STANFORD — Sam Schwartzstein and the rest of Stanford’s offensive linemen gathered in a meeting room this week to watch video of a moment the senior center never wants his teammates to forget.
On the final play of the third quarter in last week’s 27-23 win over Oregon State, running back Stepfan Taylor caught a short pass from Kevin Hogan around the 42-yard line. Taylor shook a defender at the 34, scurried around the sideline, sliced back inside at the 15, stiff-armed a safety to his belly at the 12 and sprinted past another at the 2 for a game-changing touchdown.
"We watched it a few times in our meeting room,” Schwartzstein said. "Just like, ‘Hey, guys. If we do our jobs, or even do a little bit of our jobs, this guy can do unbelievable things.”’
Overlooked so often when he played alongside Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart, Taylor is leaving all sorts of lasting memories on The Farm.
The subtle senior has a chance to add to his legacy and set a new Stanford standard in one of the biggest games of his career. Taylor is 202 yards shy of Darrin Nelson’s school record of 4,033 yards rushing as the No. 14 Cardinal (8-2, 6-1) head to top-ranked Oregon (10-0, 7-0) on Saturday night in the Pac-12’s showdown of the season.
"He epitomizes what we’re all about it,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Just the consistency, the toughness, the versatility. There’s nothing he can’t do.”
While Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James and other Oregon running backs have so often overshadowed Taylor’s tenure on the West Coast, he has finally begun to receive the recognition teammates and coaches believe he deserves.
Taylor is sandwiched between Nelson and Gerhart — the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up who finished with 3,522 yards in his collegiate career while starting only two seasons — on Stanford’s career rushing list. Taylor, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, became the first player in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in three straight seasons last week and has carried the Cardinal through the post-Luck Era one powerful stride at a time this fall.
"For some reason, and I don’t know why, I think he’s extremely underrated,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "You look at the numbers that he’s put up, and he’s got an opportunity to cement himself as one of the best running backs of all time in Stanford history.”
Those around him believe Taylor’s personality is part of the reason his accomplishments have gone unnoticed.
Instead, the somewhat shy running back chooses to let his guard down with his alter ego, Kulabafi, who has become a YouTube sensation. The comedic videos feature Taylor — aka Kulabafi — wearing funky sunglasses, hats and shirts while free-style rapping.
Some videos have included offensive linemen and other Stanford athletes. There’s even one where Kulabafi interviews Taylor, who pokes fun at his otherwise don’t-look-at-me personality. Now most of his teammates and friends — even total strangers — call Taylor "Kula.”
"It’s been kind of crazy seeing the reaction to that,” Taylor said. "It’s just been a fun way to let my personality out.”
Taylor prefers not to talk about the Stanford record he’s chasing. He said he had no idea he was so close until a teammate told him in the last couple weeks.
"It’s a team stat,” Taylor said.
At a university known for producing star quarterbacks such as Luck, John Elway, Jim Plunkett, John Brodie and Frankie Albert, running backs have historically been secondary — if that — until former coach Jim Harbaugh and now Shaw unleashed a physical, run-first offense.
Nelson, who played at Stanford from 1976-81, said this week that he never thought his record would last so long. Ray Handley had topped the list at a mere 1,768 yards from 1963-65 until Nelson. Handley is 12th among the Cardinal’s career rushing leaders now.
"I remember after I broke the existing record, which really wasn’t a whole lot, I guess Stanford hadn’t had any really good running backs in a long time. And I remember somebody telling me, ‘Well, I guess Stanford finally has a running back,”’ said Nelson, now a senior associate athletic director at UC-Irvine. "And I kind of thought that was weird, because I didn’t get it. I was like, OK, I don’t understand. I think now I do. With Toby being there, Stepfan being there, they’ve had some other backs that are really good.”
Durability has been at the center of Taylor’s success.
Nelson, for instance, had been the only other Stanford player to rush for 1,000 yards in three seasons. But those milestones weren’t consecutively.
Nelson, a smaller and shiftier back whose favorite play was the quick trap, had hurt his biceps in a game against Arizona State and tore a tendon soon after long jumping in a track meet. He sat out all of 1979 and played two more seasons before the Minnesota Vikings drafted him seventh overall.
"You have to stay healthy and you have to play on a good team,” Nelson said when asked what it takes to gain so many yards. "If you play on a bad team and you get behind, you’re probably throwing the ball a lot more. So you don’t really get a chance to do it.”
Taylor, whose 746 carries are already the most in school history, has always run a strict workout regimen.
Aside from football activities, Taylor has trained in Bikram yoga — usually set in a room at about 105 degrees — since his senior year in high school in Mansfield, Texas. He increased those workouts last spring, part of the 5-foot-11 running back’s offseason goal to become more flexible and agile while staying at his usual 215-pound playing weight. He credits it for staying relatively injury free.
"Maybe a little luck, too,” he said.
Taylor easily ranks in the top five in most NFL scouting projections, even drawing comparisons to Gerhart, who has a similar style playing as a power runner behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
Coaches and scouts rave about Taylor’s ability — and willingness — to almost exclusively run between the tackles in an age of college football when few do, a skill that requires patience ever fewer have. He also catches passes out of the backfield, sometimes even lining up at wide receiver, runs the wildcat and is the "best blocking running back in our conference,” Shaw said. "And it’s not even close.”
"There’s no question about it,” Shaw said of Taylor’s NFL future. "Guys like Stepfan play for a long time.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP