College Sports

Stanford expects Christian McCaffrey to meet high expectations


When you’re as good as Christian McCaffrey, shattering records of boyhood idols, and you’re in the Heisman Trophy running as a champion for underdog scholars, it doesn’t take long for the country to know every bit about you.

Media and the general college football fan exhaustively have peeled away layers of the Stanford running back since he burst onto the scene as a sophomore last fall. They want to know more about his Christian faith, his upbringing in Colorado to one-time Stanford sweethearts, his piano skills, his academic prowess and even what sort of chair he’s moving into his Palo Alto dwelling.

Anything else? Well, yes.

McCaffrey offered perhaps the best line during last week’s Pacific-12 Conference media days at the posh Hollywood & Highland Center. Asked if there still was something people didn’t know about him, McCaffrey, the central figure of Cardinal football down on the Farm, didn’t hesitate.

“I used to have a pot-bellied pig named Terrance,” McCaffrey said. “He died of obesity.”

Score one for McCaffrey, who looks to fatten up on defenses again focused on stopping him as he and Stanford vow to have the last laugh.

After amassing 3,864 all-purpose yards to break Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old NCAA record and finishing second in the Heisman voting, McCaffrey is a primary reason the media – for the first time in 56 years of projecting the conference champion – picked the smash-mouth Cardinal to win the Pac-12 title. Stanford has won three of the past four Pac-12 championships, so this would be nothing new.

Neither would be another huge season by McCaffrey, who was virtually unknown to Pac-12 defenses a year ago. At 20, he is a year older, wiser, stronger and faster, according to his coaches and teammates. And it hardly seems fair considering what he did last season.

McCaffrey was the only Football Bowl Subdivision player to lead his team in rushing and receiving in 2015. And he had six games of 300 or more all-purpose yards, four more than any other player.

Is this a runaway favorite for the Heisman?

Stanford’s only Heisman Trophy winner was quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1970. In the past seven years, a Stanford player has finished second in the Heisman voting four times: running back Toby Gerhart in 2009, quarterback Andrew Luck in 2010 and 2011 and McCaffrey last December.

McCaffrey said he has talked to Luck and Gerhart about how to handle such lofty expectations. Their advice, he said, was to continue to enjoy his teammates, the games, the season. And enjoy time off the field, too. To that end, McCaffrey joked he has a new passion.

“It’s hard to admit, I never played Pokémon as a kid,” he said. “But a couple days ago I got it, and I found myself just literally catching Pokémon everywhere I go. This is actually a good break for me (attending media days), so I’m happy you guys are here. You got me off of ‘Pokémon Go.’ 

McCaffrey will be all go once fall camp starts next month. He relishes daily practices and strives to win every competition. He never slowed in games last season, either. McCaffrey ran for 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns, caught 45 passes for 645 yards and five touchdowns and totaled 1,200 yards and two scores as a return specialist.

But McCaffrey doesn’t much stress about those sorts of numbers. He targets victories.

“I’m just focusing on whatever I can do to help the team win,” he said. “The goals aren’t to break this record, break that record. It’s to get the most yardage possible and to win every game we play.”

Stanford went 12-2 last season, rolling over Iowa in the Rose Bowl 45-16 as McCaffrey piled up 368 all-purpose yards, including 172 rushing, 105 receiving and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown.

All of this from a player who wasn’t a highly sought national recruit at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., a suburb south of Denver, despite setting state records for career touchdowns (141) and all-purpose yards (8,845). McCaffrey chose Stanford because it was the one school that matched his academic passion, and the Cardinal wanted him to run the ball. Other schools wanted him as an “athlete.”

Despite big stats on the field, McCaffrey’s physical stats aren’t overwhelming at 6 feet and 202 pounds. But he’s hard to corner or contain in the open field.

McCaffrey comes from good athletic genes. His father, Ed, was a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos. His mother, Lisa, played soccer at Stanford. McCaffrey’s grandfather, David Sime, was named the world’s fastest human in 1956 after breaking or tying nine world records in sprints and hurdles.

McCaffrey also gets his wry humor from his parents. On their second date while attending Stanford, Lisa famously reached for some shears to trim and adjust Ed’s mullet.

But McCaffrey also sports a serious side. Earlier in the year, he posted a screenshot note on Twitter, imploring the younger generation to look around and experience life. In part, he wrote, “Enjoy the authenticity of this world. Read a book, ride your bike, go to the park, play in the backyard, or build a fort. Do something with your friends that will spur your imagination.”

He punctuated his message with, “Put the phones down!”

Stanford coach David Shaw said the one thing he will not do with his star player is throttle down. He scoffed at any notion of easing McCaffrey’s load, even while Stanford opens camp unsure of who will replace four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan, now with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Lighten his load? Please.

“Are you kidding me?” Shaw said with a laugh. “I’m going to start giving him some of my responsibilities. The guy has handled everything else.”

Shaw pondered the question – lighten his load? – and continued with conviction: “Absolutely not. When you have a great player, the last thing you want to do is pump the brakes. You want to push the accelerator. When you’ve got a great player, you have to challenge that great player, you have to push that great player, because he’ll push the rest of the team, and that’s what we did with Andrew (Luck), that’s what we’re doing with Christian. We’re going to put more on his shoulders because he can handle it.

“We’re going to push him harder, push him further, and see if there’s more that he can do.”

Said McCaffrey later, “I’m ready to go.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

Heisman hopefuls

A look at college football’s preseason Heisman Trophy candidates for 2016 (with 2015 statistics):

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State (1,691 rushing yards, 19 TDs)

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU (1,953 rushing yards, 22 TDs)

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (1,836 rushing yards, 17 TDs)

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (3,700 passing yards, 36 TDs; 405 rushing yards, seven TDs)

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford (2,019 rushing yards, eight TDs; 645 receiving yards, five TDs; 1,200 return yards, two TDs)

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson (4,104 passing yards, 35 TDs; 1,105 rushing yards, 12 TDs)