The talent at the tight end position across America was deeper in 2012 than in most years, with UCLA's Joseph Fauria, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert dominating the preseason hype, but no tight end was better than Stanford's Zach Ertz.
The John Mackey Award is usually given to the best tight end in America, but in a break with tradition the selection committee chose to give it to the second-best tight end, inexplicably choosing Eifert over Ertz. (Almost every All-America list got it right, though, choosing Ertz over Eifert.) Take a look at the numbers:
Ertz: 66 receptions, 837 yards, 6 TDs
Eifert: 44 receptions, 624 yards, 4 TDs
And how did they do when the competition was stiffest? Check out these splits against ranked teams:
But enough about the second-best tight end. Let's get back to Ertz. It was expected that the tight end position would be the focus of the passing game in 2012, just as it was last season, but the degree of Ertz's dominance came as something of a surprise. His 66 receptions and 837 yards almost doubled the next-best totals on the team, and just like Stepfan Taylor, Ertz saved his best for the biggest games. He had the game-winning fourth quarter touchdown in the victory over USC, came up with a career-high 134 yards in Big Game, had another fourth quarter game winner against Oregon State, and capped off an epic 11-catch, 106-yard game against Oregon with an acrobatic tying touchdown in the final minutes.
Kevin Hogan might have saved the season, but without Zach Ertz, it wouldn't have mattered. There would have been nothing left to save.
Ah, but they don't call Stanford Tight End U for nothing. There's more behind Ertz. At most schools -- probably about a hundred other schools -- Levine Toilolo would have been the featured tight end, but for the Cardinal he was only option number two. Even so, he still finished with 24 receptions for 393 yards and 4 touchdowns and developed into an effective run-blocking tight end. Toilolo's 6'8" frame offered an attractive target, and Stanford quarterbacks operated with the idea that if he had single coverage, he was open. Hogan exploited this advantage often, simply throwing the ball above Toilolo's head in a place where he could outleap his defender to make the grab.
Taken together, Ertz and Toilolo combined to make 90 receptions for 1,230 yards and 10 TDs. I don't have the time or connections to track this down for sure, but I can't imagine there's a team in the country that got that kind of production from its tight ends.
2012 Grade: A+
2013 Outlook: Unclear, but extremely positive
The outlook for 2013 remains hazy because it isn't yet clear who will be back. Ertz is an academic senior, and it's long been assumed that he'd leave with his diploma and live happily ever after in the NFL. He still has another year of eligibility remaining, however, and there have been rumors recently that he might return. He expects to make his decision about a week or so after the Rose Bowl. Toilolo is in the same position, but actually seems more likely to leave.
But even if both of those players leave, the cupboard isn't bare. Converted defensive end (and true freshman) Luke Kaumatule didn't record a catch this season, but still found his way onto the field. At 6'7", he seems poised to step into Toilolo's giant shoes and continue Stanford's rich tight end legacy. Looking even farther beyond that, the Cardinal already has two tight end prospects verbally committed for the recruiting Class of 2013 and are high on the list of a third. It's hard to imagine that Stanford will ever be lacking in this area. After all, this is Tight End U.