Is Toby the New Riggo?

Sensational redshirt sophomore tailback Toby Gerhart is showing he's no one-trick pony. Comparisons are tricky, but we now know we have a live one. A lethal weapon like the YAC-happy, off-the-chart Gerhart, teamed with Anthony Kimble, could raise the ceiling for Stanford in '08.

YAC = Yards After Contact. Perhaps the most distinctive quality of a truly great running back. There are lots of fast guys, guys with moves, guys who can drive the pile, guys that can leap over the goal line. But how many of them can actually break tackles and keep on truckin'. How many of them refuse to go down when they get a less-than-gentle love-tap from a 250-pound linebacker. Ladies and gentlemen, we just may have one who can. His name is Gerhart...and the young man is "off-the-chart". In fact, Stanford's offensive coaches actually charted and calculated the "YAC" number when they reviewed and graded the OSU film. Toby's official number in that game was a remarkable 112 yards "after contact". Nice!

In the Cardinal's season-opening victory over Oregon State, the program's first conference win at home to open a season since 1946, Toby "YAC-Man" Gerhart was clearly the difference-maker in the game. comparisons are tough, especially between different eras.

I was able to talk to Mike Dotterer, a Stanford Athletics Hall of Famer and like Gerhart a standout as both a tailback and outfielder. Dotterer, who is in a pretty good position to evaluate Gerhart's potential, was fired up after the game while recapping he game in the Chuck Taylor Grove (where Oliver Luck stopped by and chatted with "Angstrom"). Said the former dual-sport star of Gerhart "He is truly an amazing athlete, the closest thing we have ever had to Bo Jackson. With all due respect to Darrin Nelson, our school's best ever, Toby also plays baseball at such a high level, which is even more impressive than doubling in track. In the modern era, he is the man!" The irrepressible Dotterer, well known for his unbridled enthusiasm, is not that far off. We quickly agreed on a fitting comparison. Toby was channeling the great John "Riggo" Riggins, the former Kansas All-American, record-setting Big Eight Conference rushing champion, and NFL Hall of Fame  running back. Like Riggins, who memorably was the 1983 Super Bowl MVP, Gerhart is a tough-running, deceptively-fast touchdown machine. Like the 6'2, 230-pound Riggins, who was the sixth pick of the 1971 NFL draft five spots after Stanford's Heisman Trophy-winner Jim Plunkett, the 6'1" 230-pound  Gerhart runs more with his head up and aware than Riggo, who was perhaps best known as a bruiser on short yardage. Toby can run inside for the extra yard, but he can also explode to a hole and pop it back like, well, I'll say it, like a freakin' All-American. Other than the aforementioned Nelson, who re-wrote the Stanford record books as a rusher, receiver and all-purpose back, I am not sure there is another back in school history I would trade for Toby Gerhart right now and that includes some serious studs: Vincent White, Brad Muster, Jon Volpe, Tommy Vardell, Glyn Milburn, Mike Mitchell, Brian Allen, Kerry Carter...

In a recent issue of The Bootleg Magazine, we argued that Toby would become the next 1,000-yard rusher if he can stay healthy. It wasn't exactly a "stretch" prediction. Obviously every week is different and one certainly can't judge future performance by simply assuming a continuation of a level of play, but let's suspend rationality for a moment. Extrapolating Gerhart's performance Thursday night against the Beavers over a full 12-games, his regular season yardage total would total more than 1,700 yards. If you were to ask Fletch & Co., this is not an unreasonable goal!

There are a lot of outstanding running backs in the Pac-10, such as Jeremiah Johnson at Oregon, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable at USC, Grigsby at Arizona, Khlail Bell at UCLA, but Gerhart already deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with those All-Conference-level players and may have the potential to be even more special, even more unique. Time will tell. We aren't nominating him for the Doak Walker Award after a few games, but we have seen flashes of talent that go beyond mere speed and athleticism.

You just don't see this combo of size, speed and vision that often. On his 46-yard TD romp, that poor Oregon State defender assumed mistakenly that Toby couldn't beat him to the sideline.  Who could blame him? There hadn't been much film on the guy!

One of the reasons for the sudden over-the-top enthusiam is precisely that we have seen so precious little of Toby to date. There is a definite sense that the best is yet to come...and lot's of it. What if he had been 100%?This young man didn't even football play in the spring, as he was off playing baseball (hitting home runs in the CWS) and was still recovering from 2007's season-ending ACL injury.

