Not that he really needs one as he heads for fame and fortune in the NFL, but I owe Zach Ertz a bit of an apology.
Last May, I wrote that a tight end would be Stanford football’s next breakout player — but I chose Levine Toilolo over his fellow senior Ertz. I argued that the 6-foot-8-inch Toilolo’s height would make him an ideal target for whatever inaccurate quarterback replaced Andrew Luck, while Ertz would continue to thrive on underneath slant routes as an occasional contributor like he had in 2011.
Yet Ertz was a changed man this fall. His production nearly tripled, from 27 catches and 346 yards to 69 catches and 898 yards, and he nabbed at least as many receptions as Toilolo (just 24 catches and 393 yards) in 13 of Stanford’s 14 games. Ertz had multiple catches 13 times and caught at least one pass in each and every game; Toilolo had multiple catches six times and was completely silent on three occasions.
Unless you believe (as I do) that my erroneous prediction lit a fire under Ertz and singlehandedly led to his spectacular season, it’s worth exploring why he was so much more successful than Toilolo in 2012.
Those skills were showcased in last week’s Rose Bowl. Late in the first quarter, he blew by Wisconsin defenders out of a run formation for a 43-yard, leaping grab to set up Stanford’s second touchdown, but arguably more impressive were his other two catches of the afternoon. He used the same spin move on both — the first one from the right side of the formation, the second one from the left — freezing the Badger secondary for mirror-image, nine-yard gains. Both came during Cardinal scoring drives.
Ertz’s elusiveness also paid dividends when Josh Nunes and Kevin Hogan were under pressure. Take his best game of the season, an 11-catch, 106-yard performance in Stanford’s upset at No. 2 Oregon. About half of Ertz’s receptions came when Hogan had time and found him open at the end of a route, but what about when the Ducks got into the backfield? Twice Ertz escaped a block and became an easy safety valve for his quarterback; three times he abandoned his route and came back to the ball for a downfield catch.
Toilolo also saved some broken plays in Eugene, but in general he had a harder time getting open than his counterpart. Though two of his three games without receptions were against top-tier pass defenses in Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Toilolo managed one fewer catch this season than in 2011 while playing in one more game and with one of the best college tight ends in recent memory, Coby Fleener, off to the NFL and no longer hogging receptions.
When Toilolo did get open he was plagued by dropped passes. And even for all his jump-ball catches in the endzone, I can’t help but think that Toilolo’s height was more of a distraction than an asset at times this season. Nunes was guilty of both overthrows and underthrows on the jump ball — most notably, the interception that effectively ended Stanford’s upset loss to Washington.
As recently as the Rose Bowl, Hogan missed Toilolo high in the endzone With Stanford up 17-14 with four minutes to play, Toilolo broke free of his defender on third and four from the Wisconsin five-yard line. Despite 80 inches of open space between Toilolo’s feet and his head, Hogan unnecessarily threw high and Toilolo’s jump was late, leaving the door open for one last Badger drive.
Though that incompletion was a result of either poor mechanics or decision-making from Hogan, it’s clear that Toilolo’s height wasn’t as much of a safety net for Stanford’s journeyman quarterbacks as expected.
Even with many analysts claiming that Toilolo is not NFL-ready after his poor showing this season, it makes some sense that he will look to prove himself in the pros instead of on the Farm next year. Maybe a seasoned quarterback will be better able to exploit Toilolo’s physical gifts than Stanford’s skilled but still inexperienced passers.
In any case, we’ll always remember 2012 as the year of No. 86, not No. 11 like I had expected. Being wrong Ertz so good.
Joseph Beyda is sad to see Ertz go, particularly because he had hoped the former Monte Vista basketball star might lend Johnny Dawkins and the Card a hand on the court. Send your consolations to jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.