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Beyda: Tight end Levine Toilolo may be the next breakout player

As the spring sport season winds down, it’s time for the sports sides of our brains to start drifting back to their cherished equilibrium: college football.

So with midterms and no Sharks hockey to distract me (five more months and counting…) I found myself sifting through YouTube for the last few years of Cardinal football highlights.

Let me rephrase that—I found myself sifting through YouTube for the last few years of Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck highlights.

Ask me about Stanford football and I’ll tell you as quickly as anyone that the Cardinal wasn’t just a one-man team over the last few years. Without a solid offensive line and dominant fullbacks, Stanford wouldn’t have made it to two straight BCS bowls and probably would have been left out of the 2008 postseason as well. Without consistent play from one of the nation’s best front sevens, the Orange Bowl would have been much more competitive, and USC would have clobbered the Cardinal each of the last two years.

But still, highlights are highlights, and we all like to gravitate towards the big-play guy who is going to inspire rampant jersey sales, catchy slogans, widespread punning, inadvertent Twitter campaigns, etc. And folks, it just isn’t Toby Time anymore. We’re out of Luck. “Heisman” is officially Old English.

It’s highly doubtful that anyone on the Cardinal roster will fully fill that void in 2012. But who is going to be the breakout player that captures our hearts for the time being?

The easy choice is senior-to-be Stepfan Taylor, who has somewhat quietly rushed for 2,770 yards over the past three seasons, spending one year behind Gerhart and the other two as a member of a running-back-by-committee. Despite the early-round departures of stud O-linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, the combination of Taylor and junior fullback Ryan Hewitt will be fun to watch now that the latter has a year of starting experience under his belt.

Another guy that people will be very interested in is receiver Ty Montgomery, who quickly made himself useful during his freshman season when Stanford was ailing out wide. His speed just might bring us back to the days when Chris Owusu was returning kicks like nobody’s business, and for a team that will be short on experience at receiver again he should see a lot of playing time this season.

Some folks might go all SEC on you (defensive players are people, too) and call on senior linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas as players to watch. It’s pretty safe to say that those guys will be the first two Cardinal players off the board in next year’s draft (no, the draft talk didn’t leave with Luck). But this is Quarterback U, and even though we might not have a quarterback as our star, we should probably stick to the offensive side of the ball.

The guy I’m looking at as next year’s breakout player is none of the above, though. Instead, I’m picking tight end Levine Toilolo. He’ll be a senior next year but has just one year of playing experience, having redshirted in 2009 and then missed practically all of the 2010 season after injuring his knee on the Cardinal’s second play from scrimmage.

How did that one year go? As the second tight end on the depth chart he only caught six touchdowns, the second-best total on the team.

The only player who did better was fellow tight end Coby Fleener, who has now set sail for bluer, horseshoe-filled pastures with Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Remember all those three-tight-end sets the Cardinal ran last year? It will be up to either Toilolo or senior Zach Ertz to run the deep routes that Fleener so excelled at. Last year, Fleener averaged a team-best 19.6 yards per catch, compared with Toilolo’s 13.7 and Ertz’s 12.8.

I’m not sure whether Toilolo would beat Ertz in a footrace, but one play from last season stands out. On the first play of the fourth quarter against Arizona, Stanford lined up with no men wide, but the call was a hard-sell play action, not the expected power run. On the right side of the line, Toilolo blew right past one linebacker; on the left side, Ertz threw his linebacker aside and raced past him. Both were wide open, but Toilolo was three yards ahead and caught the easy touchdown pass.

I don’t have nearly enough insight into the Stanford playbook to tell you whether Ertz was supposed to delay ever-so-slightly on that call, but the result was telling.

If you ask me, Toilolo is going to be just a few strides ahead of Ertz this season, just as he was on that play. Ertz has had a lot of success on slant routes, though, and with Hewitt doing his fullback-tight-end-hybrid-Spider-2-Y-Banana thing as the likely third tight end, Toilolo seems like the favorite to step into Fleener’s shoes.

And at 6-foot-8, Toilolo is going to be the biggest target on the team for a journeyman quarterback that can’t possibly live up to Luck’s accuracy. He has also shown the ability to make some great, corner-endzone grabs à la Evan Moore, and you never know when those acrobatics will come in handy.

As a tight end, Toilolo isn’t going to get nearly as many targets as Montgomery or account for as many yards as Taylor. But if he stays healthy he could going to be a huge—and I mean huge—part of a Stanford offense that will be in dire need of a catalyst.

Joseph Beyda might be in Toilolove. Send him your best Valentine’s Card for Levine at jbeyda”at”stanford.edu.

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