Running Backs Report

It wasn't hard for fans to get a handle on the play of Stanford's quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends in the passing game when watching a scrimmage or practice this spring. But how about the tailbacks and fullbacks in the running game? We sat down recently for a Q&A with running backs coach Willie Taggart for insight into Anthony Kimble, Jason Evans, Emeka Nnoli, Tyrone McGraw and more.

What did you think of Anthony Kimble this spring, at least while you still had him before he was injured?

"I think that Anthony Kimble has an opportunity to be an all-conference back, if he works hard every day.  Before he got injured, I think he showed that he was willing to do that - work hard every day to get better and work hard to be the best.  I feel like he can be one of the best in the conference."

I know that you all on the staff looked at film from last season.  Could you see any noticeable changes or improvements for him versus what he was doing last fall?

"Oh yeah.  One of the things coming in that we said that he needed to work on was running between the tackles.  I think he proved, in the time that he was in there, that he was able to do that with some of the schemes that we were running - that he's able to run between the tackles.  That was our concern before.  We thought that he was good outside and in the open, but running between the tackles we thought he needed to get better.  He has now proven that he can be a pretty good back between the tackles."

Did he look any faster this spring?

"He looked a lot quicker.  He actually picked up some weight, he he still looked a lot quicker.  He really worked hard in the off-season, and I think that has really paid off.  I think he's really starting to step up as a leader.  I wasn't around here last year, but I can hear him vocally and talking within our meetings.  He's talking to guys and encouraging guys.  I think that by itself is going to help him become a better player, and his teammates respect him more and want to play harder for him.  That ultimately is going to help him."

Tyrone McGraw wasn't healthy much of the spring, but did he show something special when he was out there?

"Tyrone McGraw showed how special he can be in the offense in the Spring Game.  I've been having a lot of people come up to me and ask, 'Who is that McGraw kid who looked pretty special in the game?'  It's funny that this is a kid who didn't really practice the entire spring and was out of shape.  You could tell when he pulled his hamstring, but he showed what he was capable of doing in our offense.  He is one of the guys who we think is capable of changing the ballgame for us, and we're going to try to find different ways to get him the ball.  He just has to continue to work hard, get in shape and get his knee a lot stronger.  He has made a vow to himself that he's going to do that this summer.  We told him that he can be special in the offense, and he can really help this team out a lot if he will go ahead and commit himself."

I don't know if you had one-on-one position meetings, but if you did, was there a new fire in his eyes now that he can believe in the possibilities that he didn't see prior to the Spring Game?

"Yeah, and I think that Spring Game really helped him to realize that.  Before, he was a little in doubt.  He wasn't too sure, if you talked to him.  He was never too sure about things.  He knew what he was capable of doing before, but I think the Spring Game let him know that he could do it.  With a lot of people talking about him and him hearing about it, I think that really helps him now.  I told him that he has to be committed to it, and work his tail off this summer to get in shape and to be ready.  He is a small guy and can't go in there every down, but when he is in there and gets the ball in his hands, he has to be ready to make something happen, which he is capable of doing.  He said he has made that commitment, and we're going to see this summer.  Then come the fall, hopefully he has done the things that he needs to help us in the fall."

When you talk about a game-changer, is he capable of being the Willie Taggart of the running back position for Stanford?

"No doubt.  He can get the ball and go the distance at any time.  He's that fast, and he's that quick to make a guy miss.  That's one thing that me and Coach [David] Shaw were talking about - if we can get that kid in space, he can work wonders for us.  He showed that to us.  I think he practiced three days in full pads - the spring game and two other days, one where he got hurt again.  But when he got in there, he made some plays.  Every time you would see it, you would say, 'The kid has something to him.'  Then in the Spring Game, he shows that he has it.  Now we have to get him into shape and be able to get him out there we and the team can count on him out there.  I've told him that we're getting the ball to him, so he has to be ready and be competitive.  I think he's fired up about it, and the Spring Game helped."

I know that it's important that your backs block.  How is he going to be able to handle that?  And with how little he was available, were you yet able to gauge this at all in the spring, or does it remain an open question going into the fall?

"It's hard to gauge because he wasn't in there much.  At times he showed where he's not afraid to stick his head in there and block a guy.  At times he would go in there, and just human nature with his being that big, guys threw him around.  With Tyrone, he has to be smart.  Being a small guy playing in the backfield, he has to know when he can stay up and block a guy and when he'll have to chop some of those guys.  We have to be smart as coaches to put him in good situations.  We can't just ask him to go out and block a 250-pound guy who can play.  We have to be smart in what we do with him, but I think he's a guy who we can put in there."

