Stanford’s rise to national prominence has brought celebrity to a number of position groups over the past years, be it the The Tunnel Workers on the Offensive Line or the Golden Boys at Quarterback. One of the most heralded units has been the tight end corps, dating back to the Tree Amigos of Ertz, Fleener, and Toilolo, all of whom went on to play on Sundays.
The Cardinal’s 2014 offensive decline was not coincidentally synchronous with a bit of a dip at tight end. Those seeds were even sown the year previously, when Stanford took on Michigan State in a Rose Bowl Game in which an elite tight end could very well have cracked the Da Vinci Code that was the Spartan defense.
Last year, as the Cardinal offense exploded into a nationally elite powerhouse, the tight End position played a starring role. As discussed in the Wide Receivers Preview, Stanford was incredibly diverse in terms of targeting pass catchers. A Running Back (name escapes me, he’s #5 in your program) was the team’s leading receiver, and Tight End Austin Hooper was tied at 34 receptions for second-most on the squad. He was also tied with Michael Rector as Quarterback Kevin Hogan’s second-most frequently targeted receiver.
Overall, Stanford’s Tight Ends accounted for 23% of the team’s catches, 21% of the receiving yards, and 31% of the receiving touchdowns. On his own, Hooper’s numbers were 16% of the catches, 21% of the touchdowns, and 15% of the passing yards.
Hooper wasn’t the only player at Tight End to make an impact. Though their numbers were not as substantial thanks to Hooper’s excellence and Stanford’s egalitarian passing philosophy, Dalton Schultz and Greg Taboada proved to very effective players. The two caught 15 passes on only 20 targets and combined for a robust 12.5 Yards Per Catch and a healthy 9.35 Yards Per Target. By comparison, McCaffrey averaged about 14 YPC and 12.3 YPT.
Hooper’s departure, like all the other challenges facing the 2016 Stanford Cardinal, doesn’t seem to have many inside or outside the program concerned. Schultz has NFL written all over him, and the coaches were apparently so confident in their positional depth that they donated Eric Cotton to the Cardinal Defensive Line.
Schultz and Taboada return this season, along with Sophomore Ben Snyder. Two Freshmen, Kaden Smith and Scooter Harrington, complete the group for the Cardinal. Smith was a highly prized commit for the Cardinal, and would seem the best bet to round out any Triple Tight End recipes Shaw-Vita-Gren may be cooking up for the fall.
However, those plans have been slightly curtailed due to injuries to both Smith and Taboada. Both have been and will be held out of practice at this point. Shaw says Taboada is progressing “ahead of schedule” from offseason surgery and should be ready for Kansas State. The prognosis on Smith is not as optimistic, with Shaw having more of a wait and see approach on the Freshman (You can listen at the very beginning here). He said that a redshirt would be in play if they got into the season without him being in a place where he could really contribute.
Stanford’s Tight Ends stand to play a crucial role not just because of their clear place of utility in the West Coast Offense but because Stanford will be breaking in a new quarterback this season. An effective and trustworthy group of tight ends is second to only a dominant running game as a cherished security blanket for an inexperienced quarterback. Of course, run blocking is as if not more important to the coaches on this team than receiving, so don’t discount their ability to contribute there as well.
This is as loaded at the offensive position groups as Stanford’s ever been. There will be no shortage of plays to be made in 2016, and if history is our guide, the Stanford Tight Ends stand to make plenty of them.