Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Christian McCaffrey knew they were on the verge of something special.
After outstanding spring and fall practices, the Stanford running backs were excited to put their hard offseason work to the test and rejuvenate a ground-and-pound attack that helped carry the Cardinal year after year -- and into this Friday's 102nd Rose Bowl Game against Iowa. Coverage begins at 1:30 p.m., on ESPN.
The trio possess power, speed, patience and toughness. They can hurt defenses inside and out, are seldom brought down by the first tackler, have good instincts and aren't afraid to block. Operating behind a powerful and punishing offensive line, they have helped Stanford re-establish itself as one of the top ball-control offenses in the country.
"We feed off each other," said McCaffrey, a sophomore from Castle Rock, Colo. "We compete every single day, but we're also tight-knit and that's something that we really emphasize in the running back room. We're one big family and we want to keep it that way."
Sanders, a senior from Oklahoma City, has come into his own in 2015. He ran for a career-high 97 yards against Oregon State, and reeled off 65-yard scoring runs in consecutive games against Oregon State and Arizona.
Wright does the dirty work, excelling in short-yardage and goal-line situations. A fifth-year senior from Fort Wayne, Ind., the 5-foot-9 Wright has a knack for finding a crease and isn't afraid to bounce outside or leap over a pile of players.
"The biggest thing I was encouraged about was they played hard and competed," running backs coach Lance Taylor said prior to the season. "But they also played together and cheered for each other every time somebody made a play. They played together as a group not as individuals."
That's because they genuinely like each other and want each other to succeed.
"We all get excited when someone makes a play," Sanders said. "That adds extra incentive to get in on the playmaking. It adds competition, but it's all to make the team better."
Wright insisted this is the tightest group of running backs he has played with since coming to Stanford.
"We interact and joke around with each other," he said. "We have a group text that we send to each other. The guys stay after practice and play slap ball, like fake baseball. We get along really well and I think that translates to playing well on the field."
All three are quick to credit teammates for their success.
"I think our offensive line has some of the best players in the world," said McCaffrey, whose father, Ed, was a consensus All-America wide receiver at Stanford and played in the NFL for 13 seasons. "I really love running behind them. To see how they work and open up holes for me is something special. When you've got guys blocking for you at the line, receivers and tight ends blocking for you downfield, it makes running the football a lot of fun."
At Valor Christian High, McCaffrey was a two-time Colorado player of the year and set state records for career points (848), touchdowns (141) and all-purpose yards (8,845) while leading his team to four state titles. Last season, he offered a glimpse of his potential on The Farm by producing 796 all-purpose yards.
Bigger and stronger through strenuous off-season conditioning, McCaffrey has established himself as one of the most complete backs in college football in 2015 as he was named The Associated Press College Football Player of the Year and runner-up in for the Heisman Trophy.
"We knew pretty early on that he was going to help our football team," Taylor said. "He gave us an added dimension. Every time we gave him something, he did a great job so we gave him more. The sky is the limit for Christian. He studies, he works hard, he's a great teammate and a great leader. That's what makes him special."
Sanders, whose father Barry won the 1988 Heisman Trophy and is considered one of the best running backs in NFL history, has patiently waited his turn to make an impact. At Heritage Hall High, he ran for a school-record 5,037 career yards and 70 touchdowns while leading his team to two state titles.
Last season, Sanders rushed for 315 yards on 59 carries (5.3 average), and has since improved his game in every aspect.
"I can't control how much playing time I have," he said. "All I can do is try and go out there and make plays when my number is called."
Wright left Bishop Dwenger High as the all-time leader in rushing yards (4,730), touchdowns (85) and points (250). A two-time all-state selection, he ran for 2,100 yards and 34 scores as a senior.
He was a workhorse for Stanford last year, but has now settled into his role as a dynamic inside runner.
"I never ran in short-yardage situations until I got here," said Wright, whose father, Remound, played football at Western Michigan. "I remember my freshman year, the 2's against the 1's and I'm looking across the line at Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Henry Anderson and David Parry, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh.' The only choice was to run and run hard, and go for the first peak of daylight."
It changed his football life. All four defenders now play in the NFL.
"I scored on one and slid right underneath Shayne," he said. "Ever since then, I've had all the confidence because nothing is as intimidating as playing against those guys."