And yet...Holy Cardinal, this guy is a player! We may finally have something that can create a challenge for our opponents and make them worry about finding ways to stop the Stanford running game. Gerhart can certainly be stopped - in fairness, this is not Barry Sanders or LaDamian Tomlinson we're talking about - but forcing opposing defenses to key on Toby could be the distraction that allows the rest of the Stanford offense to get up and running.

Why does this surprise anyone? Toby was an absolute stud in high school, setting the all-time California career rushing total. What were we expecting, chopped liver?  It would not have been unreasonable to assume that his game would translate well at the college level.

Leading up to the 2008 season there were divided opinions. Sure, getting 140 against San Jose State in a 38-0 shutout is nice, but there is a "but", as in "but it was against San Jose State."

OK, so you weren't a believer? Now he has done it again, this time against a very legitimate defense. Toby's numbers from Thursday? 147 yards on 19 carries for a 7.7 yards per carry average and two scores. That total of touches includes a number of carries in the second half in which we were clearly trying to grind away on the clock. The real excitement came from the breakaway runs of 36 and 46. In his only appearance in 2007 against San Jose State, "Tobo" had 140 yards on just 12 carries with a long of 48. Those impressive scampers are already comparable to the portfolio of longest runs generated by the legendary Tommy Vardell during his outstanding Stanford career. Gerhart has produced those runs in just a handful of games and in a small fraction of the opportunities Vardell had!

These big plays aren't coming in garbage time either. You want clutch play? How about the 19-yard gain on a key third & 15? How often have we seen that in recent years?

OK, so let's ask another former player who perhaps can provide some objectivity...

After his remarkable senior season in high school in 1992, former Card running back Mike Mitchell was named both a Parade and USA Today First Team All-American and was Blue Chip Magazine's #1-ranked running back recruit in the nation in 1992. Mitchell, one of the hallmark Walsh II recruits, finished career as Stanford's number four all-time rusher with 2,446 yards and 23 touchdowns (1993-1997). Like Gerhart, Mitchell played as a true freshman and then, again like Gerhart, was forced to redshirt after a serious leg injury cut short his sophomore campaign early in the season.

Count Mike Mitchell a huge Toby Gerhart fan. Mitch had the opportunity to watch the game Thursday night and was mightily impressed with the redshirt sophomore sensation: "Amazing, what a combination of power and speed, something we haven't seen at Stanford in a long time! He reminds me of (former Cardinal and NFL fullback) Greg Comella, with his big build, but he is really a tailback! Sort of like Tommy Vardell. He really gets off of blocks, plays to his strengths, doesn't try to do too much. It just seems to come so natural to him. He appears to have the ability to be patient, to find the holes, hit the line at full speed and then break tackles. Wow, that's the most impressive thing to me, the way he breaks tackles, makes moves in the box.  If you can do that, it doesn't matter who you are playing, San Jose State or Florida State. I really want to see more, it has me really excited. The sky is the limit! When Stanford has had a strong running game, we have gone to bowl games."

Asked of whom he is reminded when he sees Toby run: "I would say a combination of Greg Comella, Jon Ritchie and a little bit of me! He is a bigger back and because of that he is able to surprise some people with his speed. DBs just aren't ready for a 230-pound back coming at them when they are 180. A guy who can really move the chains is demoralizing to a defense. And to do that in the first game - man, the first game is usually the hardest."

Asked whether Gerhart can become Stanford's next 1,000-yard rusher. "Oh, the way he is going, if he gets the touches, he should get it - I am thinking a lot more than a thousand. Let's hope he stays healthy. He certainly has that ability. I just hope he'll get the chance to showcase his talent. One of the keys to achieving a 1,000-yard season is to get the touches. You usually need 200 or so, which would require him to be a "featured" back. You can't always put up the biggest numbers with 'shared carries'. But at the same time, you have to remember that diversity can be really important for the offense. One of the reasons we had such success in the running game in the mid-90s was that we had great diversity (Mitchell, Anthony Bookman, Greg Comella, Jon Ritchie, Adam Salina, etc.) People had a hard time scouting us because we had a lot of options, a lot of different running styles. Hey, it's a long season and there are a lot of good defenses you face. This year, we'll need (Anthony) Kimble to be a big part of the picture. If you can have a strong running game, you can beat anybody. There are days when the passing game won't be working, but a good solid running game never goes away. I think the offensive line looks a lot better! Coach Dalman seems to be doing a great job."

