Replacing Gerhart tough task for Stanford
STANFORD – When it comes to replacing Toby Gerhart and his 28 touchdowns, 1,871 rushing yards and countless big plays, Stanford will have a hard time finding one person to fill the job.
Gerhart’s running duties will likely be shared by Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and a collection of young backs looking to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Quarterback Andrew Luck will be counted on to carry an ever bigger load after his breakthrough first season as starter.
And even the defensive players know they will have a lot more responsibility without Gerhart there to rescue them like he did so often last season.
“We’re definitely taking it to heart,” nose tackle Sione Fua said. “People have been saying our defense needs to get better to get Stanford to the next level. We’re taking it to heart. We want to be a strength of this team. We want to win games 3-0 and the other team never scores. We want to shut everyone out and just be a strength this season.”
The defense was far from a strength last season when it allowed 31.4 points per game. The Cardinal scored at least 27 points in four of their five losses with an offense that was clearly good enough to win the Pac-10.
Stanford is shifting to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Vic Fangio, who has spent the past 24 seasons coaching in the NFL, in hopes of improving the struggling unit.
That was one of the few negatives last year as the Cardinal completed their turnaround from the 1-11 team Jim Harbaugh took over following the 2006 season.
Harbaugh led the Cardinal to upsets of Southern California and rival California in his first season and fell one win shy of a bowl bid his second year before leading Stanford to its first bowl bid in eight years last season as the Cardinal finished 8-5.
Expectations are high again this year.
“It’s a double-edged sword there,” Harbaugh said. “The main thing is we have to understand that because we went to a bowl and won eight games we’re not entitled to go to a better bowl and win 10 games or 11 or 12. All those have to be earned. From the other side of the coin, the team has the knowledge and the evidence that it can be done and also has the blueprint for doing it.”
That blueprint will be to ride the strong right arm of Luck, who is considered one of the top pro prospects in all of college football after playing just one season at Stanford.
Luck, who sat out his freshman year as a redshirt, completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 2,575 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions despite missing the Sun Bowl loss to Oklahoma with a broken right index finger.
“We knew he was a great talent but he had never played in a football game,” Harbaugh said. “Andrew far exceeded our expectations of what a freshman quarterback would do. He worked extremely hard. Part of his ability is he’s very blessed and very talented but he’s also a tremendously hard worker. He may surprise us again and exceed expectations.”
That may be necessary this year now that Gerhart isn’t around. Gerhart carried the team down the stretch, especially when he almost single-handedly beat Notre Dame by running for 205 yards and three touchdowns and then throwing a game-tying 18-yard TD pass to Ryan Whalen to help the Cardinal win it.
That was just one of many examples of Gerhart’s brilliance last season, when he narrowly lost to Alabama’s Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman Trophy vote ever.
Gerhart is off to the NFL and Stanford has few proven backs to replace him. Stewart is the most experienced of the runners, having rushed for 526 yards and three touchdowns his first three years at Stanford.
He played sparingly last year because of a high ankle sprain and stress fracture but entered fall camp this year as the starter for the Cardinal.
“We definitely have the talent around us to replace Toby,” Stewart said. “It’s a great opportunity for me and the rest of the running backs. We love it. Toby helped put Stanford on the map and people are noticing us now. I’m excited about it.”
Stewart will be pressed by Taylor and Gaffney, who got limited playing time as freshmen. Taylor replaced Stewart as Gerhart’s primary backup and finished with 303 yards and two touchdowns on 56 carries.
Freshmen Anthony Wilkerson, Ricky Seale and Usua Amanam also could be in the mix as Harbaugh may go to a running-back-by-committee plan after relying so heavily on Gerhart last year.
“Toby’s production has to get replicated,” Harbaugh said. “Whether that’s one back or two backs or three backs that produce that production, along with the quarterback contributing by throwing the ball, those yards have to be replicated. Maybe I’ll be surprised and it will be one guy. But most likely it will be two or three.”
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