Master of All: Is there anything Stanford tailback and Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey can't do?
SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Devon Cajuste is still waiting.
Yes, the senior receiver for Stanford has watched his teammate, sophomore Christian McCaffrey, arguably the nation's best running back and undoubtedly its best all-purpose player, do some impressive things this season. McCaffrey has thrown for a touchdown, run for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass all in the same game. He has recorded 300 or more all-purpose yards five different times, and in last week's Pac-12 title game he totaled a cool 461 in a 41–22 win over USC. In that contest he surpassed Barry Sanders for the most all-purpose yards in a season, breaking a record that had stood for 28 years. Sanders totaled 3,250 yards in 1988, while McCaffrey sits at 3,496 with the Rose Bowl still to play. Sanders recorded his yardage in fewer games, McCaffrey with fewer touches.
McCaffrey was announced on Monday as a Heisman Trophy finalist, and will join Alabama junior tailback Derrick Henry and Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson in New York for Saturday night's ceremony. McCaffrey has stuffed the stat sheet all season, rushing 319 times for 1,847 yards with eight touchdowns, catching 41 passes for 540 yards with four scores, throwing two touchdown passes and returning 36 kicks for 1,042 yards. His tendency to line up in the Wildcat formation and take direct snaps inspired a nickname and a Heisman website, WildCaff.com.
And yet, Cajuste would like to see McCaffrey do one more thing.
"Haven't seen him fly yet," Cajuste says.
Like, an airplane?
"No, but he could probably do that—with limited training," Cajuste concedes. "I want to see him fly. Like, literally take off five yards from the end zone and fly over somebody to score."
Cajuste pauses, pondering this request. Then he shakes his head.
"You know, now he's probably going to do it. And then I'll have nothing left!"
A list of non-football-related things McCaffrey is good at, as compiled by his Cardinal teammates: playing the harmonica and piano (he and Cajuste have previously performed a duet and are working to put out a video), outwitting pretty much anyone he encounters (he poses riddles aloud on bus rides to games), breezing past defenders in pick-up basketball games (he can also drain threes, so be careful of sagging off), dominating chess matches on iPhones and winning FIFA and Madden video games. He can probably play the flute, too, says senior left guard Josh Garnett, throwing up his hands in exasperation. There has been no evidence McCaffrey is especially skilled in the kitchen, but "I'm sure he's great at baking cookies," Garnett says.
"If you put him at left guard, he'd probably get a couple pancake blocks," Garnett adds. "But I don't want to lose my spot! Let's hope he keeps playing running back."
"He is Master of All, not Master of None," jokes Cajuste, a reference to the popular Netflix series.
Dig a little deeper, though, and teammates admit there is one skill McCaffrey doesn't possess. Or, at least, there is one he does not regularly exercise. He doesn't talk trash. He is almost incapable of it, choosing instead to compliment defenders who have tackled him, usually after he has sprinted past them for 30 yards. That actually makes it more galling for the opposition. When a guy blows by a defender and makes him look silly, it's almost better if he then talks mess and offers up a challenge. Level McCaffrey with a good hit and he smiles—which only ticks foes off more. "I see it, from the edge, he'll tell a guy good job and they're so confused," Cajuste says. "It drives people nuts."
Of course, there is an argument to be made that McCaffrey doesn't need to tell defenders what he's doing. They are typically very, very aware.
Given McCaffrey's lineage, it makes sense he is a standout athlete. His maternal grandfather, David Sime, was the 1956 world record holder in the 100-meter dash and won the silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in the same event. Christian's uncle, Billy McCaffrey, played basketball at Duke and Vanderbilt in the '90s. His mom Lisa played soccer at Stanford from 1987-90, and his dad Ed is a former Cardinal standout and All-Pro receiver for the Denver Broncos. Older brother Max now plays receiver at Duke, and leads the Blue Devils with 48 catches for 601 yards with five touchdowns.
Christian, then, is simply living up to the family standard. Bragging about it would be a waste of breath, and he needs save his. He knows he isn't perfect—"I could use some help in physics, if anyone is offering," he says—and occasionally gets a little tired on the field. But he leans on something he learned years ago.
