Stanford's offensive linemen recently tabbed themselves the Tunnel Workers Union because, in the words of one Cardinal, they are "big guys making holes." Toby Gerhart, the team's star running back, heard the moniker and thought of his father, Todd, a longtime high school football coach who uses the metaphor of a tunnel to explain what distinguishes a great running back from a good one.
The tunnel, as Todd Gerhart describes it, is the narrow space "between two walls of humanity" where a back often finds himself after taking a handoff. "A lot of backs don't like to run down the tunnel," Todd says. "People are flying at you, and a safety or a linebacker is waiting. But if you get in the tunnel and make the right choice, the right cut, that's when you get the big run."
The big run is one of Toby Gerhart's specialties. After dashing for 134 yards and three TDs in Stanford's 24--16 win over UCLA last Saturday, Gerhart ranks fourth in the nation in rushing. The Cardinal (4--1, 3--0) is the surprise leader of the Pac-10, riding an offense that's built around its 6'1", 235-pound senior.
"He's strong, he's got good vision and his feet are quick," says UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter. "And if you don't get your body in front of him, you can't bring him down. He's a complete back."
That's a compliment without a qualifier, which Gerhart doesn't receive often enough. He is commonly referred to as a power back or, as UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel called him, "a load," both of which understate his athletic ability.
"As a white running back you get stereotyped," Gerhart says. "When I tell people I play football, they say, 'Oh, you're a fullback.'" But Gerhart runs more like Glyn Milburn—the shifty former Stanford great he passed to become fifth on the school's alltime rushing list—than like former Cardinal bruisers Tommy Vardell and Brad Muster. During Stanford's Sept. 26 win over Washington, Todd Gerhart heard a Huskies coach shout, "He's not fast enough to turn the corner!" A few plays later Toby ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run.
"The big question people have is about my top-end speed," says Gerhart. "I think I am pretty darn fast. When the NFL combine comes around, I will post a good [40-yard dash] time." Gerhart is confident in part because he has never trained for football year-round. He drops 10 to 15 pounds to play outfield on the Cardinal baseball team, then puts the weight back on.
Facing a UCLA defense that was ranked ninth in the country against the run, Stanford's offensive line dominated, and the Cardinal confused the Bruins with its Giant package, which features a sixth lineman: one more tunnel worker opening holes.
"We've come a long way," Gerhart says. "We were 1--11 my freshman season, and for a long time the program has been down. But now we are turning the corner."
Which is another way of saying that there is light at the end of the tunnel.