In case you don't recognize me, this is Mike Eubanks. You may not have a clear look at me because I have egg all over my face right now.
You see, I followed the offensive planning for this 2003 Stanford Football team as closely as anybody. I saw the orchestration of what was being built around the tight ends this year, and it made perfect sense. We knew the offensive line would be a big problem this year and surmised that other talents on the offense were not proven commodities. Say what you want in favor of Trent Edwards, Chris Lewis or Kyle Matter, but they were each either flawed or unproven in 2002. The returning receiving corps also had very little to show from the 2002 season - with three of the top four wideouts (by yardage) gone. Brett Pierce and Alex Smith were bonafide proven threats, though. They would be the key to help this young offense along. Get back to ball control, using a refocused ground game and the tight ends in the passing game.
I was so convinced of the merit of this plan that I put Alex Smith on the September cover of our magazine and proclaimed this the "Year of the Tight End." While the tight ends article is a fantastic read, and the Part II historical piece that followed in October is a must-read, that proclamation might draw a few muffled sneers and chuckles these days. After all, the tight ends have combined for 16 catches through six games. That is not at all what I had in mind.
So it's high time I did some digging to find out just why there have not been more throws to the tight ends this year.
"We're calling it - maybe not as much as we would have liked - but we are calling it," says tight ends coach Tom Quinn. "The guys can help us by getting a little more open. We can work on our routes some more. But we aren't running the ball like we need to. When you prove that you can run the ball successfully, the defense has to bring another guy up, usually a safety, to help defend the run. Those are our best chances to get a tight end free."
Fifth-year senior Brett Pierce elaborates on the value of the running game to his receiving opportunities: "If you watch the best tight end teams in the country, they run the ball well. Everything is based off play-action. If your running game isn't convincing, then nobody bites on the play-action. When it does work, a linebacker or safety gets sucked up to the line of scrimmage and you can run right past them."
None of this isn't to say that the tight ends are not useful thus far this year. Two tight ends have started every game of the season, and scarce few formations have been run without two or even three TEs on the field. Their role as blockers has been particularly crucial with the struggles of the OL and backs.
"I've improved my pass blocking a lot because I've had to do it more this year," Pierce opines. "I know I can do better, though. I have to keep my feet set better so that I can get leverage on my man. I'm sick of it when I watch myself on film. I'm playing too soft."
Quinn is a little more praising of his self-deprecating senior. "I've really been encouraged with Brett's play this year," the tight ends coach offers. "A lot of people don't know that he tweaked his knee a couple weeks ago and that's limited him. But he plays tough."
Head coach Buddy Teevens also feels that the way the passing game has traveled this year has also limited what they have been able to do with the tight ends. "We had some passing routes in place early and then people clamped down on them," the coach begins. "But the key is how the three-step drop has been prominent in our offense. People have brought a lot of pressure in some of our games. We have had to use our tight ends to protect, but even if we want to release them, the three-step drop is not conducive to them in the passing game."
So is there no hope for these fantastic tight ends to be featured the remainder of the season?
"I thought our protection was better in the Oregon game than any game we've played in a while," Teevens answers. "We should be able to better pass the ball downfield. And when we can do that, we can start opening back up our routes with our tight ends."
Pierce also adds some optimism for the next five games. "I think defenses initially gameplanned us at the beginning of the year," he reveals. "But we have not been a threat lately, which should free us up. I think that could create a great opportunity for us this Saturday. This week you should see more from the tight ends. You should see more from everybody, really."
- Alex Smith leads the Stanford tight ends with 10 catches, 74 yards and two scores.
- Matt Traverso has yet to record a catch this year, but Quinn is still pleased with the redshirt frosh, who he says "has been doing a great job of run blocking."
- True freshman Patrick Danahy has had his redshirt burned this fall, and some wonder if it was a prudent move. Quinn is still very confident that it will pay off. "It is worth it for Patrick just for the experience he is gaining," the position coach offers. "And as we continue to use the three tight end formations, we'll really need him. Patrick will play a significant role before the end of this year."
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