There is tremendous excitement surrounding the offensive prospects for Stanford Football in 2005, and rightfully so. The Cardinal were an offense primarily led by underclassmen in 2004, including a host of sophomores on the offensive line, at wide receiver and at quarterback. Of the 121 starts by the offense last fall, 104 were made by non-graduating players. Stanford brings back its top two quarterbacks, its top three wide receivers, its #1 running back and every warm body from the offensive line.
The only problem is that Stanford lost its one effective and truly dominant offensive player from 2004. Alex Smith was a record-breaking tight end and playmaker, the likes of which we can only dream to see in cardinal and white again. He was the first tight end to lead Stanford in receiving in the last four decades, and he is just three weeks away from being the #1 tight end taken in the 2005 NFL Draft. Smith hauled in 706 receiving yards last fall, including three games over the century mark. It is easy for fans to wave off the subtraction of a tight end from the offense, but Smith carried the struggling offense all year as the only receiving target who could consistently get separation from defenders and get open. He was the safety valve and go-to guy for Trent Edwards.
"I don't think you can ever replace an Alex Smith. Alex Smith was a guy who did a lot for this program while he was here," says redshirt sophomore tight end Matt Traverso of his departed mentor. "Alex was a tremendous athlete. What he does in the weight room and what he does out on the field – the guy is just raw talent. I wouldn't be surprised in the years to come if he's a Pro Bowler. He's just that good. There are two aspects to the game, and you can have as much talent in the world. But if you don't use it the right way, you're not going to be anything. Alex used it the right way. He watched the film he needed to watch, and on the field he was accountable to the team to make sure he was doing his job. In the pass game, he was awesome. He could always get open."
The tight end position for Stanford is experiencing a vacuum in the wake of Smith's graduation. Gone are his 52 catches, while his understudies last fall accounted for a grand total of five receptions. The beauty of the college game, however, is the ongoing renewal that replaces yesterday's superstars with tomorrow's hopefuls. Traverso has spent much of the last three years watching Alex Smith, and before him, Brett Pierce. Entering his third spring, Traverso is ready to meld his talents with some of the teachings he has taken from those who came before him.
Quietly, Matt Traverso started two games last fall and had extensive playing time in double-tight sets. Smith was the man, and he was healthy throughout the season, so he took complete control of the passing game for the tight end position. But it was a longstanding needle and source of laughter within the tight end group that Smith was not the team's best blocker. That label, as recognized by both players and coaches, went to Traverso. The 6'5" athlete is now rounding out the rest of his game to present the "total package" that Smith delivered.
"Last year, I was mainly a blocking tight end. I got really good at that, actually. I really enjoy blocking. If I can dominate a guy, that makes me so happy," Traverso offers. "Now I need to work more on the pass game – work on my route running, recognition, speed and hands."
The third-year tight end has to go no further than 2004 tape of Alex Smith for a textbook demonstration of the finer points of the receiving game. "He always tried to be as precise as possible in his routes," Traverso describes. "A lot times you will see people who wing it on routes, but Alex was really strict about making sure he got the right depth on a route and then made a good break at the right distance. That's something I learned from Alex last year – to look at the details and make sure everything is right."
"Every year, you get a little better – a little bit more mature and smoother," he continues. "Earlier in my career, I had a lot of trouble cutting out of my break. I was a little bit top-heavy. I had trouble staying low. I wasn't always having good footwork. These drills, the more you repeat them and make them second nature, they show up on the field. You look at yourself two years ago on film and compare yourself to now, and just can't believe you did that stuff. It's a 100% difference."
The technical aspects of the receiving game are a learning curve where Traverso is climbing in 2005, but there is also a physical component. As he has admitted, Traverso was not the leanest athlete early in his Cardinal career. His redshirt freshman year he tipped the scales at a rotund 265 pounds, which created a lot of buzz among the coaching staff that the big-bodied youngster was destined for offensive or defensive lines. Traverso could not get up the field or make the cuts to achieve separation from defenders, which made him a liability in the passing game.
"I would always get nervous a little bit when I would put on a little bit of weight," Traverso admits. "The guys would make jokes about playing on the [offensive] line. My redshirt freshman year, I almost hit 270 late in the season. The jokes were becoming a little too real. I decided to take my body a little more seriously and take my football career to another level."
Traverso turned his body around the following year, keeping his weight between 250 and 255 pounds. During 2004 spring ball, he trimmed down to 245 pounds and brought his body fat a shade under 10%. He enters this spring weighing a cut 252 pounds and has slashed his body fat to 7%.
"I'm the strongest I've ever been. I'm the leanest I've ever been," he beams. "I've been working hard. It's been a good off-season."
That off-season included not just strength and physical development, but also a host of agility drills which Traverso hopes will be a springboard into his improved receiving and blocking acumen. His footwork is faster, which has him exploding faster in his first steps into defenders, while also getting him out of his breaks quicker in his routes.
Having that complete package of tight end abilities is important to Stanford's tight ends this year, maybe more so than at any time since Bill Walsh's second tenure on The Farm more than a decade ago. Walt Harris is bringing a variant of the West Coast Offense to Stanford, which involves the backs, receivers and tight ends all in the offense. That leaves a wide universe of possibilities for what Traverso and his tight end mates may do this fall.
"The main thing is we need to work on recognition of different coverages and routes," Traverso states. "I've been watching a lot of [Pittsburgh] film the last few weeks, and a lot of being successful in this offense has to do with recognition of coverage – man vs. zone. The one thing the tight end group needs to do is get in and watch film and study the game as much as possible. It's going to be a lot different. We've worked on it a little bit, but not to this degree."
"I think we'll be asked to do everything – playing fullback, playing tight end, being split out as a receiver," he continues. "We can play every position on the field. Anything we prove we can do, they're going to have us out there doing it. From talking to the coaches, it seems like the tight end is integral to the offense – both as a threat and as a decoy. We will help get other people open, and we are going to get the ball a lot. It's important for us to step up and be ready to go."
Both physically and mentally, Traverso looks ready to "go." And he understands as well as any player on this Cardinal roster the importance of spring football - more than just an exercise, it is the the foundation for the fall season.
"I'm so excited for spring ball, because it's the time when you get to prove yourself for the next year," he explains. "I remember when I was a freshman, and Babatunde [Oshinowo] came up to me just before spring break."
[Oshinowo]: "You want to play next year?"
[Traverso]: "What kind of question is that? Of course I do."
[Oshinowo]: "You sure?"
[Oshinowo]: "Then get ready for spring ball. That's the time to prove yourself. If you have a good spring ball, then you'll play next year."
"That's really stuck with me," Traverso says. "Every year about this time, I think about: what am I expecting for spring ball? Every year it's the same thing. You just have to go out there and play your hardest for every practice. No matter who's playing well, you have to play better than him – regardless of how old you are. We haven't proved anything yet. I haven't proved anything as a player. Our offense hasn't done anything the last three years, so we have a lot to go out there and prove."
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