Running for Home

We have to be careful when we mix metaphors with Toby Gerhart. We will be talking about the two-sport Stanford student-athlete in a baseball uniform before long, but for now the story is the UCLA football game ahead on Saturday. The true freshman will play before family and friends in his return to Southern California. Bigger yet, he looks like he will receive his first start in college.

Don't look now, but we're already to the fifth game of the 2006 Stanford Football season.  September is the month we associate with the bare beginnings of a football campaign, with a couple of non-conference tilts and maybe one league game.  But the Cardinal are already playing their third Pac-10 contest on Saturday.

We saw promise and flashes from freshman running back Toby Gerhart in the season opener at Oregon, when he made his college football debut despite stacking third on the running back depth chart.  He picked up a modestly impressive 55 yards on 16 carries, though the power with which he hit the hole and hammered would-be tacklers impressed us beyond his statistics.

It was just a matter of time until the great Gerhart would break out and take over the recently wretched Stanford running attack.

The freshman ran for a more remarkable 82 yards in his second game, at San Jose State, but quietly something has surprised us for this standout first-year runner: his carries have decreased each of his four games.  Following his 16 rushes in Eugene, he carried the ball 13 times in San Jose.  Against Navy in the third game, he had nine carries.  This past week against Washington State, he ran just six times.

"I don't think that I've done anything extraordinary," Gerhart assesses of his season to date.  "It's just average, in my opinion."

So you're saying, Toby, that we should shelve the Heisman materials we ordered earlier this month?

Of course, the sag in his statistics is due in large part to external forces.  Stanford has fallen behind in its last two games and been forced to pass the ball in a catch-up effort.  To wit, the Cardinal rushed a combined 56 times against Navy and Washington State.  The Mids and Cougs by contrast ran a total of 118 times.

Gerhart nevertheless is stands as Stanford's best runner with 4.6 yards per carry.  He also ranks number one in carries with his 44 totes.  Redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble has started all four games but has seen the ball just 36 times in the backfield.  And that actually ranks him third on the Cardinal - fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards has 37 rushes officially (many admittedly on broken passing play scrambles or sacks).

For those Cardinalmaniacs™ clamoring for the great Gerhart to start... you shall have your wish this Saturday.  Stanford hits the road to the Rose Bowl for a battle with UCLA, which coincidentally gives the Norco native his first homecoming in a college uniform.  Kimble was banged up after the Washington State game and did not practice Tuesday.  Nor did he practice Wednesday.  Kimble should see some action in today's (closed) practice, but his presence out of pads on the sideline yesterday told us all we needed to know.

Stanford and Walt Harris has a firm policy on game-week practices.  You have to practice Wednesday for a chance to start on Saturday.  Practice Thursday, or you won't play at all.  When we asked the Cardinal head coach today how hard and fast he holds to that policy, he answered, "Extremely."

While Harris is reticent toward naming starters when there is an outstanding and unresolved injury situation, reading between these lines doesn't require bifocals.  Freshman running back Toby Gerhart should receive his first college football start on Saturday in Pasadena.

That first starting nod in his college career is alone enough to make this a heavy and heady week for Gerhart.  The fact that he will have throngs of family, friends and former high school teammates and coaches in the stands is more pressure still.  Then there is the added weight of embarking this week on his first college classes.  Stanford's autumn quarter began on Monday.

Biology 143 greeted him right out of the gate, which he attends three times a week.  Gerhart smiles when mentioning the class.  It should be fun and interesting.  But Tuesdays and Thursdays are hot and heavy, with not only two of the team's three weekly practices in pads, but also IHUM ("I-Hum") and PWR ("Power").  The former is a required freshman core of introduction to the humanities - and does so with a mountain of reading.  Gerhart went straight from his first IHUM class on Tuesday to the bookstore, where he bought six books to begin the quarter's reading.  He has to finish Plato by next Tuesday.  PWR is the program in writing and rhetoric requirement for freshmen and sophomores, with Gerhart given the "Rhetoric of Advertising."

And then before you know it, this two-sport star will be into baseball as well.

"I think it's going to be tough," Gerhart says of this many hats to wear as a student-athlete.  "I don't think that high school can prepare you as much as it can for college.  High school is a lot easier, and the time demands are less.  Here, even on our day off, they want us in watching film."

"With school I think I'm busy already, and I can't imagine once baseball starts," the freshman allows.  "I would like to be prepared for it, but I can't say that I'm totally prepared to handle it until it gets to that point."

Of course, that titanic challenge is precisely why Gerhart signed with Stanford over a host of other suitors, including those same Bruins that await him in the Rose Bowl in 48 hours.  While the Norco record-breaking running back had a fine relationship with the UCLA coaches in both football and baseball, he saw in Stanford Baseball skipper Mark Marquess an experience and proven track record of handling the two-sport juggling act.  John Elway, Chad Hutchinson, Joe Borchard, Brian Johnson, Toi Cook and many others were a testament, as well as Marquess' own football/baseball career on The Farm.

