As the Chargers secondary coach in 1999-2000, Oregon State defensive coordinator Mark Banker got to know then-San Diego quarterback Jim Harbaugh, occasionally over a pregame ritual they shared.
“There were several games when I served as his official ball-catcher to warm up his aging arm,” Banker said with a laugh. “Nobody wanted to come out that early and play catch with him for 30 minutes. It was pretty neat. It was a pretty awesome experience for me.”
Banker clearly held Harbaugh in high regard. And his opinion hasn’t changed after matching wits against his old friend as Oregon State’s defensive coordinator while Harbaugh led Stanford the past four seasons.
Banker, who served for one year as the Chargers defensive coordinator, described Stanford under Harbaugh as a smash-mouth running team with a sophisticated NFL passing attack that made effective use of its tight ends. In Banker’s estimation, the core principles of Stanford’s offense will easily transfer to the NFL and he expects the 49ers’ attack to mirror the Cardinal’s in many ways.
If so, that’s welcome news for power running backs Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon and field-stretching tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
“Jim was very, very dedicated to establishing a run game No. 1,” Banker said. “They weren’t a lot of run plays, but the run plays that they ran they were committed to and they did a great job with them. There was a lot of use of his tight ends and unbalanced lines … He’s going to come after you with that run game and it’s the same run play over and over and over again. Maybe he’ll use some different formations, utilizing those tight ends, and getting imbalanced just to give you some problems in numbers up front.”
Last year, Stanford’s 209-pound running back Stepfan Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards, averaged 5.1 yards a carry and scored 15 touchdowns. The Cardinal’s backfield also featured two more big-bodied running backs in 220-pound Anthony Wilkerson (408 yards, 3 TDs) and 216-pound Tyler Gaffney (255, 4). At fullback was 244-pound Owen Marecic (5 TDs).
In the passing game, tight ends Coby Fleener, Konrad Reuland and Zach Ertz combined for 65 catches for 833 yards and caught 13 of quarterback Andrew Luck’s 32 touchdown passes.
Banker said Harbaugh didn’t try much trickery. Instead, the use of multiple formations, coupled with a variety of personnel packages, helped Stanford create match-up problems and kept defenses off-balance.
“They were very dedicated to utilizing the run game to set up the pass game,” Banker said. “Off the run game, they were one of the few teams left in the Pac-10 that ran true play-action passes that mirrored the run. And when the time called for it, there was the drop-back passing game, with a lot of different formations and motions that created a very sound and sophisticated drop-back passing attack.”
Banker said he couldn’t speak to the influence of the West Coast Offense on Stanford’s attack. For his part, Harbaugh obviously hasn’t detailed the particulars of his plans for the 49ers’ offense, but it’s clear he’s inherited similar personnel.
“There are no absolutes of how (the offense) has to look, what it’s going to look like,” Harbaugh said. “But there are things we believe in and we’re going to try to get done.”