Mitchell mentioned Vardell and while there are certainly grounds for comparison, I personally think we are talking apples and oranges. Vardell was a relentless scoring machine, but Gerhart seems to have a little more "Ron Dayne" in him , along with a pinch of Craig James from SMU's fabled "Pony Express"

Let's do some direct comparison, not to diminish the perception of the weapon Vardell was, but to point out the outrageous potential Gerhart is showing. As a redshirt junior in 1989, Tommy Vardell had three yards on three carries in the season opener, although to be fair, #44 started at fullback in 1989 and the opener that year was against a very tough Arizona rush defense that allowed the entire Stanford backfield just 34 yards on 24 carries. Vardell was 6'2" 230, an aggressive, tough-as-nails inside runner and he was as strong as an ox. As talented a runner as Vardell was, I think Toby is considerably more dangerous, far more capable, due to his uncanny ability to cut and change direction, of consistently producing breakaway runs. There are a couple of things Vardell had that Gerhart still needs to demonstrate, such as durability, goal-line tenacity, ball security and terrific hands out of the backfield. In addition, let's not forget that as a senior in 1991, Vardell proved to be a highly effective and reliable receiver, a guy who constantly moved the chains. Perhaps most importantly, the guy never fumbled. Ever.

Oh, and by the way, Vardell was also named the national scholar-athlete of the year as a senior. It will take a lot more than a couple of strong games for Toby to pass Tommy by.

To get to Darrin Nelson/Brad Muster/Glyn Milburn level, Gerhart will have to develop into a dangerous receiving threat as well. He has nearly three full seasons of eligibility left to do just that (wishfully and selfishly assuming and hoping he isn't drafted too highly in baseball, which smart money says he will be).

Nevertheless, in his last two game appearances, young Gerhart has generated big-time buzz among the long-suffering and star-hungry Cardinal faithful.  Including last year's 140-yard performance against San Jose State (amazingly the first 100-yard game by a Stanford back in nearly three years) Toby has 287 yards on just 31 carries, well over nine yards per carry! Are you kidding me? He has not only run up big numbers, but he has shown incredible bursts. Bursts that clearly look repeatable. Not really what you expect to get from a "big back". Gerhart has the gift. Dude can really run!  

In comparison, Vardell's longest run as a junior was 17 yards and his longest run as a senior was a 48-yard TD run at Arizona...

Toby already has a big jump on Tommy in 2008. While he would finish the 1991 campaign with an impressive 1,084 yards (on 226 carries), Vardell had a rough outing in his opener that year at Washington, gaining just 29 yards on 13 carries against the Pac-10's defending champions, the 1991 national co-champion Huskies. Tommy's second game that year was coincidentally down in Arizona, where he ran for 130 on 17 carries. Toby & Co, will be at Arizona State for 2008's second game. Good omen.

Impressively, Vardell ran off four consecutive 100+ games after the loss to Washington in the opener. He would produce six games of 100+ during his 1,000-yard season. That is what it takes. Not just great performances, but consistently great performances! 

"Touchdown Tommy" rushed for 3,068 yards and 32 TDs in high school. Impressive effort indeed, but get this - "Touchdown Toby" went for 3,233 yards and 39 TDs in his senior year alone! Vardell had just one game in his tremendous college career (a memorable 184-yard destruction of Cal in 1991) in which he rushed for more yards than Gerhart did in either of his past two games (140 against San Jose State in 2007, 147 vs. Oregon State in 2008). 

Can our old pal Allen Wallace, one of the top recruiting experts in the business, please weigh in here and explain how SuperPrep possibly had Toby ranked the 26th-best running back in the nation in the 2006 recruiting class? Was he downgraded for straightline speed? Ethnicity?

His famous four-TD performance to help Denny Green's Cardinal shock #1-ranked Notre Dame in 1990 only validated this. His rushing totals in the Notre Dame upset that made him nationally-known were a modest 37 yards on 13 carries. As a junior, Vardell actually averaged a mediocre 3.7 yards per carry, but scored 14 TDs. He went on to score 20 more as a senior, obliterating the all-time Stanford record!

It was down in the Desert in 1990, in game 10 against Arizona, that I first realized Tommy Vardell was going to be a star. In that 23-10 victory, he rushed for a season-high 80 yards on 15 carries, but the play that I remember, if I am recalling correctly, was when he took a pass, and while running downfield, absolutely demolished a would-be tackler. Ran right over him and pancaked him flat before continuing downfield for a long score. It was phenomenal, but I believe I recall the play being called back due to a penalty. I need to go back and watch the tape of that game.  It may be a while...I have to watch the OSU game four or five more times!


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