Toby Gerhart was used to being a workhorse running back from his days as a college star at Stanford.
He wasn't playing behind Adrian Peterson then.
With Peterson starting for the Minnesota Vikings, it's been a quiet two seasons for Gerhart in the NFL. But Peterson suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago, moving Gerhart into a more featured role.
Gerhart had just 24 carries in his first 10 games of the season. But he started last weekend against the Falcons and had 17 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown.
When he woke up on Monday morning, he felt a little sorer than he's used to feeling after a game day. He had a few more bumps and bruises, but it was a good kind of hurt.
"It felt OK," Gerhart said with a shrug and a grin. "Some bumps and bruises, a little sore. But that's expected after playing a full NFL game."
For the first time all season, and really only the third time in his two-year career, the former Heisman Trophy finalist got the kind of workload he had in college. His production in the loss to the Falcons may have been on the modest side, but it was a welcome change from the one- and two-carry days he had seen in most games.
Gerhart set the Stanford school record for career attempts with 671 carries in just over three seasons and also has the school record with 44 rushing touchdowns.
But he's spent the vast majority of his NFL career backing up Peterson, who is widely viewed as the best running back in the game. Peterson is such a focal point of the Vikings offense that coaches have been reluctant to pull him off the field. And when they do, the carries are just as likely to go to versatile receiver Percy Harvin.
The durable Peterson sustained the ankle sprain two weeks ago against Oakland and missed the Falcons game, putting Gerhart into the starting role. He had 22 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown in a win at Washington last year and 16 carries for 77 yards in a loss to Chicago, both when Peterson was out with injuries.
Peterson has not practiced this week leading into the game Sunday against Denver, so Gerhart is gearing up for more action.
"I try to prepare every week like I am the guy," he said. "Go out there and get ready. I don't know what Adrian's status is. Until he's back out there running on the field with us, I'll be preparing like I'll be the guy."
Peterson said Thursday his ankle is still sore, but he wasn't giving up on playing against the Broncos.
"I can sit here and say that each day I'm improving," Peterson said. "The soreness is kind of winding down. I'm getting more movement. I actually ran on it (Wednesday). It felt pretty good. Not 100 percent, but some steps forward from last week."
Gerhart has never complained about his lack of touches. He knows where he stands in the hierarchy and doesn't blame the coaches for wanting to use Peterson as much as possible. Despite their different running styles—with Peterson more dynamic and Gerhart the full-steam-ahead rusher—coach Leslie Frazier said the game plan did not change much with Gerhart in the backfield.
"Toby's more of a downfield runner," Frazier said. "You're not really going to get the 60-yard flash play that you might get from Adrian from time to time. But he's pretty steady. He's going to get you 2, 3 yards and sometimes a 10- or 12-yard run. We didn't change a whole lot of things with Toby being our starter."
Unfortunately for the Vikings, Gerhart wasn't able to get them the one yard they really needed as they mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter. Down 24-14, the Vikings faced fourth-and-goal from the 1, but Gerhart was swarmed in the backfield and never really given much of a chance to get to the goal line.
"There's a couple plays I could've done a little better, but for the most part I felt OK," Gerhart said. "Wish I would've had a few more impactful plays to help us get a win. That's the most important thing. If you don't get a win, you could always play better."
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