Back in 2009, much of the football world thought Jim Harbaugh was nuts. That hollow stare that could pierce through a man's soul. Those eyes consumed by the game of the football. Those four tight ends in one recruiting class.
At the time, consensus was that just two tight ends per year were more than enough: In fact, Alabama and USC didn't ink any tight ends in their 2009 classes. Stanford, meanwhile, landed four: Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, Ryan Hewitt, and Jordan Najvar. With the signings came questions on the wisdom of throwing so many scholarships at one position.
"How many big, strong, fast guys should we try to recruit?" the coach retorted.
The football world probably still finds Stanford's former coach at least a tad zany, but the phenomenal success of Stanford's 2009 tight end load has validated Harbaugh's strategy. The successes of Ertz and Toilolo speak for themselves. Those two, virtually unguardable when properly utilized, follow in the footsteps of Coby Fleener and should be drafted come April. Hewitt has demonstrated a major tight end selling point: versatility. He's seamlessly shifted to fullback to spearhead one of the country's finest power rushing attacks. (Meanwhile, Najvar transferred to, and has found success at, Baylor.)
Essentially, Harbaugh's insistence to go after loads of hard-working, physical football players instead of countless, flashy five-star running backs fit perfectly into Stanford's grander developing scheme, one that to this day relies upon punishing opponents with "body blows" at every spot on the football field.
"We don't necessarily recruit guys based on the talent that they have," graduating senior Alex Debniak explained. "We recruit guys based on the character they have."
Well, talent and 6-foot-5 height helps, too. But that's not enough. When a hard-working, blue collar mentality fuses with Shannon Turley's tried-and-true strength and conditioning program, freakish results ensue. It's just important to remember the process starts in the recruiting phase.
"You don't make a kid tough," Harbaugh's successor, David Shaw, said. "You find a tough kid."
It's impossible to argue with the results: the Cardinal have gone 35-5 over the past three years behind a bruising "character and cruelty" mantra that has earned them spots in three consecutive BCS bowls, in large part because of massive tight end production both through the air and in run blocking. In particular, the 2011 Orange Bowl was emblematic of the Stanford way of doing things: the position paved the way for a gashing running game while combining for 10 catches, 226 yards, and four touchdowns.
"That," Harbaugh said after the 40-12 steamrolling of Virginia Tech, "is why we recruit so many tight ends."
They were too fast to be covered by linebackers and too big to be locked down by defensive backs. Match-up nightmares opened games; wins finished them. In fact, during their time at Stanford, every season in which Ertz and Toilolo played ended with BCS bowl.
Well Running Dry? Time to Reload
Now, four years after Harbaugh inked that revolutionary 2009 class, Stanford's tight end cupboard is close to bare. Hewitt is a candidate to move back from the fullback position, while later recruits Devon Cajuste (now a receiver, but he may be moved back) and Davis Dudchock have yet to make an impact. Coaches say that six-foot-seven freshman Luke Kaumatule, recruited as a defensive end, will focus solely on developing his skills at tight end, but depth at the once-mighty spot on the Stanford roster is now a major question.
So Shaw and his staff have decided to use the Cardinal's 2012 recruiting class to reload. In a year when The Bootleg approximates only 14 scholarships are available for incoming recruits (that number may increase due to medical retirements and other internal movement, though not drastically), four spots have again been offered to tight ends. Two have already verbally committed to Stanford, while the remaining two players could round out a haul to rival 2009's.
The Knowns: Cotton and Taboada
Barring an unexpected change of heart on or before National Signing Day, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada will both bring their talents to Stanford. Cotton is 6-foot-5. He weighs 235 pounds. He can run. He can block. He often played receiver in high school, so he can catch. Essentially, Stanford's coaches recognized he could do it all after watching him for only a short time at their camp this summer. Shaw offered Cotton a scholarship during a water break on the second day of action.
"I immediately knew that's where I wanted to go to school," the Nampa, Idaho native said.
Cotton's small-town origins may have allowed him to fly under the big-time radar, at least as effectively as a state's top player can fly under the radar. But there is no doubt that his imposing physical attributes and gifts will give him an excellent chance to succeed in Stanford's system.
The Atlanta native Taboada, meanwhile, has a more impressive list of suitors than Cotton, but less experience in the passing game. His Marist School offense ran the triple option, passing only a couple times per game. But Taboada's 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame is prime for run blocking, and he is confident Stanford's staff can develop his hands.
"One thing that really stood out to me is that Stanford currently has the most tight ends in the NFL," Taboada said, referencing the Cardinal quintet at the next level: Jim Dray, Coby Fleener, Evan Moore, Konrad Reuland, and Alex Smith (the 2004 Mackey Award runner-up, not the San Francisco quarterback). "They know how to involve tight ends in the offense."
The Unknowns: Smythe and Hooper
Six-foot-six, 230-pound Durham Smythe is Stanford's tallest 2013 tight end prospect, and quite possibly its most polished in the receiving phase of the game. FOX Sports Next ranks Smythe the No. 6 tight end nationally in his class following an illustrious high school season that saw him frequently split out as a wide receiver.
Smythe decommitted from Texas in December, opening his recruitment to Stanford. In a series of talks with The Bootleg, he has expressed great admiration for the Cardinal program. He voiced fervent support for Shaw's squad on Twitter during the Rose Bowl and says he is enjoying this weekend's official visit. Oregon also appears as a school of interest on Smythe's list, but all indications show Stanford to be in the lead at this point in time.
Austin Hooper, meanwhile, is the only local product of the quartet (De La Salle; Concord). He also has a unique Stanford connection: his uncle Greg Hooper played fullback for the Farm Boys in the early 1980s. Many national recruiting analysts believe Austin will commit to Stanford if he accepted into the school academically, an admissions decision expected soon.
The 6-foot-4, 247-pounder is more polished defensively, as he was a monster pass-rusher in high school. But he has expressed enthusiasm about playing offense in college and, even though they're pursuing three other players at the position, the Cardinal want him at tight end.
The strategy that has paid major dividends recently is charging full speed ahead in 2013. Another prospect, committed Central Valley product Kevin Palma, was also featured as a high school tight end -- though Stanford is recruiting him as a linebacker. So the Cardinal are continuing their philosophy of stocking up on bruisers. If the idea ain't broke, don't fix it.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!