Whether he's the go-to back or a role player, expect him to have a breakout year.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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