STANFORD — Tyler Gaffney attended last year’s Pac-12 championship game as a fan, milling around the sidelines at Stanford Stadium before kickoff and spending the rest of the night in the stands.
This time he’ll be the featured attraction.
After playing baseball in the minor leagues last year, Gaffney’s remarkable return to football is one of the biggest reasons seventh-ranked Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) has a chance for consecutive Rose Bowl berths. He has run for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns entering Saturday night’s showdown at No. 11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1), turning in one consistent performance after another, which will likely land him in a different draft next.
“He’s put on film that he’s a potential high-round pick in the NFL, because that’s how NFL backs run,” Stanford coach David Shaw said Monday. “He’s done it every game. He’s caught the ball out of the backfield. He’s pass protected. He’s come back and shown that he’s a complete back. I’m excited for him. This is maybe even more than what he envisioned coming back for.”
Shaw began fall practices talking about how he planned to replace Stanford’s career rushing leader, Stepfan Taylor, with a rotation of up to six running backs.
“An embarrassment of riches,” Shaw called them.
Instead, Gaffney emerged as the featured running back because he seemed to always find the right holes — or plow them. He has quietly moved just 386 yards away from Toby Gerhart’s celebrated school record of 1,871 yards rushing in 2009, when he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Alabama’s Mark Ingram.
Gerhart needed only 13 games to set that mark. Gaffney will get 14 because of the Pac-12 title game. And with everything he has accomplished this season, Gaffney will get to make a major life decision for the second time in a year: go back to baseball, or head to the NFL? In all likelihood, it will be the latter.
“I would love to play in the NFL,” Gaffney said. “That’s an opportunity that doesn’t knock on many people’s doors.”
In his first three seasons at Stanford, Gaffney ran for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns on 156 carries. He also caught 17 passes for 187 yards and three TDs as Taylor’s primary backup.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Gaffney in the 24th round as an outfielder, and he said he couldn’t turn down a chance to play professional baseball. He had a solid season with the Class-A State College Spikes, batting .297 with a .483 on-base percentage.
Gaffney got the urge to resume his football career after watching his Cardinal teammates win the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl last season. He also wanted to finish his degree — doubling-majoring in sociology and psychology — and chase his own championship, the two things missing from his Stanford resume.
Now he has a chance to fulfill both.
“Speaking for myself, this is awesome,” Gaffney said. “I’ve never been to the Rose Bowl. I was a fan, I watched and it looked like an incredible place to play. I know what’s going on around now, so I think from both perspectives. I can appreciate the game and what goes into it. There was the big food and everybody was hanging out. I’ve never seen so many Stanford fans. They were coming out of the woodworks. To be a part of that, not to speak ahead, but I would love to be a part of that.”
The recent success of former Stanford running backs such as a Gerhart (Minnesota Vikings), Taylor (Arizona Cardinals) and Jeremy Stewart (Oakland Raiders) should also bode well for Gaffney’s NFL future.
Stanford runs a pro-style system predicated on power and patience. And other than Gerhart, perhaps nobody has perfected those qualities more than Gaffney on The Farm.
Gaffney has averaged 23.6 carries per game, which has increased steadily all season. His most memorable performance came in the victory over Oregon on Nov. 7, when he ran for 157 yards and set a school record with 45 carries.
“The crazy part is how many carries he can do,” said Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez, a former running back. “I just think back to high school, at the end of the game or on Saturday when we watched film, I’d say, ‘Hey, coach, how many carries did I get?’ He’d say, ‘Around 15.’ I’d say, ‘Are you kidding me? I feel like I’ve been doing about 50.’ And just thinking of him actually doing around 50 carries is remarkable.”
In a perfect world, Gaffney has always said, he would play both football and baseball professionally. But he realizes that’s unlikely, so he’s put all his effort into whatever sport he’s playing at the time.
Gaffney said he parted on good terms with the Pirates, and the organization would welcome him back. And while he’s not ready to declare for the NFL draft just yet, those around Gaffney believe it’s his best option after the season.
“I’ve seen him play baseball for a couple years. I know he’s good. He’s got a lot of tools. He’s an outstanding hitter, he’s a great baserunner. I think he’s a really good fielder. But I think he’s an NFL back,” Shaw said. “I don’t know where he’ll get drafted, but it’s going to be in the first couple rounds.”