The biggest loss to the Stanford passing game in 2011, aside from the obvious one, was Coby Fleener. An absolute freak of nature, Fleener had the size of a tight end combined with the speed of an elite wide receiver, making him essentially uncoverable. The only thing that stopped him from running away with the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end was the fact that he shared the position at Stanford with two other NFL-ready tight ends, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
I can't imagine that a college team has ever had a tight end rotation like that, and the three were so good that Stanford ran a variety of different three tight end sets in their offense. I was never quite sure if these formations were incorporated because of Shaw's offensive philosophy or if it was due to an understanding that these were the three most talented receivers on the roster, wide receivers included. Before last season he explained how he balanced that trio with a statement that also gives some insight into what we can expect this year:
I challenge all of them. I challenge them to be the best tight end group in the nation... What I love to do with these guys is not just to challenge them individually, but to challenge them collectively, not just as a team but as individual groups. It gets them to focus specifically on their roles within the group. What I don't need is each tight end trying to be the best tight end and trying to outshine the other guys. I don't need that. Stanford Football doesn't need that. Stanford Football needs those guys working in concert and taking what the defense give us.
This year juniors Ertz and Toilolo return, and the two of them will undoubtedly form the most formidable tight end duo in the NCAA. Toilolo has been named to the Mackey pre-season watch list, and a phone call from head coach David Shaw confirmed that Ertz's conspicuous omission from the originial list was just an oversight; apparently the watchers are watching him, too.
Like Batman and Robin, this Dynamic Duo compliment each other well. Ertz is more of a typical tight end. Even though he missed four games and was limited in a fifth due to injury, Ertz still managed to finish with 27 receptions for 346 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. That 12.8 yards per catch average reflects his typical use as a third-down conversion target, but he also saw action in the red zone, as evidenced by a school-record six-game touchdown scoring streak that spanned the last three games of 2010 and the first three of '11.
Toilolo's numbers last year were almost identical to Ertz's: 25 for 343, but he was even more of a red zone weapon, thanks to his jumping ability and 6'8" frame. He scored six touchdowns last season, and at least five of them were jump balls caught against hopelessly overmatched cornerbacks who often gave up anywhere from six inches to a foot to Toilolo.
This is his third year in the program (he missed his freshman year with a knee injury suffered on the second play of the 2010 season), but Shaw said recently that he still hasn't gotten used to seeing someone so big who can run so fast. That was part of the disconnect with Fleener, so I think we can expect to see Toilolo used downfield a bit more, as Fleener was, which should translate into a big year.
There's been no definitive word yet on who the third tight end will be, though Shaw has indicated he'd still like to use some of those three tight end formations. None of the top three candidates for that third spot have caught a ball in their Stanford careers, but all three present interesting options. Sophomore Davis Dudchock signed with Stanford as a three-star prospect and the 17th-ranked tight end recruit in the nation, so this would seem like the time he'd emerge as a legitimate player.
Senior Jemari Roberts entered as a four-star wide receiver, but hasn't lived up to that potential and hasn't yet seen the field for an offensive snap. I'm guessing that his lack of experience as a blocking tight end could limit him, but his pass catching skills could also separate him from the other two. (Full disclosure: his father is a friend of mine, so I'm definitely pulling for him. Pulling hard.)
By far the most intriguing prospect is Luke Kaumatule, a 6'7" true freshman from President Obama's alma mater, the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawai'i. Loyal readers will remember that Kaumatule was orginally signed as a defensive end, but his size and athleticism led coaches to move him to the other side of the ball almost immediately. He played some tight end in high school, and even though it would be stunning to see a converted true freshman on the field at tight end, I wouldn't rule it out.
Regardless of which of those three joins Ertz and Toilolo as the third tight end, this position group will go a long ways in determining the success of this offense, and not just because tight ends have been featured over the past three seasons. There is a maxim in the NFL that a young quarterback's best friend is an experienced tight end, and such will be the case at Stanford. As Josh Nunes adjusts to the demands of playing quarterback in the Pac-12, he'll often find his wide receivers covered and his protection disintegrating. In those moments, he'll look to his tight end.
[Photo Credit: John Todd/StanfordPhoto.com]