By Josh Dubow
AP Sports Writer
STANFORD, Calif. — Now here’s a scary thought for defenses facing Stanford this season.
One year after shattering Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old record for all-purpose yards in a season, Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey is back for his junior season as a “significantly” better player, according to his coach.
“I’m not trying to say he’ll get more yards this year than he did last year. That’s not what I’m talking about,” coach David Shaw said. “I’m talking about a young man who’s maturing. He’s a year older. His body is still maturing. He’s stronger, he’s faster. He knows the offense better. It’s been exciting knowing how much easier things are for him and also how hard he works. It’s a fun thing to watch.”
It will be hard to top what McCaffrey did last season when he ran for 2,019 yards, added 645 yards receiving and 1,200 on returns while scoring 15 touchdowns and setting the NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards — 614 more than Sanders had in his Heisman Trophy-winning 1988 season.
But McCaffrey sees plenty of room for improvement and has spent the offseason becoming bigger, faster and more knowledgeable. He is so well-versed in Stanford’s playbook in year three in college that he knows the assignments of all 11 offensive players on almost every play.
“That’s something I’ve tried to harp on,” he said. “I’m not perfect on all of them. But definitely knowing what they’re going to do makes my job a lot easier, especially when you’re doing a bunch of things on the field. You have to know a lot of things and the more you know, the better you play.”
Few players have ever done as much on the football field as McCaffrey did last year. He was a top runner both inside and when he got out in space. He was Stanford’s leading receiver as well, beating defenses out of the backfield or when he lined up outside.
He was a dangerous returner who turned mundane special teams plays into must-watch events and he even threw two touchdown passes.
McCaffrey showed no signs of slowing down last season despite more than 400 touches on offense and special teams, gaining 461 yards in the Pac-12 title game against USC and 368 in a Rose Bowl victory against Iowa.
With a new quarterback running the offense and three new starters on the offensive line, McCaffrey may have to carry an even bigger load this season and Shaw believes his body can handle it.
“We’re going to find every way humanly possible to get him the ball, similar to what we did a year ago,” Shaw said. “I don’t worry about stuff like that. This kid is a football player. He does a lot of different things and we’ll let him do whatever he can to help us win football games.”
McCaffrey came into last season as a bit of an unknown after getting limited opportunities in Stanford’s complicated offense as a freshman. That won’t be the case this year when defenses will have a target on his back all season.
McCaffrey has enjoyed the attention that has come from his stardom that allowed him to go the ESPYs, where he got to meet several celebrities.
“He’s still the same down to earth guy,” receiver Michael Rector said. “He’s still a goof ball in the locker room. It’s been interesting to see with all the success and all the praise he’s been getting he’s been getting even more hungry. People can sit back and relax but he chose to get better, take more upon himself and push himself to be a better player. I think that will show this season.”
One of the main differences for McCaffrey this season is that he is taking on a bigger leadership role. With four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan in the NFL, McCaffrey was the natural player to fill that void.
Before the team’s first practice of fall camp, McCaffrey talked to the team about the importance of setting high standards if the team is going to achieve its goal of repeating as Pac-12 champions and possibly make the College Football Playoff.
The message resonated with his teammates.
“Christian is just a born leader,” receiver Francis Owusu said. “You see the way he walks, the way he talks. You can just feel an energy that he emits that’s so positive for our team. We watch him practice so hard and we all want to do that. The way he walks and talks is the way we want to do it.”