"I think a lot about something my dad taught me," McCaffrey says. "When the play goes on, you relax, you breathe. And then you explode."
Explode. The word epitomizes what McCaffrey has done this season, from his leap into the national conversation (he started to turn heads after shredding UCLA for 369 all-purpose yards in a 56–35 victory on Oct. 15) to the way he jets out of the backfield. To help viewers and Heisman voters empathize with a defender who just got smoked, the Stanford football office, in conjunction with Palo Alto virtual reality company STRIVR, put together a brief McCaffrey VR highlight reel. Snap on a headset—or the cheap Google cardboard glasses, which can connect with any smart phone—and you can experience McCaffrey charging right at you, stutter-stepping and bursting downfield, while you grasp at air.
"That thing, it's so realistic," Garnett says. "Sometimes you see him shake a defender and it's like, 'What do you have to do to tackle this guy?' If you have Christian one-on-one in space, good luck."
So, who gets burned the most by the 6-foot, 200-pounder? Everybody.
Cardinal seniors linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback Ronnie Harris are reluctant to admit McCaffrey has escaped them in practice. But after some prodding, they acknowledge, yes, he has basically made everyone look foolish at some point this season. (They take solace in the fact that they've both fallen victim to his lethal spin move.) Ditto for every aspiring tackler Stanford has lined up against. Asked Saturday what makes McCaffrey so hard to tackle, USC junior linebacker Su'a Cravens sighed.
"I mean, what doesn't he do? He catches the ball in the backfield, makes the guy miss and takes it to the house. He rushes the ball inside and on the edge and really, can score with any play they draw up for him. He's just a special guy. He should win the Heisman."
USC defensive coaches probably agree. During Saturday's game, a stream of expletives and a repeated pounding of fists on countertops could be heard through the wall from the USC coaches' box every time McCaffrey took off, darting around while the Trojans helplessly (and hopelessly) chased him. Garnett laughs when hearing this anecdote before nodding sympathetically. "I'm sure there's [been] plenty of [swearing] from all the other teams," he says.
Stanford is used to coming up short when it comes to the most prestigious award in college football, says Cajuste, referencing runner-up Heisman campaigns for Andrew Luck (second in voting in 2010 and '11) and Toby Gerhart ('09). McCaffrey will get competition this week from dual-threat quarterback Watson (3,512 passing yards, 887 rushing yards, 41 total touchdowns), the best player on the only undefeated team left in college football, and Henry (1,986 rushing yards with 23 scores), the latest in a long line of dominant Crimson Tide running backs. Oklahoma junior quarterback Baker Mayfield (3,389 passing yards, 420 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns), considered a dark-horse candidate, was not named a finalist.
Because McCaffrey is just a sophomore, it's possible he is merely generating early buzz for the 2016 award. There is precedent for that in the Pac-12, after all: Former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota got plenty of hype in '13, but when the Ducks fell out of the national title race, Mariota's stock plummeted with them. In '14, with Oregon reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff, he won in a landslide. (It would also help if Stanford did not routinely kick off when many East Coasters are asleep.)
It's staggering to think of how much better McCaffrey could get. In response to a question about McCaffrey getting caught from behind on one long run against USC, Stanford coach David Shaw joked that McCaffrey would spend the upcoming off-season working on top speed. Despite boasting the most impressive stat line in college football, McCaffrey himself remains somewhat unimpressed.
During the fourth quarter Saturday night, with Stanford up 34–22, McCaffrey—who had already totaled 442 all-purpose yards—apologized in the huddle for not scoring a touchdown on the previous zone play. "Man, I've gotta hit the hole for you guys," he told his linemen, shaking his head and promising to do better.
Garnett rolls his eyes while recounting this. "It's, like, 'Hey man, you just keep doing what you're doing, and we're all gonna have a good time.'"
When blocking for McCaffrey it isn't uncommon for Garnett, Cajuste or any other Cardinal player to look up and realize, oh, he's still running, sprinting away from defenders, cutting through an open lane, exploding downfield to score. He may not fly, but the most dynamic all-around playmaker in the nation is always ready to take off: to the end zone, to the Rose Bowl and, possibly, to the Heisman.