Christian McCaffrey lined up in the backfield, swung around the edge at the snap and cut to an open space in the gut of Iowa’s defense.
From there, he did what he does best — leave people in awe.
McCaffrey turned a routine catch into a foot race that he won easily, a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the Rose Bowl that became a comical display of McCaffrey running circles around the helpless Hawkeyes.
McCaffrey set a Rose Bowl record for total yards — 368 — which wasn’t all that surprising, considering he compiled more all-purpose yards last season than any player in college football history (3,864).
McCaffrey led Stanford in rushing yards, receiving yards, punt return yards and kickoff return yards. He even completed two passes — both for TDs.
Stanford coach David Shaw said fans haven’t seen anything yet in terms of how he intends to use his multidimensional junior “running back” this season.
“When you have a great player, the last thing you want to do is pump the brakes,” Shaw said. “You want to push the accelerator. We’re going to push him harder, push him further, and see if there’s more that he can do.”
Maybe he should cue up video of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He plays offense, defense and special teams.
Trump that, McCaffrey!
“Could someone be the Willie Mays of football?” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh asked rhetorically last season. “Could somebody be the five-tool player, the five-position player? Maybe that will end up being Jabrill Peppers.”
Peppers, McCaffrey and USC’s Adoree’ Jackson are must-watch players this season, a three-member class above others who occasionally play more than only offense or defense. Their versatility in handling numerous roles provides a window into their talent but also their coach’s willingness to allow multi-tasking.
There’s even an award that honors the most versatile college football player, aptly named after 1956 Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung, who set the bar on position flexibility at Notre Dame and for the Green Bay Packers.
McCaffrey won the award last season; Peppers and Jackson were finalists.
Hornung described their highlight videos as “absolutely, over-the-top sensational.”
Playing multiple positions, Hornung said, requires several traits. Start with talent, of course, but also required are creativity and acceptance by coaches to maximize a player’s unique skills.
“Hopefully he’s smart enough to put you in the right spot,” he said.
Or spots. Technically, Peppers was listed at safety last season. But he also played cornerback, nickel corner, running back, wide receiver, quarterback in the wildcat formation, punt return and kick returner.
“Whatever is best for the team, that’s my approach to it,” Peppers said.
He put on a clinic in versatility against the Gophers on Halloween. Peppers was on the field for 92 plays — 92! — and made a game-changing impact in all three phases.
He scored a rushing touchdown. He had a long punt return and a long kickoff return. And he had two pass breakups and three tackles and nearly intercepted a Mitch Leidner pass.
Leidner said the Gophers’ game plan for Peppers on defense was straightforward.
“Basically, find Jabrill Peppers and throw it away from him,” he said, smiling.
Harbaugh’s reputation as an unconventional coach is on display in his handling of Peppers, who moved to roving linebacker this season but could appear at any position at any time.
“He can play just about anywhere on a football field and be effective,” Harbaugh said. “Offensively right now, [he] could probably be our slot receiver and would give all of our running backs a run for their money to be the best running back on the team. Could be a wildcat quarterback. Could be an outside receiver. He could explode into a giant of a man.”
USC coaches rave about Jackson in similar fashion. His primary position is cornerback — he’s an All-America candidate — but he also plays wide receiver and returns punts and kickoffs, the Trojans’ first three-way player in nearly 20 years.
He also is a two-time Pac-12 champion in the long jump, placing fifth at the NCAA outdoor championships.
“He’s Superman,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Obviously he’s one of the more special athletes in the country.”
Helton said Jackson primarily will play on defense this season and that his snaps at wide receiver will be minimal. For now.
“Is he electric with the ball in his hands? Yes, he is,” Helton said. “Is there a special play that can be designed offensively for him to help us put points on the board? Yes.”
Game-planning for those possibilities must be a nightmare for opposing coaches. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knew McCaffrey would present problems for his defense in the Rose Bowl, but simulating him in practice proved impossible.
“We don’t have anybody like that, and I mean that with all due respect to our players,” Ferentz said after the game. “He’s a rare talent.”
Physical talent alone isn’t enough. They also must be able to learn and process information quickly without becoming overloaded mentally by their different responsibilities.
Maryland coach DJ Durkin served as Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season. He marveled at Peppers’ ability to spend only a few minutes with the offense in practice yet still feel comfortable with his assignments.
“He could go rep something on offense once or twice in practice and then go do it in the game,” he said. “He’s just a dynamic guy.”
McCaffrey likewise seems to handle anything thrown his way. He had 437 touches as a sophomore when counting offense and special teams returns. No sweat, apparently.
“I definitely expect to do a lot more,” McCaffrey said.
“When you’ve got a great player,” Stanford’s Shaw said, “you have to challenge that great player. You have to push that great player because he’ll push the rest of the team. We’re going to put more on his shoulders because he can handle it.”
Can he kick field goals?