By Mark Soltau
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Stepfan Taylor probably doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves, but when you play in a backfield that has produced three straight Heisman Trophy runner-ups, it’s difficult to get noticed.
In 2009, Taylor played behind running back Toby Gerhart, now with the Minnesota Vikings. The past two seasons, quarterback Andrew Luck has attracted most of the attention and is projected to be the No 1 pick in the NFL Draft next spring.
Not that Taylor isn’t praiseworthy. All the 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior from Mansfield, Texas, has done the last two years is rush for 2,290 yards, joining Gerhart and Darrin Nelson as the only Stanford running backs to eclipse 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
Taylor, a second-team all-Pac-12 Conference selection this year, has averaged 96 yards per game and has surpassed 100 yards five times. With one year of eligibility remaining, he ranks fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,593 yards, and his 23 touchdowns rank second only to Gerhart (28).
“I can’t think about that,” Taylor said, when asked if he is underrated. “I just have to go out there and play my game and whatever happens, happens. I have one goal and that’s to win games, and we’re doing it.”
The durable Taylor, who has started 24 of the last 25 games Stanford has played, could play a key role for the fourth-ranked Cardinal in Monday’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl game against third-ranked Oklahoma State. Even with the talented Luck, Stanford is a run-first, pass-second team and ball control will be vital against the high-scoring Cowboys.
“We’re just looking to come out and play our game,” said Taylor. “We know a lot is at stake. We want to go show the nation what Stanford football is all about. Not do too much extra; just do the same things that got us to this game.”
The Cardinal averaged 208 yards rushing this season, second in the conference to Oregon. Much of the success can be attributed to a powerful offensive line, led by All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.
“I’m blessed to have them in front of me,” Taylor said. “They make the whole offense a lot easier. If they’re not working together, the offense is not going to work. We pride ourselves in having a balanced attack and it all starts with them and our fullback.”
Although the Oklahoma State defense surrenders points, it also feasts on turnovers. The Cowboys forced an FBS-high 42 this year, including five in their regular-season finale blowout win against Oklahoma.
Conversely, Stanford committed only 15 turnovers in 12 games.
“That’s a priority every week, trying to hold on to the football,” said Taylor.
“We have watched film and they use a scheme that produces fumbles and interceptions. We have to pay close attention to detail with that because they’re a team that has proven they can get the ball out.”
"I'm just a tough runner who is trying to get every inch I can."
In high school, Taylor rushed for 4,792 yards and 67 touchdowns and was a first-team all-state 5A selection. Ranked the 20th-best running back prospect in the nation by Rivals.com, he never considered attending Stanford until his college counselor saw a recruiting letter from the Farm and urged him to look into it.
“At first, I didn’t even know where it was,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was in California.”
Taylor was quickly won over by the weather and Palm Drive.
“I took my only official visit here, so that tells you a lot,” said Taylor.
Taylor is sneaky-quick and doesn’t go down easily. His favorite athlete is Barry Sanders, and he patterns his running style after the former Oklahoma State and NFL great.
“I’m just a tough runner who is trying to get every inch I can,” Taylor said. “I just admire tough backs who do all the little things you can’t see.”
The best part of Stanford football?
“It’s just the atmosphere and team bonding,” he said. “It’s pretty much like a big family. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it honestly is with our program. In our locker room, everybody is tight.”
And while some expect a drop off next year with the expected departure of Luck, DeCastro, and Martin, Taylor thinks otherwise.
“Andrew Luck is a player that is nearly impossible to replace, but we have great players coming back and I think everybody is excited to show that we’re a good team, especially my class,” said Taylor.