We are not used to this.
The first game of Toby Gerhart 's college career was both forgettable and unforgettable. He played in a 38-point defeat that saw failures from his team on offense, defense and special teams. His unit in particular surprised with its shortcomings, accounting for just 10 points despite expectations several times that level for this 2006 season.
Gerhart also suited up for his first time ever in a Pac-10 football game in front of a sell-out crowd plus an ABC television audience. The freshman was the only Stanford running back to record a run of 10 or more yards, and he did that twice (12, 15). When he ran on first downs, the power runner hit holes hard and grabbed four or more yards on five of six rushing attempts. Keeping the Cardinal out of second-and-long situations is critical to the offense and has been a glaring failure the last several years.
In a disheartening loss, Gerhart was one of the very few sparks and inspirations. His debut brought hope to fans, coaches and teammates alike. Could this bright-eyed, brace-faced freshman be the answer?
"Gerhart is a shocker to me, man. I didn't know if he was going to be that good coming in," beams senior wide receiver Mark Bradford. "He's definitely been surprising to me. He was out there making plays when he didn't really have a lot of space. He's one of those guys that I feel is going to be really good over time."
"I was pleasantly surprised at the way he performed on Saturday, that being his first collegiate football game as a true freshman," echoes fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards. "It didn't seem like he was nervous. He's a quiet guy, so he's not going to say much, but when he was in the huddle and running the ball for us, he was the same old Toby. That was encouraging to see that a guy in his first college game doesn't have too many jitters and isn't that nervous. That is only going to help him in the future and help us out."
It is not only uncharacteristic (and nearly unprecedented) for a Stanford freshman running back to play with such poise in his college debut, but it was also astounding that Gerhart remained composed in front of 60 thousand fans in a packed and raucous Autzen Stadium. These things are hard to predict. The strength, speed, vision and instincts - we have watched. But nerves are another ball of wax.
One factor in Gerhart's favor is his maturity, already 19 years old and set to turn 20 before the end of his freshman year on The Farm. It also aided Gerhart that he approached the Oregon game free from anxiety. He had no clue that he would carry more times than all other combined Cardinal backs last Saturday. His opportunities, if not his success, came somewhat unexpectedly. That allowed him to ease into the game, despite so many changes from his high school playing days.
"It was exciting. Going in, early in the week they said I would get a few rep's. I got quite a few, actually, as the game went on," Gerhart describes. "Playing in front of a big crowd - that's exciting. The cheers and people yelling at you from the stands, that was kind of interesting. On the field, it's just faster pace. The next step up from high school. People are bigger, stronger. It's harder to break tackles. Yards are harder to come by at this level. Just the strength and speed - that's what I most noticed from this game."
And how does he assess his opening performance in a Stanford uniform?
"It was average, at most," the freshman offers. "I think I need to pick up my reads a little quicker and run lower. I was stumbling a couple times in the open field when I would like to make a nice cut and possibly break one instead of stumbling."
"He showed some nice movement, and he runs north-and-south," says head coach Walt Harris. "He's starting to get his pads down. He'll have to learn to get his pads down even lower. But he runs the most physically of our guys, other than Nick Frank, but he actually runs lower than Nick. He's not near as big as Nick. We were pleased. That was nice to see."
"We spent a lot of time recruiting him, so we're glad to see that Football and Baseball got a good athlete," Harris adds with a slight grin.
There are at least two dimensions to Gerhart that have the Cardinal chorus unanimous in praise of the freshman. The first is how quickly he hits the hole. While there is something to be said for the scatback who can cleverly and marvelously create his own play or outrun the defense to the corner, Stanford has been missing a powerful and imposing north-south runner in recent years. When you need three yards, and they know you need three yards, you can attack the line of scrimmage and move the ball. The second dimension to Gerhart is that he can pick up yards after a defender hits him, which can stretch that three-yard run into five or six.
"I try to compare him to someone we've had here. There's really not [a comparison]," Edwards admits. "It's a combination of his power and the way that he hits the hole. You're handing the ball off to him and he's hitting it very fast. And he's a big guy to take down, too. You look back, and there are two or three guys that needed to take him down. We haven't had a lot of running backs like that here."
