Don't look now, but running back Kenneth Tolon is in his fourth year on The Farm. It seemed like just the other day that he signed a surprising Letter of Intent, listed at the time as Kenneth McCandless and a veritable unknown in recruiting circles. The running back from Albuquerque decommitted at the eleventh hour from the University of New Mexico - a recruiting resumé that impressed few.
But now Tolon is the elder statesman in Stanford's running back corps, no longer obscured by the long shadows cast by Brian Allen and Kerry Carter. Both of those heralded Cardinal backs started or played big roles in all four of their years. Both ran for more than 2,000 yards in college. Both are playing on Sundays this fall in the NFL.
So you'd excuse the redshirt junior from New Mexico if he were chomping at the bit - if he were carrying a chip on his shoulder and waiting. You'd give Tolon plenty of latitude to pound his chest and talk about being "The Man" finally in Stanford's running game. You'd expect him to stare glossy-eyed into the horizon while dreaming of 55-yard touchdown scampers. 100-yard games. Three- and four-touchdown games.
Instead, you find a soft-spoken young man who would rather live in the film room than the public spotlight. Bereft of the chest-thumping and microphone-grabbing, Tolon is a throwback to the player found in the humble days of yesteryear with leather helmets and no pads.
"He's not out there yelling and screaming, even after his big plays," says running back coach Wayne Moses. "With a lot of guys you want to see the fire in their belly and in their eyes, but Kenny isn't a rah-rah guy. We're OK with that. He plays big in games, and we'll take that over rah-rah any day."
Playing big is all Tolon has done at Stanford, averaging 6.4 and 5.2 yards per carry each of his first two season. Though he has never started a game, and has seen the rock with the frequency of Halley's Comet (120 carries in 20 games), he has demonstrated gamebreaking ability time and time again. In 2001 he exploded from relative obscurity at Arizona with a memorable 71-yard touchdown scamper and 100-yard game. The next two weeks he closed out the season with a combined 216 yards in the Cal and Notre Dame games. Last year, he put together games of 74 and 89 yards rushing against Arizona State and Washington State, respectively, despite opposing defenses that regularly stacked eight or nine in the box and dominated the line of scrimmage.
Tonight the 6'1" 190-pound redshirt junior is set to make the first start of his Stanford career in the 2003 season opener against San Jose State, but an earlier intercollegiate test came more than a week ago when UC Davis visited Stanford Stadium for a joint practice and scrimmage. Tolon ran for four yards on four carries, including a few failed attempts to pick up short yardage first downs.
"I was playing too big," Tolon says after a good film review of the contest. "I need to get my pads lower than that. I was making a transition from practice to a scrimmage, and people play lower when you get into a groove in game situations. As the game goes on, I get the feel."
Moses agrees with those sentiments. "Kenny is going to be very good for us once we get him going," the coach offers. "We just have to give him chances and let him do his thing."
How that exactly plays out tonight will be an interesting gameplan, though. Stanford has four tailbacks who are all expected to see the field, and all bring different bodies and skill sets to the table. Much of the focus the last week on position controversy has centered around the two-headed monster at quarterback, but the four-pronged tailback conundrum is a greater unknown. We know Tolon will have the start. We know the other three will have their spots in games. But beyond that, the rotation is anybody's guess.
Tolon says that despite the heated competition at the position, there is an abject absence of animosity among the runners. "All the running backs are pretty good friends," he quietly reveals. "We support each other on every play in practices, and we'll do that in games, too."
You might guess that in a world where this offense will use the backs for their various strengths and specialties, Tolon would be the home run threat. Though not as fast as freshman David Marrero, Tolon has the best combination of size and speed in the RB corps. He has shown it with big plays his first two years and might be looking to breaking more big runs this fall. But the fourth-year veteran again surprises with his answer.
"My main focus is to pick up the short yardage situations," he comments. "If we can turn those third-and-short situations into first downs, everything else will fall in place. The safeties will start playing back, and the big runs will happen."
Tolon has consistently picked up his best yardage by bouncing the ball outside the tackles, making him a sometimes lethal but often one-dimensional running threat. He is determined to broaden his expertise and become a complete running back. "I'm being more aggressive this year," he describes. "I'm trying to charge the line of scrimmage and getting yards, instead of waiting for everything to open up for me. An inside-outside balance will make defenses play back because they won't know where to attack."
Balance is indeed the buzz word with this year's offense. If Tolon and Moses achieve what they are looking for, that spotlight just might finally catch up with the shifty running back...
The one returning running back on this roster who does have a start under his belt is redshirt sophomore J.R. Lemon. He scored a shocking three touchdowns in the San Jose State game a year ago, with 69 yards on 17 carries. The very next week senior Kerry Carter was unable to play, so Lemon earned the start. The then-redshirt freshman would sustain an injury in that Arizona State game, though, and carry the ball just 11 times in the final nine games of the year. Lemon missed four games altogether with an assortment of ailments.
In the first quarter at Tempe, the Georgia native took a shot in the same shoulder he had repaired the previous winter. The shoulder surgery should have been conducted the fall of his redshirt year, but the previous coaching regime pushed it off until after a season he never played.
"My left shoulder wasn't as strong as it needed to be," Lemon reveals. "That's what left me susceptible to the stinger. It bothered me the entire rest of the year - those things never go away."
Bad turned to worse when Lemon suffered an ankle injury later in the 2002 season. He did not dress out for the final two games.
"I just feel really rested," Lemon comments as he approaches the onset of the season. "Staying healthy is my main focus this year. I'm not worried so much about where or how to run, as I am staying healthy. Staying healthy means I stay on the field, where I know I can play with anybody."
To that end, Lemon has taken a more proactive role in guarding against injury. And as any football player can tell you, the best way to stay healthy is to strengthen every muscle and joint in your body.
"I came in at 215 pounds my freshman year, and the surgery took a huge bite out of any chances I had to get stronger," he describes. "I feel a lot stronger at 224 now, mostly in my neck, shoulders and traps. I'm stretched out really good before practices and games. I get massages regularly and go to a chiropractor."
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