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PALO ALTO, Calif. – If you've seen Toby Gerhart carry the football, you're well aware that the former Stanford halfback and Heisman Trophy runner-up is about as subtle as Iron Man. It's no surprise, then, that as the NFL draft approaches, the player one AFC front-office executive described as "a bowling ball with butter knives" is hell-bent on obliterating the perception that he lacks the athleticism to succeed in the pros.
"I'm just a running back who tries to do what he can to win games and score touchdowns, but people have their opinions, and it's kind of frustrating," Gerhart said earlier this month between bites of pizza. "People say, 'He's slow,' or 'He's not going to be able to break tackles at the next level.' In college I went up against players like [USC's] Brian Cushing(notes) and Clay Matthews(notes) – guys who ended up making the Pro Bowl [as NFL rookies] – and I ran through their tackles. It's too bad people look at you all weird because of a stereotype."
When NFL scouts look at Gerhart, they see a 6-foot, 231-pound power back who ran for 1,871 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, getting edged out by Alabama's Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman vote in history. When they look at Gerhart's numbers from the NFL scouting combine, they see that he ran a 4.50-second 40-yard dash and registered a 38-inch vertical leap, both impressive numbers for a player his size.
Yet they also see a white guy trying to make it in the league as a feature back, something that has become increasingly rare in this era. Peyton Hillis(notes), now with the Cleveland Browns, led the Denver Broncos in rushing yards in 2008, but was limited to just 54 last season in part because of 2009 draft pick Knowshon Moreno's(notes) addition.
Race shouldn't be an issue, of course, but Gerhart can't help but believe that it has colored the opinions of at least some potential employers.
"One team I interviewed with asked me about being a white running back," Gerhart says. "They asked if it made me feel entitled, or like I felt I was a poster child for white running backs. I said, 'No, I'm just out there playing ball. I don't think about that.' I didn't really know what to say."
One longtime NFL scout insisted that Gerhart's skin color will likely prevent the Pac-10's offensive player of the year from being drafted in Thursday's first round.
"He'll be a great second-round pickup for somebody, but I guarantee you if he was the exact same guy – but he was black – he'd go in the first round for sure," the scout said. "You could make a case that he's a Steven Jackson-type – doesn't have blazing speed but he's strong and powerful and versatile."
Gerhart isn't used to such comparisons. He's typically cast as the next John Riggins or Mike Alstott(notes) or, less flatteringly, as an updated version of another former Stanford star, Tommy Vardell, who had an unremarkable NFL career after being picked ninth overall in the 1992 draft.
It's possible, of course, that Gerhart is overestimating his own abilities – if so, he certainly wouldn't be the first player to do so publicly in the weeks leading up to the draft.
I've spoken with numerous NFL talent evaluators about Gerhart over the past few months, and there are plenty of skeptics who don't seem to be locked into mindless stereotypes.
"I don't like him," one NFC general manager told me at the combine. "If he's your No. 1 back, he's going to get killed by the end of the season, because he takes too many hits. And he has no special teams value. To me, what you see is what you get. He's pretty good at everything, but he doesn't do anything that's special at our level."
Said an AFC front-office executive: "This guy runs exactly the way the hole is blocked and gets exactly what you think he's going to get – maybe a little more because he runs so hard, but nothing more explosive than that. He runs so upright, he's going to get lit up."'
"There's no reason I shouldn't really like him, but I just don't," added another AFC personnel executive. "He's not really shifty, but he gets yards. He's fast, but it's a long speed, and not really a quick speed. You want me to compare him to a black guy? How about T.J. Duckett(notes)? There's a big, fast guy who hasn't been productive in the NFL."
Yet others believe Gerhart's exceptional production at Stanford, a program that was struggling mightily upon his arrival, is indicative of his immense pro potential.
"I love the guy," says former Cardinals, Rams and 49ers scout David Razzano, who is based on the West Coast and attended several of Gerhart's games over the past two seasons. "You've got to see him live to appreciate him. He's not just a plodder. He's deceptively fast, elusive, has quick feet and has great vision at the line of scrimmage. And he's great in the red zone.
"He's a bell-cow back. If there's nothing there, he'll get four yards. He was productive in high school and in college, and guys like that don't change – he'll be productive in the NFL."
Gerhart ran for 178 yards and 3 TDs against USC last season.
(Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire)
Gerhart, who was flown in for pre-draft visits by the Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Browns and San Diego Chargers, says he'd consider playing fullback in the pros "if that's what it takes to get on the field." But he bristles at the notion that it might even be a consideration. "Prior to the combine, all I heard was, 'He's gonna run in the 4.7s,' " Gerhart says. "I read this blog that said, 'Why was Toby the only running back who had to run under 4.6 to not be classified as a fullback?' Fifteen other guys ran in the 4.6s at the combine, and nothing was said about them [playing fullback]."
Plenty of Pac-10 defenders wish Gerhart had been typecast as a fullback during his collegiate career – or that the former Cardinal baseball star had chosen to focus on that sport. Certainly, no one at USC was devastated that Gerhart decided not to return for a fourth college season after his epic performance in Stanford's stunning, 55-21 victory over the Trojans in Los Angeles last November, the high point of an 8-5 season that ended with a narrow Sun Bowl defeat to Oklahoma.
"That's by far my favorite victory," Gerhart says of the USC game. "We were up big at the end and hitting 'em in the mouth – we ran 15 of the last 18 plays from the exact same formation, where we'd motion the tight end one way or the other and I'd run to that side. At one point one of their linebackers yelled, 'If you guys run 'Power' one more time I'm walking off the field.' It was classic."
Oh, and here's some background information of which NFL teams might want to take note: Pete Carroll, USC's coach at the time, had tried to recruit Gerhart out of high school – as a fullback.
In other words, underestimate him at your own peril, and brace yourself for maximum impact.