By Dean McArdle
Palo Alto Online Sports
On a football team, there are vocal leaders and there are guys who just shut up and play, preferring to lead by example. In his first three seasons at Stanford, running back Stepfan Taylor has been the latter. This year, however, the preseason All-American is looking to make some noise.
In his time on the Farm, Taylor has operated in the shadows of Heisman candidates. As a freshman he backed up runner-up Toby Gerhart, and the past two years he's been the quiet force doing the groundwork while two-time runner-up Andrew Luck drew national attention.
With Luck gone to the National Football League, this year's Stanford offense rests on Taylor's sturdy shoulders. For the senior, that means not only racking up rushing yards, but also becoming a team leader.
"I'm going to lead in my own way," Taylor said in a Monday morning press conference leading up to Friday's season opener in Stanford Stadium against visiting San Jose State at 7 p.m. "I need to be a little more vocal. Not necessarily all rah-rah type vocal, but when there are things that need to be addressed, I'll have them addressed."
Taylor's teammates recognize his role as a leader on this year's squad, electing him as a co-captain along with senior linebacker Chase Thomas and senior center Sam Schwartzstein.
"That was a great honor," Taylor said of being named co-captain. "Because I know I don't really talk much, I'm not really a vocal leader, so to have them vote me as a captain, I really appreciated that, and I will do whatever it takes to represent this team in the right way."
While Taylor may not say much during the game, his teammates have taken notice of the work he puts in on and off the field. The Stanford coaching staff told Taylor that he has "field credibility," and that his teammates will follow his lead.
First-year starting quarterback Josh Nunes pointed to Taylor as a model for him to mold his game after, when he recently spoke to the media. Nunes noted Taylor's work ethic and the back's serious approach to practice as some of his laudable qualities.
"Stepfan isn't the most boisterous guy, but he is one of those guys that brings his lunch pail everyday," Nunes said. "He really studies the playbook hard, and is a guy who leads by example."
Taylor's subdued demeanor is echoed in the way he has quietly put up prodigious numbers the past two seasons. In 2010, Taylor racked up 1,137 yards on the ground, which was then the second best single- season rushing total in Stanford history behind Gerhart's 1,871 in 2009.
Then in 2011, Taylor climbed even closer to the man he backed up as a freshman, rushing for 1,330 yards on 242 attempts.
"Back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons," Nunes said of Taylor. "He is as good as anyone in the country."
For a guy who has played second fiddle to Heisman hopefuls for three seasons, Taylor is also knocking on the door of some of Stanford's loftiest career records.
The senior is currently fourth in career rushing yards with 2,770. However, Taylor is only 1,263 yards shy of Darrin Nelson's record total of 4,033. If Taylor can match his rushing numbers from last season, he will easily take over the throne as Stanford's all-time rushing leader.
He currently trails Nelson, Gerhart (3,522) and Brad Muster (2,940).
Along with rushing yards, Taylor is also bearing down on the career touchdowns record of 44 held by Gerhart. After posting 15 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore, he followed it up by finding the end zone on 10 carries in 2011. Taylor's 30 overall touchdowns is tied for sixth all-time. Tommy Vardell is No. 2 with 37. Taylor also is tied for third all-time in rushing TDs with 27.
It would take his best scoring year yet, though, to match Gerhart's record, but with a first-year quarterback under center, Taylor will likely see an increased load this season.
While Taylor said he recognized that more eyes will be on him now that Luck is gone, he emphasized that you won't see a change in his game just to chase the record books.
"I didn't even know I was close before I started hearing about it (records),"Taylor said. "I'm just trying to go out here and play my best game, and those records out there, if I get 'em I get 'em, but I'm not going to try to pad my stats to hurt the team."
Some of the all-time marks Taylor is chasing belong to his former teammate and current Vikings' running back Gerhart. Taylor expressed his appreciation for the knowledge he gained under Gerhart's tutelage, knowledge that helped him transform his game.
"A lot of it is a credit to him (Gerhart), he helped me when I was young. I was grateful to have him freshman year." Taylor said. "When I came out of high school I was just running, and he taught me how to read defenses and to be patient behind the line."
Three years after emerging from under Gerhart's wing, Taylor is the lynchpin of a nationally touted offense, and now the student has become the teacher. As a senior and captain, Taylor is now in the role to take over as mentor to the other running backs. Although, teammates may have been looking at Taylor to model their game even before this year.
"Stepfan is a great teammate to have," former Stanford running back and current minor league baseball player Tyler Gaffney said. "As a running back he always does the right assignment, putting pressure on the other backs to the same. He is a goofball off the field, but he knows when to turn the switch and get real serious for football."