"I just liked that Stanford has a long history of two-sport athletes," Gerhart says.  "Coach Marquess has been through that himself and with a bunch of players.  They have it worked out pretty well here."

But baseball isn't on the fab freshman's plate (no pun intended) this week.  The projected starting outfielder (left or center) for Stanford in the approaching 2007 season has not picked up a bat since before he arrived at preseason football training camp the first week of August.  He does not plan on joining baseball practices or workouts this fall while football is still ongoing.  All that lies ahead of him athletically in the present is the job of carrying the football and carrying the Cardinal gridders to higher ground.

That is a tall task to put on the shoulders of the great Gerhart, who in fact is the green Gerhart.  While he hits holes faster and harder than any running back on the Cardinal roster in several years, do not underestimate just how hard this transition is for him in the college game.

"Our offense is pretty complicated," the freshman begins.  "Especially compared to high school, it's a big difference to college.  Having just a couple of weeks in the fall and then moving right into games, it's been tough to pick up.  But I think I'm getting a pretty good grasp on it now."

"I'm still picking up on the speed of the game and the keys," Gerhart continues.  "On every play, we have keys as a running back.  We have to watch the nose or the guard - if he's flowing, we have to cut back.  I think right now, I have been a little uptight.  I try not to screw up too bad instead of just playing.  As I get more experience, I think that I'll loosen up and just play the game instead of trying to be perfect."

Playing perfect at this level is akin to Sisyphus pushing his rock, but Gerhart and his coaches know that he can be very good when he reaches a point well short of perfect.

"He's got a lot of things to learn, but boy are we glad we have him," Harris offers.  "We're giving him as much work as we can get him.  He has a chance to help us in the future and in the present this week."

"It's worth it for us to endure whatever growing pains we have to go through," the Cardinal head coach comments."

One of the areas where he can help Stanford is not just running but also in the passing game.  The obvious component is catching the ball, which on paper ought to be one of Gerhart's great strengths.  He recorded 303 rushes his senior year at Norco but just one reception (for minus-five yards).  However, the Cougars were an inordinately run-heavy team.  They threw just 54 passes in their 14-game schedule; Stanford eclipsed that number for this season during their second game.

Gerhart, however, received plenty of pass-catching experience in seven-on-seven passing leagues with his team.

"I've always thought I have pretty good hands, so I feel comfortable catching the ball," he opines.  "It's just different routes we have to run here in college."

Gerhart in his receiving routes did have a gaffe that cost the Cardinal in each of their past two games.  Against Navy it has a drop in the middle of the field that thwarted Stanford's second drive.  Against Washington State he turned his head away from Trent Edwards for a split second on a timing route, which caused the quarterback to double-clutch the ball and helped induce an interception that was run back for a Cougars touchdown.

But the bigger challenge has been blocking.  While Gerhart picked up experience in the passing game in seven-on-seven tournaments in high school, there was minimal experience prior to college in pass protection.  After the eight sacks of Edwards last Saturday, that skill is top-of-mind for the freshman.  The challenge is every bit as much mental as it is physical.

"There are times when we have to watch the front-side backer, and then be aware of the back-side corner if he comes.  That's probably been one of my biggest problems - picking up secondary blitzes," Gerhart describes.  "We rarely had to block in high school.  My high school rarely threw the ball."

Finally there is the foremost responsibility for a running back: moving the ball.  Most observers are excited about Gerhart's 4.7 per-carry average and expect much more from him once he can consistently carry the ball in a game.  The irony is that what he is doing so well in his limited carries - hitting the hole quickly - is the same area to improve.

"I think I've done a pretty good job running north-south and getting the tough yards.  My coach would like to see me use a little more - he calls it - 'magic.'  A little more flash," Gerhart says.  "I think right now, I've been maybe running a little bit too much north-and-south and not making a big play when the opportunity presents itself."

His high school coach back at Norco (and his father), Todd Gerhart, sees the same thing.  The son was a strict north-south runner of the vanilla variety his freshman year of high school.

"You can't run like you were a freshman in high school," the elder Gerhart recently told Toby.  "You have to run like you were when you were a senior.  You can't just run north-and-south, being conservative."

The younger Gerhart was surprisingly successful his first year of high school, but each successive year he added more quickness and change of direction to his game.  Back to the beginning, and somewhat appropriate to his biology class, Gerhart is hoping for that evolution once again.

It all starts this Saturday, when Gerhart starts for the first time in a Stanford uniform.  Back home in Southern California.  In the Rose Bowl.  Before a nationally televised audience.  It's a big stage, but the great/green Gerhart is geared up to go.

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