Any discussion of 2013 recruits comes with the understanding that even those players who have committed to the Cardinal could change their minds or fail to gain admission to the University. Nothing is official until national signing day on February 6, 2013, so recruiting news should be read through that filter. It's an inexact science, but it's simply too much fun to ignore.
For the past two years Stanford's on-field success has translated directly to success on the recruiting trail. Andrew Luck was the best quarterback in the country, so the top high school signal callers (including Ryan Burns) were suddenly interested in booking passage to Palo Alto. The offensive line has been one of the strongest units in the college game, so it was no surprise when the coaching staff signed what is perhaps the best group of offensive line recruits in history. Linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas have been the heart and soul of a resurgent Stanford defense, and their success is no doubt responsible for attracting star prospects like Noor Davis, Issac Savai'inaea, and Peter Kalambayi.
The one area of disconnect has been the tight end position. While Konrad Reuland, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo have run roughshod through Pac-10/12 defenses, that success has not yielded any blue-chip tight ends in any of the recent highly-ranked recruiting classes.
Some Stanford fans who follow such things have been wringing their hands about this for more than a year, but we finally have an answer. Kind of.
On Monday afternoon tight end Eric Cotton of Nampa High School in Nampa, Idaho, announced his verbal commitment to the Cardinal after receiving a scholarship offer based on his performance at last week's Stanford summer camp.
Physically, Cotton fits right in with the tight ends we're used to seeing wearing the Cardinal and White. He's 6'6" and 230 pounds, but somehow he's flown under the radar a bit. How far under the radar? Neither Rivals nor Scout has given him a ranking yet, and there is no mention of him at all at 247Sports. His offer list is comparatively unimpressive: Air Force, Army, Harvard, Idaho, Missouri, and Washington State.
But according to Andy Drukarev of the Cardinal Sports Report, Cotton arrived at camp last week intent on impressing the Stanford coaching staff, and he accomplished that goal. (Here's the link to Drukarev's full piece, but it's behind CSR's paywall.)
Keeping all this in mind, I believe Eric Cotton represents something of a test case for the current coaching staff. Aside from Andrew Luck and a few others, the Stanford players that helped shock the world under Jim Harbaugh and continued to dominate last season were largely under-recruited players who exceeded the expectations of the scouting services and other coaches who overlooked them. The idea was that the coaching staff could identify those players whose intelligence, character, and work ethic would allow them to beat more talented players on the opposite side of the line.
Things have now obviously changed. Four- and five-star players are expressing interest in the Cardinal, and for the past three years the group of recruits arriving on campus at the end of June has been vastly more talented than the group of seniors who had departed only weeks before.
No one will be surprised when Andrus Peat or Aziz Shittu or Barry J. Sanders earns All-Pac-12 honors. In those cases, talent should win out. But the difference between good teams and great ones -- even in places like Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge -- lies in a coaching staff's ability to identify and develop talent that other staffs might miss. The ability to take a player like Eric Cotton and turn him into Zach Ertz.
Cotton, then, is something of a canary in coalmine, but in reverse. Instead of listening for his song to stop, you'll have to wait through a year or two of silence before he begins to sing. If you hear him two or three years from now, you'll know that this class -- and this staff -- is just fine.