"He's not afraid.  We've talked about him being small and not settling for excuses being small.  We've all been put on this earth to be a certain size, and I think it's all within your heart.  I told him that I played ball and was an All-American.  I wasn't the biggest guy out there, but I had one of the biggest hearts.  You have to go out there and have one of the biggest hearts, and good things will happen because you're an excellent athlete.  You can get it done.  I've seen a lot of small guys get it done.  Look at the little guy from Northern Illinois [Garrett Wolfe].  I use him as an example.  He got it done, and I guarantee that he didn't have any excuses.  He just went out there and played hard every week.  You have to do the same thing."

With those two guys injured most of this spring, that thrust a heavy load on Jason Evans and Emeka Nnoli.  How have they responded to that?

"It's funny you ask because we talk a lot about these things.  When we have an evaluation, we talk a lot about that.  I thought it was great for those guys to get the reps because the more they're in there, the better they're getting.  We're always talking in the running back group about taking advantage of opportunity.  They only come once in a lifetime sometimes.  Sometimes they don't come, but when they do come, you have to be ready to take advantage of them.  I told those guys that there is an opportunity now.  If a guy goes down, you have to step up and make plays.  Show your teammates that they will be able to depend on you when you're in there.  When a guy goes down, they don't have to feel like the offense is going down.  You step up.  You go in.  It's time for you to make plays.  We always talk about competing.  I tell those guys, you have to be the best of friends in this offense and when you are in the locker room.  But when you are on the field, you have to compete against one another.  You have to want to be the best guy at that position.  I tell Jason, 'You have to want to beat Anthony out.  When Anthony does something good, you have to be thinking, I have to do something good.  I have to have my friends oohing and aahing at me.  I can't sit back and let another guy do better than me.'  That's the attitude and that's the competition that we need at that position.  That's just going to make us all better, by competing."

Can you elaborate on some of the things that Jason has done that has come alive or that has responded to these challenges?

"I'll tell you one big thing that I've been impressed with this spring - not necessarily just his running and catching and all of that he has done.  He went through the entire spring with a torn MCL, and he didn't complain.  Not one time.  We didn't know that as coaches until the trainer told us that he was playing on one knee.  He didn't complain.  He just went out and worked.  You'd see him limp every now and then, and you'd think about it because the trainer told you.  But again, the kid isn't complaining.  He goes in and keeps going.  I told him that I'm proud of that more than anything.  You've been able to play through some pain and make plays - not only just play but you made some key plays.  You've shown that you can run between the tackles and get out in the open at times, and you do a good job of pass blocking."

"Those guys should be commended.  They picked up on the offense pretty quick and did a pretty good job.  Pass blocking and running - all of them.  But Jason I'm more proud of the fact that he didn't complain.  With a torn MCL, he comes out every day and practices every day through 15 practices.  That was one of our goals.  For a kid who really didn't do that much last year, he has really come out in this fifth year.  Personally he doesn't want to lose anymore.  He wants to go out as a winner.  He stood up and told the team after practice: it's about the team.  It's not about him as an individual anymore.  It's about doing whatever it takes to help this team win, and we need more guys like that.  The more guys we have like that, the better we're going to be as a team."

Some people would presume by seniority that Emeka Nnoli will be Stanford's fullback this year.  But you guys saw some things you didn't like on film and responded by moving Sam Weinberger over there to challenge him, saying, 'This is a guy who plays with attitude.'  One of the practices early this spring, Emeka was the second-team fullback behind Weinberger.  It seems from that point on, Emeka has responded and come alive...

"That goes back to competition and putting guys in competitive situations.  I told him, 'If you want to be the best, you have to show the coaches that you can be the man.  Once you go out there and do it, you have to do it consistently.  You have to be consistent with it.  You can't go out and do it one day and the next day you don't.  Before a practice I would challenge him: 'What kind of practice are you going to have?  Are you going to be a one-day wonder, or are you going to keep it going?'  He said, 'I'm going to keep it going, Coach.'  And he did, the entire spring.  We put him at tailback, and he didn't slack off."

