McCaffrey’s transformation puts him in the Heisman mix

The Stanford running back's versatility and work ethic has powered the Cardinal offense and put his name on the map.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

McCaffrey’s transformation puts him in the Heisman mix

Stanford stumbled out of the gate this season — losing their opening game to Northwestern and immediately dropping out of people’s reckoning — but since then, they’ve gone undefeated and may be the best team in the Pac-12.

The single biggest reason behind that: Christian McCaffrey, who’s gone from being an interesting, talented gimmick player to a legitimate Heisman candidate.

Last season Christian McCaffrey was one of my favorite players in the Pac-12, but Stanford didn’t really know what they had yet and he earned just 109 snaps on offense, 39 of which came in the final two games of the season when they began to catch on. This year he has 242 snaps through six games, leads the nation in all-purpose yardage and has been the catalyst behind Stanford’s revival.

McCaffrey is carrying the Stanford offense on his back and has notched 260 more all purpose yards this year than Leonard Fournette, or a hair over 43 per game extra. There is a very real argument that in less than a year he has gone from gimmick player for Stanford to the best player in the nation.

Often talented players that teams aren’t quite sure how to use get put in as return men as a way to maximize their playmaking ability; without loading them up with information or needing to integrate them into an offensive scheme. Last season McCaffrey was an exciting bit part return man for Stanford. He averaged almost 20 yards per punt return and had a couple of impressive kick returns too. This season he is the team’s primary kick returner with a 98-yard return to his name and multiple other impressive runs.

In fact, just from watching his skill returning the ball it’s surprising that he has yet to find the end zone on a return, falling just short on the 98-yard return, but it seems merely a matter of time until he does break one all the way.

On offense is where McCaffrey has seen his biggest transformation.

In truth, Stanford hasn’t changed the way they’re using him — just the amount. Versatility is one of McCaffrey’s biggest strengths and that is evident in how he is deployed, but every wrinkle we see this season was already happening a year ago, just in far fewer snaps.

Though he is a running back by trade, you will also see McCaffrey back as a return man as we have already mentioned, but also split out as a wide receiver or in the slot, and as a quarterback, taking snaps as part of Stanford’s run-heavy offense. He did both of those in 2014 as well, and actually in higher percentages of his overall snaps, but this year they remain a facet to his game, in addition to his carries as a workhorse back.

Part of what took Stanford a while to fully understand McCaffrey is that at 6 foot and 201 pounds, he isn’t built like most running backs. Fournette by comparison has at least 30 pounds on him, and the average NFL running back at that height would be carrying an extra 15-20. His body type is more of a wide receiver than a running back, but he has demonstrated this year that he is every bit a ball-carrier, with none of the typical tendencies of a receiver being asked to play the position.

McCaffrey doesn’t just make people miss in short areas, though we can see that on plenty of his carries, but he shows power and strength and the knowledge of when each is required in a way many running backs never do.

This play shows the short area quickness and change of direction skills McCaffrey possesses. It allows him to weave quickly through traffic and gain yardage on the play:


But there is also a power element to his game that people assume isn’t there. He averages 3.3 yards per carry this season after contact, routinely dragging defenders for additional yardage and creating successful plays even when the blocking doesn’t spring him. This power and the ability to keep his legs driving and fight for extra yardage is part of what makes him a surprisingly successful workhorse back. At his size you expect him to grind down over a game and become less effective than if he was being used sparingly, but the more Stanford load him up the better he seems to perform.

This season he has carried the ball 25 or more times in three games. In those games he has averaged 6.9 yards per carry, topped 100 yards in all three and topped 200 in two of them. 233 of his yards in those three games came after contact and he broke 12 tackles on his carries. Against UCLA, with Stanford trying to cement a solid lead in the second quarter, McCaffrey earned a positive grade on six consecutive plays on a single drive as the team simply either handed him the ball or passed it to him and let him move the chains play-after-play. He may not look like Leonard Fournette, but McCaffrey is a legitimately elite running back, even if he does only tip the scales at 201 pounds.

What brings real intrigue to his ability though is the fact that he could easily play wide receiver every bit as well as he can play running back. Stanford doesn’t just throw him the ball out of the backfield but will line him up either in the slot or split out wide as a true wide out. Often that gives them a huge matchup advantage because teams expect him to line up in the backfield, leading to the wrong personnel package when he comes to line up as a receiver. Take this play for example against UCF:


McCaffrey is lined up in the slot and the slant pattern he runs for a successful first down play is just too easy. Stanford hit UCF with this on multiple occasions because they knew they could get him isolated on a linebacker and that was game over right from the snap.


In all, Stanford have only actually lined him up at receiver on 13 snaps this season — he has taken more direct snaps playing ‘quarterback’ in the role that Ty Montgomery had last season than he has split out — but over the last year and a half he has clearly demonstrated both the route running skills and hands to excel there. In fact, if Stanford want to really maximize their weaponry on offense they would be well served to mix it up more with McCaffrey as a receiver, specifically to stretch out opposing defenses in the way they did UCF.

In case we needed an example of the kind of hands McCaffrey has, take a look at this screen play, which he hauls in one-handed because he has a 300 pound defensive tackle draped all over him trying to prevent the screen.


This play doesn’t make a huge amount of yardage, but it is one of my favorite plays of the college season, and should be hard-copied into McCaffrey’s resume because it is a perfect advertisement for his skill-set. Not only is he able to bring the pass in with a guy draped all over him, but he switches immediately to protecting the ball and driving with his legs to get as much yardage as he can with the knowledge that it won’t be much.

So what is the bottom line with all of this? Christian McCaffrey is an elite kick returner, a high-level punt returner, a scary prospect as a wide receiver and a dynamic workhorse back capable of carrying an offense and breaking big plays at any moment. In short, Christian McCaffrey is freaking awesome, and should be right in the mix of the Heisman discussion.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Matt

    Reggie Bush 2.0

    • andy

      Good comparison. I think he is a bit more “physical” than RB w/ all those off tackle runs. Just imagine he can put in 10-15 more pounds w/o losing his quickness and speed. But very similar in style.