The season opener has arrived, and No. 11 Stanford is without a reliable piston for its vaunted power running game. It has no proven tailback, five candidates for the job and justified concerns about the vital position.
In that regard, it's like 2007 all over again for the Cardinal -- and 2008, and 2010, and 2013.
For the fifth time in the eight years under coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, Stanford is searching for a No. 1 tailback.
If history repeats, the situation will resolve itself in a beneficial manner for the Cardinal whether it takes one game or one month.
Toby Gerhart powered his way into a starring role in 2008, rushing for 1,136 yards and setting the stage for his Heisman Trophy candidacy a year later.
Stepfan Taylor did Gerhart one yard better (1,137) when he emerged from obscurity in 2010 to begin a scintillating three-year run as Stanford's lead runner.
Tyler Gaffney, fresh off a year in professional baseball, didn't become the tailback of choice last season until early October. He made up for lost time, finishing with 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns -- one of the best seasons in school history.
"It has worked out OK because we have a good system and good offensive line play, and we've tailored the running game to who we have,'' Shaw said.
The search for Gaffney's replacement begins with junior Kelsey Young, who converted from receiver and is making his first career start Saturday against UC Davis. Sophomore Barry Sanders, junior Remound Wright, senior Ricky Seale and freshman Christian McCaffrey are all expected to play.
The four returnees combined for 288 yards on the ground last season, which was 10 percent of Stanford's total and less than quarterback Kevin Hogan gained with his legs.
"Five running backs are going to get on the field in some way, shape or form,'' Shaw said of the plan for UC Davis. "It looks like craziness, but I'm excited because they all have a role."
Young has lined up wide the past two years and was used on reverses and fly sweeps to take advantage of his speed. But he played tailback at Norco High School for Todd Gerhart, the father of the former Stanford star, and won the starting job because of his consistency.
Sanders has the spin moves that his bloodlines suggest but was used sparingly last season while processing Stanford's complicated pass protection schemes.
Wright is the biggest (204 pounds) and most experienced of the contenders. He would have been in line to start if not for a four-month disciplinary suspension that ended recently.
Seale has just 30 career carries, which is 30 more than McCaffrey. But the son of former Stanford and NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey was impressive enough early in camp for Shaw to declare the true freshman ready for action.
"It's a good problem to have,'' Hogan said of the tailback glut. "They all bring so much to the table and are so important to us offensively. They all know how to run the ball."
But running the ball is only part of the tailback's role.
With a five-man rotation in practice and games, can any of them become comfortable enough with Hogan to avoid mishandled exchanges and alignment mistakes?
Do they understand the protection schemes well enough to ward off blitzers and keep Hogan upright?
And which of the diminutive contenders -- they are all 20-25 pounds smaller than Gaffney -- is capable of gaining the tough yards between the tackles at the heart of Stanford's ground-and-pound approach?
"I wanted to play here because of the type of football,'' Young said. "I love to lower my shoulder and deliver the blow."
For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports.
A look at Stanford's top rushers over the past eight seasons:
Year Name (Class) Yards
2013 Tyler Gaffney (Sr.) 1,709
2012 Stepfan Taylor (Sr.) 1,530
2011 Stepfan Taylor (Jr.) 1,330
2010 Stepfan Taylor (So.) 1,137
2009 Toby Gerhart (Sr.) 1,871
2008 Toby Gerhart (Jr.) 1,136
2007 Anthony Kimble (Jr.) 509
2006 Anthony Kimble (So.) 470
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Cal's defense looking for turnaround from poor 2013. PAGE 3