Question: Where does Toby Gerhart rank amongst the nation's best running backs?
It's worth defining our terms. Does "best" mean most talented, or does "best" mean top-performing? Let's go with the latter, although we should certainly mix in a bit of the former to keep it from being a simple numbers game. You can have all the talent in the world and still not be successful; or, you can be only moderately talented and put up great statistics in a system that uses you well.
Whatever the case, Toby is about as unique a running back as you're going to find in a pro-style offense at the college level. On the one hand, he's a bruiser in a traditional mold. He thrives on contact, and would-be tacklers bounce off him if they don't wrap. He's at his finest between the tackles, and rarely gets taken down a loss. But that's not all: he's also elusive, and can sidestep as well as practically any finesse back. It puts defenders in a precarious situation: take him on, and you could be grasping air just as easily as you might be tasting dirt. While his speed isn't going to blow anyone away, he is deceptively quick--certainly, faster than one would think for a man of his size and girth. Oh, and he can catch, too.
I watch a lot of college football--probably more than is healthy--and there's really only one back (Wisconsin's John Clay) that reminds me of Toby, both in terms of skillset and the team around him (good passing game, generally gimmick-less offense, etc). That's it.
Comparing the general talent of the nation's top backs and Toby becomes a bit more of an arduous process, then, which is why production becomes all the more key.
Here's the case for Toby, in brief: he's an unstoppable animal.
Ok, how about this: he's an unstoppable animal that trampled a top-15 rush defense last weekend and, outside of one or two plays, won the battle against Reggie Carter, one of the nation's top linebackers against the run. He is consistent to a fault; is practically guaranteed to score from within the 10; and wears down opposing defenses so dramatically that backup runners can come in and achieve similar, five-yards-per-carry success. Anthony Kimble had his best year backing up Toby; until his injury, Jeremy Stewart could say the same; and I'm sure Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney aren't complaining.
Who else in the nation is such a threat in so many ways?
Toby is definitely one of the best running backs in the nation, if not the best. The stats don't lie: he has more yards than any other back, with 650, and has essentially been carrying a Cardinal team likely on the way to its first bowl game since Chelsea Clinton was still on campus.
There's no doubt that Toby Gerhart made a statement this past weekend against one of the best defenses in the Pac-10. His taking down of the Bruin defense was methodical and calculated--it was only a matter of time before the Bruins cracked.
However, while you're right that Toby is as unique of a back you'll ever find in an offense like Stanford's, his uniqueness might not be an exclusively good thing. He takes a beating week after week, even in the games where he dominates: he may have embarassed Washington with 200 rushing yards, but the Huskies still got a number of crushing hits in on Gerhart that day. Take a look at Toby during the post-game conference and, well, you'll probably wince after seeing the scrapes and bruises he consistently dons. Toby is definitely a durable back, and if anyone were to last a whole season with his kamikaze running style, it would definitely be him. But the looming specter of injury and Toby wearing down as the season goes on will always be a concern; that said, he seemed to get stronger as the season went last year, so maybe this isn't as big a concern as I am making it out to be. [Editor: What if we project forward a year or two, and Toby's running with the same style, except now he's going up against NFL linebackers, not San Jose State? I'm concerned, but on the other hand, every running back in the NFL is going to take crushing hits, regardless of his running style. At least Toby has the body for it and can dish it as good as he takes it.]
When it comes to performance, as you put it, Toby is arguably the best, as I have already said. But I think it helps to look at the question in a different way: If you could have one running back in your backfield, who would it be? I think a lot of people would tempted to pick a name other than Gerhart if they were asked this question--and you don't even have to leave the state to find your guys: Joe McKnight and Jahvid Best. They may have more stereotypical running styles and abilities, but both are averaging more yards per carry--Best at 6.2 and McKnight at an astounding 7.1, while Gerhart averages 5.2. Sure, these numbers are a function of each back's particular running style, but this is still an important statistic to consider, especially since USC has always been much more of a "running back by committee" school, though that may change in the coming weeks after the injury to Stafon Johnson. But I digress. Instead, let me ask you this: if you could have one running back in the nation on your hypothetical squad, who would it be? I'm not so sure Toby would be mine.
Let me respond in the most diplomatic way possible. Are there more talented backs out there? Sure. The two guys you mention--Best and McKnight--certainly come to mind. But, is there a running back I'd rather have for the Cardinal? I'm not so sure. Toby feeds straight into the overall attitude of Stanford football. It's physical. It's aggressive. It's relentless. It practices as hard as any program in the nation. The players, and in particular, the offensive line, Owen Marecic and Toby are the very embodiment of "We Work." The situation calls for a big back who, frankly, is going to beat you into submission.
Which isn't to say that there isn't room for a shiftier back. But it all starts with Gerhart, who wears down the defense for both himself and other runners. It's funny: Stanford's set up mirrors that of my professional team, the New York Giants. Stanford's offensive line calls themselves the Tunnel Workers Union; the Giants' unit calls themselves the Joes. Both teams have a fullback that likes nothing more than blowing up a linebacker or two. And both primarily feature bruising runners. Are there better backs than Brandon Jacobs in the NFL? Sure. Are there many that I would replace him with? No, because he's just right for the team. It's exactly the same with Toby.
It's a bit easier to continue this discussion now that we've fleshed out the meaning of "best running back" more fully. Is Toby the best running back out there for the blue-collar mentality Jim Harbaugh has brought to the Farm? Considering all the information we have available to us, the answer is probably yes. So for this response, I won't be countering your point as much as I am furthering it.
Toby's nearly guaranteed four-yard gain every play has been a godsend for a developing quarterback like Andrew Luck. And as you said, his style contributes only more to the style of this football team. So if the question is whether or not Toby Gerhart is the best running back for this Stanford Cardinal, I just might have to agree with you. That might break the theme of this column, but it's all I can really do.
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