Return of the tight end bolsters Stanford offense

Stanford believes it has the kind of tight end talent it has been missing since Zach Ertz departed. Icon SMI

In this spread-happy age of Pac-12 football, Stanford has made much of its living being different.

Nowhere has the Cardinal's singularity been more pronounced than in their extensive use of the tight end position. When it comes to comparative advantages, Stanford's reliance on that group has made sense: It's not easy for the league's perimeter-oriented defenses to match up with multiple 6-foot-5, 250-pound specimens, especially when those hulks can either road grade for the run game or sprint out for a pass on any given play.

Former USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin explained it best back in 2011: "[Stanford's tight ends] look like offensive tackles. And then all of a sudden, you see [one of them] streaking down the field and he runs a 4.5 40."

Cardinal safety Dallas Lloyd must cover the team's tight ends in practice every day, and he confirms it's easy to be flummoxed by the position's versatility.

"Run and pass look exactly the same," he said. "You can't tell which is coming. You have to be obsessed with details just to be in position to defend [them]."

In the past, especially when Andrew Luck commanded the Stanford offense, the Cardinal's tight ends took advantage of that, catching opponents out of the correct spot on a regular basis.

But Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, and Konrad Reuland -- the giants who comprised the position group in those days -- were all in the NFL after the 2012 season was done, and Stanford's offense staggered as a result. Tight ends combined for only 10 catches in 2013, and a freshman replacement crop didn't establish consistent rapport with quarterback Kevin Hogan until late in 2014 -- long after the Cardinal's offensive cohesion and red-zone efficiency had taken a drastic dive.

It appears Stanford's dearth of tight end production, though, was merely temporary. The position unit looks primed to return in force this season. Austin Hooper brings back 40 catches and 499 yards, while Dalton Schultz -- the nation's top-ranked tight end recruit from 2014 -- is ready for big playing time following a redshirt season.

"I love our tight end group," coach David Shaw said. "[Schultz] and Hooper are a phenomenal 1-2 punch ... I like the versatility, size, and athleticism. It's going to be fun to watch these guys grow together."

Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton also scream "mismatch" at the position -- and they are versatile enough to line up at fullback when needed -- so it has actually looking more like a 1-2-3-4 punch for Stanford. Hogan even envisions plays with all four on the field at once.

One can bet he grins at that chance to baffle defenses.

"If a defense lines up with big bodies, we can split [the tight ends] out," Hogan said. "If they line up with little bodies, we can run the ball. I’m really excited to see what those kinds of packages look like."

Schultz's debut generates the most anticipation. He speaks of emulating Ertz, one of his idols during the recruiting process: "The way he comes out of breaks is just insane."

The freshman, who cut his body fat from 18 to 11 percent over the past redshirt year, flashed newfound explosion on several catches during Saturday's open scrimmage.

"[Schultz] can run routes at a high level and still be a force in the run game," Hooper said.

That is precisely the adaptability that has made the Stanford tight end position click -- all the way from the recruiting trail to its comparative advantage against Pac-12 defenses that specialize in combating purely athleticism, not a combination of bruising size and deft hands.

"Our style gives everyone in the tight end room a lot of pride," Hooper said. "We feel we can still be legitimate football players. We are hard-nosed and not afraid of contact, but we can still play the small man's game."

For more than a year, the Cardinal couldn't boast about that type of versatility. Now, though, Stanford is eager to prove the unique tight end combination is back in its arsenal: Too fast to be covered by a linebacker, too big to be contained by a defensive back, and too strong for the defense to forget about the run.

If Stanford's reintroduction of the tight end succeeds, it'll bring a true sense of deja vu to the Farm.

"Only a couple programs in the conference even use a single tight end," Hooper said. "Here, we use four."

In that regard, it's beginning to sound like it's 2011 all over again.