Nobody could be happier than Edwards to perhaps finally find the answer to Stanford's ground game puzzle. The Cardinal quarterback has paid the price the last three years as part of an offense that has averaged 2.6, 2.5 and 2.5 yards per carry. Without a running game, Edwards has been plastered onto his backside by opposing pass rushes that feels no fear, while also unable to conduct a consistent passing attack with no threat of play-action.
But there is another excitement hard to escape on the Stanford offense. The front five, who have been much maligned for everything wrong with the running game and pass protection, have grins stretching from ear to ear as they watch Gerhart gobble up yardage in practices and in his game debut in Eugene.
"I'm very excited about Toby Gerhart. Very excited," says redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Allen Smith. "I saw him in fall camp, and he is a great runner. He's a hard runner and he does what the coaches tell him to do. He secures the ball, and he punishes guys who try to tackle him. Seeing him as an offensive lineman, when he gets five yards and drags two or three guys for an extra three yards, that makes you feel good because he's working just as hard as you are. I'm very encouraged to see how Toby played against Oregon."
Even the defense perks up at the mere mention of the freshman runner.
"He's really exciting. He's going to be a player," declares redshirt sophomore defensive end Pannel Egboh. "He's not afraid to hit anyone. He runs through people. It's really exciting. He has a lot of heart and a lot of passion for the game."
But before we hand Toby Gerhart the keys to the Cardinal running game, we have to remember that he has played just one game. He has carried the ball for just 55 yards and a modest 3.4-yard average. ESPN is not quite knocking down his door. Heck, we're not ready to put him on the cover of The Bootleg Magazine.
Moreover, Gerhart is part of a running back group that was at the center of Stanford's offensive unraveling at Oregon. The passing attack between Edwards and his beloved veteran wideout duo was clicking in the early going, eating up chunks of yardage, moving the chains and forcing Ducks defensive backs into holding and interference penalties. But it was widely acknowledged after the game that the passing game faded quickly once Oregon saw weakness in the Stanford running attack. Safeties were able to bracket Mark Bradford and Evan Moore, without a care in the world for Cardinal rushers.
While the exhilaration and adrenaline of his first college football game had Gerhart smiling, he also took in the criticism coming from the overall failure of the running game.
"That's a slap to any running back's face," he says. "I take that personally. All the running backs should take that personally, for that matter, and get in the film room, work harder in practice this week and not let them down next week."
"I'm excited about it. I'm looking forward to the challenge. I just have to work harder and get better week-to-week, every practice get better and hopefully make an impact down the road," Gerhart says of the task before him. "For me, it's a lesson. Now I know what I need to improve - stay lower. I wish we could have come out with the 'W', but I think this was the first step and we have a lot of steps to go."
The step many Stanford fans want to see this weekend for the running game is Toby Gerhart in the starting lineup. Walt Harris is making no indication of whether he will start the freshman or redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble at San Jose State. They both took first-team repetitions in practice this week, and Harris says that he will play both on Saturday.
After watching what Gerhart did last week, in his first ever college football game, it is hard to not see him in the starting lineup soon. The one obvious mark against him is experience. Is it more prudent to start Kimble, who has seven starts and 10 games of college football already under his belt? If Harris is sure to play both, perhaps Gerhart can again prove successful when he comes off the bench. The freshman can carry less anxiety leading up to the game if he does not have to lie awake at night thinking about his first college start.
But Harris says that there is no freshman factor in his calculus of whether to start Gerhart or not this weekend.
"No," the coach reacts. "Toby's dad is a coach. His dad was a player. Football is in his life. Football is put on his table because his dad is a coach. I won't say that he has all the answers, but he gets it. He just needs to improve his game."
Gerhart is also still working furiously to learn the Stanford offense and to master all the responsibilities asked of him in the running back role. Do not forget that the frosh missed the meat of training camp with a hamstring injury. He is not yet where he could or should be.
But the fact remains that Toby Gerhart has many in the Cardinal community pleased with where he is already. If he can stay healthy, still brighter pastures lie ahead. The frosh runner is as eager as we are to reach them, and his success could propel the offense and Stanford to a turnaround this year.
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