Christian McCaffrey celebrated with his teammates when he heard the news he was one three finalists for the Heisman Trophy, and quickly deflected the credit to his offensive line, other teammates and coaches.
Stanford’s do-it-all running back earned his trip to New York by being a tough between-the-tackles force, a dynamic returner, a lightning quick runner and a matchup nightmare as a receiver. He even threw a couple touchdown passes.
About the only thing McCaffrey didn’t do this season was brag.
“It’s still such a surreal moment for me,” he said. “It’s very humbling.”
The kid who grew up with Barry Sanders posters on his wall delivered a season that eclipsed Sanders’ best in college when it comes to all-purpose yards.
McCaffrey set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 3,496 this season. Even if it took McCaffrey two extra games to reach the mark, just being mentioned alongside Sanders’ magical 1988 campaign is quite the accomplishment.
“It’s special,” coach David Shaw said. “It’s not a conference record. It’s not just a really good year. This is an historic year. He did something that no one has ever done and has done it better than everyone who has ever won a Heisman. It’s phenomenal.”
McCaffrey finished second in the nation to Alabama’s Derrick Henry with 1,847 yards rushing. But it’s in the all-around game where he truly excels. As a skilled pattern runner with great hands out of the backfield or from the slot, McCaffrey added 41 catches for 540 yards to give him the most yards from scrimmage in the nation with 2,387. He also had the second most kick return yards in the nation with 1,042 and 67 additional yards on punt returns to finish with over 1,000 more all-purpose yards than any other player in the country.
Numbers alone fail to do McCaffrey justice. There was the tackle-breaking 49-yard catch-and-run against California, the 70-yard wildcat run against UCLA and the ankle-breaking cuts at full speed that leave defenders in the dust.
“He’s got one of the best one-step jukes in the world,” Stanford cornerback Ronnie Harris said. “Honestly, I’m always star-gazing at him. I’m on the sidelines listening to coach (Duane) Akina with one eye and with the other eye I’m like, ‘What is this dude Christian doing?’ He’s a spectacular treat.”
McCaffrey’s greatness comes from hard work and good genes. His father, Ed, was a star receiver at Stanford who went on to catch 565 passes and win three Super Bowls in a 13-year NFL career. His mother, Lisa, played soccer at Stanford and is the daughter of Olympic silver medal-winning sprinter David Sime. McCaffrey’s older brother, Max, is a wide receiver at Duke, and his two younger brothers play high school football in Colorado.
While McCaffrey’s teammates saw that talent in him as soon as he arrived as a freshman last summer for his first practices, opponents and those outside the program had to wait.
McCaffrey got just 59 offensive touches as a freshman, and it took time for him to learn Stanford’s playbook and get acclimated to the college game. The coaches told him to add weight in the offseason and learn patience from watching tapes of LeSean McCoy so they could tailor the offense around him.
“Christian has been able to adopt that same running style,” Shaw said. “And you see that flash of lightning and the kid explodes through the hole, it’s just phenomenal. It’s been fun to watch.”
McCaffrey provided his highlight-reel play in the Big Game against California when he caught a screen pass from Kevin Hogan, broke two tackles in the backfield, juked three other defenders and outraced the rest of the defense on a 49-yard score.
He set the school-record with 461 all-purpose yards in the Pac-12 title game against USC. He ran for 207 yards and a touchdown, added four catches for 105 yards and another score, had 149 yards in returns and even threw an 11-yard TD pass.
McCaffrey isn’t eligible for the draft until 2017 at the earliest. While he might lack the size to be an every-down back, he should be able to thrive as a slot receiver, returner and change-of-pace back.