In his final two seasons at Stanford, running back Toby Gerhart was as dominant as any running back in the country. In that span, he carried the ball 553 times for 3,089 yards and a whopping 43 touchdowns. That was enough to win him the 2009 Doak Walker Award, given to college football's top running back, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
But Gerhart will have to adjust to a new role with the Vikings – a role that was ably filled the last three years by Chester Taylor. Gerhart will be Adrian Peterson's primary backup. He said he hasn't had his role defined yet but looks forward to the chance to be a cog in the Vikings' offensive attack.
"I'm not exactly sure what my role will be, but it's there to complement the best running back in the league – Adrian Peterson," Gerhart said. "Whether it's to give him a blow or line up in the backfield with him, I'm not exactly sure, but I'm looking forward to finding out and contributing any way I can and doing whatever is asked of me."
Playing with Peterson is a thrill that Gerhart pondered years ago when he started his own college career. At the time, Peterson was a dominant running back at Oklahoma and Gerhart was an admitted fan. He said it's hard to believe that a player he has some much respect for is now a teammate.
"It's amazing," Gerhart said. "I remember when I first started college, Adrian Peterson was the man in college and I remember saying, ‘I want to emulate my game after him – I want to be as good as he is.' And now having an opportunity to go (to the Vikings) and play with him, learn under him and complement him is really a huge honor and a dream come true."
Gerhart wasn't just a standout football player in high school. Aside from being voted California's Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior, he was also a top baseball prospect and said, had the offer been right, he would have considered trying his hand at a professional baseball career. But he was quick to add that he had put such a high asking price to give up football that he wasn't expecting to see his career path change.
"Out of high school, there was a chance I could (choose baseball over football)," Gerhart said. "But I always put my price tag as a first-round (draft pick) for baseball because I never wanted to give up playing football. I played baseball for three years at Stanford. Each and every year, I said, ‘Take me in the first round of the baseball draft or I'm going to come back and play football. I think I always out-priced myself just because my passion was football."
For those who watched Gerhart play at Stanford, there were some reasons for concern. After suffering a knee injury in 2007, he spent the last two years wearing a knee brace that had some scouts questioning if the number of big hits his body absorbed in high school and college had taken too big a toll on his body, especially his knees. He said that he doesn't need to wear the knee brace and, if the Vikings want it off, he will toss it aside.
"I think it's going to be a decision between me and the medical staff," Gerhart said. "I don't think I need to wear it anymore. It was more of a precautionary thing last year. I know I'm definitely comfortable wearing it right now. It doesn't even cross my mind. I think it's more of a comfort level than anything, so I'll discuss it with the medical staff and see what they think and we'll make a decision at that point."
The Vikings had something of an inside track to Gerhart, who was recruited by then-UCLA running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who is now the Vikings RB coach. Had Bieniemy stayed at UCLA, Gerhart likely would have played for the Bruins instead of Stanford. But, like his chance to be teammates with Peterson, his chance to get coached up by Bieniemy comes later than expected, but it's still as sweet.
"That was the funniest thing when I saw him at the Combine," Gerhart said. "It was awesome. He recruited me out of high school. Two days before signing day, he leaves to go to the Vikings and that was a major factor why I didn't go to UCLA. They didn't have a running backs coach and I had a really good relationship with him. It's kind of ironic that, four years later, I get a chance to finally work with him."
Gerhart comes from a football bloodline that has another Vikings tie. His father, Todd, played in the USFL and, after the league folded, he tried out with the Vikings, only to be one of the final cuts. While his dad didn't hook on with the Vikings, Gerhart is a lock to make the roster and display some of his versatility. Among those skills are the duties of a blocking back, third-down specialist or fullback – protecting the quarterback from the pass rush. While he never had a season with more than 15 receptions, he said it was by design and that his skills as a blitz pick-up man and a receiver are both better than some might anticipate.
"I'm really comfortable with pass protection," Gerhart said. "I think it was one of my strong points in college – understanding defenses, understanding safety rotations, body language of blitzers and just blitz packages and identifying it and picking it up. In terms of pass catching, I didn't get the opportunity to catch a lot of balls. I played all three downs, but the running back wasn't integrated into the pass game. We were always protecting and then getting out as a late release, but I feel I have really good hands. I think I showed that at my Pro Day and I think I can catch the ball extremely well."
While Gerhart isn't expected to be a workhorse for the Vikings offense, he has drawn comparisons to Redskins great John Riggins, who, like Gerhart, is a halfback trapped in the body of a fullback. He said that he hopes those comparisons will continue as his career progresses, which would mean the Vikings got themselves a bargain in the middle of the second round.
"John Riggins was one of the greatest running backs and Redskins players of all time," Gerhart said. "Any time you're compared to a Hall of Famer, that's definitely a compliment."
Gerhart to Vikings: 'Dream come true'
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