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Young tight ends look to expand role in offense

For a college football team tied with UCLA and Wisconsin for the most tight ends currently on NFL rosters with four, Stanford football utilized its historically talented position very little last season. Stanford’s tight ends made just 10 catches for 69 yards in 2013, and multiple-tight end sets appeared on the field much less often than in previous years — when Zach Ertz ‘13, Coby Fleener ‘12 and Levine Toilolo ‘13 manned the position.

(SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

Freshman tight end Austin Hooper (above) redshirted this year but will look to have an expanded role in a return to relevance for the tight end position in Stanford’s offense. (SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

In 2014, expect that to change.

After redshirting their first year on the farm, freshmen Austin Hooper, Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton join a group with junior Charlie Hopkins, senior Eddie Plantaric and sophomore Alex Frkovic, among others, that hopes to earn playing time and replicate the production of some of its Stanford tight end predecessors.

“We obviously lost a lot of guys the year before with Zach and Levine,” Hooper said. “All the freshmen were just trying to learn the offense. When you have as many talented receivers as we had, it was tough to say that we needed three-tight end sets…Now, with this position group, we have more experience overall so hopefully we can see more tight ends in the game this season.”

Stanford’s classic three-tight end set was not used often last season, in favor of the jumbo formation when offensive linemen, like sophomores Josh Garnett and Kyle Murphy, lined up as tight ends. While bringing extra offensive linemen on the field has been a favored maneuver of the Cardinal, tight ends rarely saw the field in that formation or in any other formation, with linemen assuming the jumbo tight end roles and wide receivers serving as the foundation of the passing game.  However, the addition of the three talented tight ends coming off of their redshirt seasons may signal a return to frequent action for the position.

“You see that advantage that we had before — with all those guys that were here — you see that advantage coming back,” said head coach David Shaw. “We’re not just going to put three guys out there if they can’t do what we need them to do. We have guys that can beat man coverage. Those three athletic tight ends can actually beat man coverage and we’re excited about that.”

Athleticism has clearly returned to the position with the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Cotton, 6-foot-5, 231-pound Taboada and 6-foot-4, 254-pound Hooper looking to assume major roles. Yet, the three young tight ends have impressed on the field this spring not only with their physical prowess, but also with their mental development.

“As a whole, we’re doing a really good job learning the plays,” Taboada said. “It’s getting more gradual and we’re not going in the huddle freaking out as much so we can actually just play and not be thinking all the time.”

The tight ends may be the last piece of what could be a dominant aerial attack this season for the Cardinal. Shaw raved about the depth of the wide receivers at many of this spring’s practices. A tight end that can boost the intermediate passing game, or even several tight ends that can contribute in this regard, would give the Cardinal an unprecedented wealth in the passing game. Although playing time is up for grabs, the tight ends know that snaps will not be given to them simply because of the void at the position.

“We’re just getting opportunities,” Hooper said. “If we execute, we get to run it again. If not, we got to keep it rolling. It’s just understanding the plays and executing to perfection.”

“You just realize you’re not the scout team anymore,” added Taboada on his increased practice reps at tight end. “You’re not just hitting dummies. You’re trying to prove that you can do some stuff and that you can play on Saturdays.”

Once summer practices begin, four-star recruit and incoming freshman Dalton Schultz — the nation’s top high school tight end — will arrive and reinforce the position as well. Even though most Stanford freshmen tend to take a year to add strength and learn the playbook before stepping on the field, Schultz figures to at least challenge for snaps at tight end this summer.

“I’m excited for him to get here,” Shaw said. “He loves football, he loves it here and he’s excited about being here. We’ll see if he plays into a role early or if, like most guys, he takes a year to get strong and get ready for college football.”

Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters@stanford.edu.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is the football editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.