"He's another kid who was surprising.  We had some doubts about his ability, and we talked to him.  I let him know what we had doubts about.  Everything we had doubts about, he proved us wrong and showed us that he can get it done.  That's what we're trying to do with these guys.  Show us what you're capable of doing and that you're better than what you've showed.  Bottom line, I think these kids are having fun again.  And when you're having fun, you play a little better.  I think they all are having fun, and they're all are playing better.  I know for my position, all of those guys have improved.  Every guy at my position who has played this spring has improved.  I'm not to the point where we want them at, but they have improved."

We've paid attention to his work at tailback, but at that fullback position, how has he become a better blocker and a more menacing blocker than what we saw last fall?

"He's gotten nastier.  For me as a position coach, I want them to be nasty..."

I don't think people would expect a former quarterback to be all about the nasty...

"I was a different kind of quarterback when I played.  I was an option quarterback, so I would run and get hit a lot.  I want him to be nasty.  That position, the fullback position, solidifies what we are as a backfield.  When people talk about us a backfield.  When they talk about us, they're going to talk about us being tough and hard-nosed.  When they say that, it is going to come from that fullback position, when they put guys on their back and constantly go after it every single play.  We challenged him.  That's what we all said: 'You won't put your face on anybody, Emeka.'  He came out this spring and has shown us that he can put his face on people.  He's getting it done.  I'm proud of what he's done, but I've told him not to lighten up or tighten up.  This is your last year, too.  Go out and make the most of it.  If your ambition is playing on the next level, you have to outwork everybody out there every single day.  The better you work, the better you are going to become as a player and the better you are going to make this football team.  He's willing to accept that challenge, and he's doing a good job so far."

What dimension have you, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw found that Emeka can sprinkle in and add carrying the ball that is a little different from your other backs?

"I'll tell you the good thing about our offense.  On a lot of our plays, the fullback's and tailback's assignments mirror each other, so it won't be hard for us to put our fullbacks at tailback and run the ball.  Now, what Emeka has shown us is that he has the ability to run the ball because of his vision.  We saw that a couple times last year, when they would give him a little 'belly' play.  He ran that pretty well, so we knew he could carry the ball pretty well.  But he has shown us that he can do a lot more and pound it.  He started off the spring running the ball up high, and I talked to him about getting low.  Use your body and get low to get extra yards after contact.  He took that, ran with it and started getting low.  He started making a lot more plays.  That's one thing that I like about him.  You tell him one time, and he works on it and tries to get better.  It's making him a better player.  The thing about our offense is that it's not much different for a fullback.  A lot of the things they are doing mirror the tailback, so it makes it a little bit easier for them to go back there."

How has Sam Weinberger been at his new position?

"He's been coming around.  Sam is one of those guys who is going to need a lot of reps.  This position is new to him, and he's still learning, unlike those other guys who have been playing the position.  Probably a different system, but Sam hasn't been playing fullback.  He's been on the defensive side of the ball, so he still has that defensive mentality where he wants to just put his shoulder down and knock a guy down without using technique, staying low and using his hands.  We're trying to work with him at doing those small things.  Once he realizes how to use his hands, run his feet and finish on a block, he'll be a lot better.  Right now, he hears things and has a lot going on.  He's thinking about a lot of different things, rather than relaxing, enjoying what I'm doing and just going and getting it done.  A lot with him is going to be getting reps and getting better.  Then it's going to be big this off-season that he works with his hands and works on his blocking technique.  If there is anything that he is struggling with, it's blocking technique.  Just staying low and doing the things that you need to be a fullback."

I know you have just gotten a taste of Toby Gerhart, working with him three or four practices.  Would it almost have been easier for you to have not been teased by getting a little bit of him and not get to work with him every day?

"I tell you what, I was looking forward to being able to coach him this spring.  He's one of those guys who showed us on film last year that he can run the football.  He's a hard-nosed runner, and we feel like we have quite a few guys back there who can be pretty good.  He's another guy who I think can be an all-conference guy.  It's hurt not to have him this spring in the offensive system, able to see some of these things, but we can get that caught up in the fall.  In the summertime he can work out with his teammates.  The thing that I like about him is that he knows the offense.  He comes to our meetings, so he knows the offense.  He came out here one day and did seven-on-seven, and he knew the plays.  He ran around pretty well and caught some balls.  I thought his teammates were excited to see him out here, too, and have him out here.  Once he comes out here, he is going to help the team a lot of different ways.  Not only on the field, but also the morale of the team just having him out here."

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