SAN FRANCISCO - The first time it happened in Saturday's scrimmage at Stanford, a murmur spread through the crowd. No. 26 caught the ball on a swing pass, gracefully danced a few steps, abruptly changed direction, slithered away from a prospective tackler and somehow found the space for a nice gain.
"That's Barry Sanders," one spectator said, in a knowing tone.
Oh, yes. That's definitely Barry Sanders.
Any football fan with a sense of history knows what the original Barry Sanders looked like in the open field -- quick, shifty, entertaining. His namesake son, a redshirt freshman for the Cardinal, flashed similarly dynamic skills during the one public practice of training camp.
Sanders later was told how some spectators reacted to his forays downfield, as if he shared more than a name with his Hall of Fame father.
"I'm not shy about saying I watched a lot of film of him," Sanders said. "I try to replicate the things he does because he was one of the best -- so why not try to replicate the best? For people to say I kind of look like him on the field, that's a great compliment."
The younger Sanders even looks like his dad off the field, from his short and solid frame (5-foot-10 and 192 pounds) to his wide smile. So it will be difficult to shed the comparisons as he embarks on his first season, potentially, in the college football spotlight.
Sanders spent all of his true freshman season on the sideline, mostly watching Stepfan Taylor plow ahead for yardage. This season, presumably, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney will get the bulk of the carries once reserved for Taylor.
Still, head coach David Shaw routinely goes out of his way to say Sanders, Ricky Seale and Remound Wright also will have a role. It requires no advanced football degree to picture Stanford's coaches trying to occasionally get Sanders the ball in space, as they did Saturday.
And if a few tacklers block his path, as they did in the scrimmage? Sanders might extend the family tradition of creating something out of nothing.
He seems perfectly comfortable in his own skin, completely at ease with his name and his dad's stature in the game. Stanford players call him Barry J, because his middle name is James (he's technically not Barry Jr.).
"I don't remember not being comfortable with my name," Sanders said. "It's something I've always lived with, and I think I've done a great job handling it. I'm going to have to live with it the rest of my life, so it's still early."
He chuckled as he completed the thought. Sanders was a four-star recruit from Heritage Hall School in Oklahoma City, named the nation's second-best running back by PrepStar. He chose Stanford over his father's alma mater, Oklahoma State, where it would have been harder to blend into the crowd. At this rate, Sanders eventually could stand out in the logjam of Cardinal running backs -- for his skills more than his surname.
"He's lived with the comparison, and it rolls off his back," Shaw said. "He wants to be his own guy and wear his own number. He wants to be himself, and I think he's as mature and comfortable as anyone who's been with a relative of that fame and success. He's been great.
"The biggest thing for him is, he wants to learn and grow. He knows he's not at the finish line yet. So many guys with his talent and background think, 'I need to come in and be the starter.' He knows it's a progression. He also knows he's earned the right to play. He's going to play."
Sanders' dad, for the record, wore No. 21 at Oklahoma State and No. 20 during his long career with the Detroit Lions. The younger Sanders chose No. 26 in high school and still wears the number.
His play, not his name, demanded his coaches' attention in Saturday's scrimmage.
"He definitely does stuff naturally well with the ball," running backs coach Tavita Pritchard said. "He has a lot of talent, but he's still growing up and still coming along, being his own person."
(Contact Ron Kroichick at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ronkroichick.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)
Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.