Stanford football: Tight End U gets reinforcements

STANFORD — The NFL keeps tabs on Tight End U.

Definitely the Atlanta Falcons, considering the roster for Super Bowl LI in February included Austin Hooper — a rookie who caught a 19-yard touchdown — and Levine Toilolo.

Both left Stanford with eligibility remaining and were selected by the Falcons in the NFL Draft.

Toilolo is a four-year veteran who during his time on The Farm formed a triumvirate with Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz, both second-round picks.

It might sound sacrilegious, but the No. 14 Cardinal might be able to supplant their legacy with the current crop of tight ends, which during the season opener in Sydney, Australia, flashed the potential to be as good — if not better — than the Fleener-Ertz-Toilolo trinity.

“Questions like that are like those old cartoons where there’s a big hole and they put some little sticks over it and they expect you to walk over it and fall into it,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “I’ve fallen into that trap before, and if I answer that a certain way I’ll get three phone calls within the next 24 hours.”

Leave it to redshirt junior Dalton Schultz, a co-captain, to end any debate.

“Yeah, we’re not quite there, yet,” Schultz said. “But it’s something we aspire to be, it’s like that group. That group was pretty special.”

Watching those episodes of “Tree’s Company” as a 4-star recruit out of South Jordan, Utah, helped bring the 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end to Palo Alto.

“I’ve said it multiple times, that was a huge pull for me, was watching Zach, Levine and Coby,” Schultz said. “In my decision, that played a huge part, just having the knowledge that this team specifically knows how to use tight ends in every situation.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way.

Turns out it’s a common theme for redshirt freshmen Kaden Smith (6-5, 250) and Scooter Harrington (6-5, 247), as well as true freshman Colby Parkinson (6-7, 229), who caught a pair of touchdowns against Rice in his NCAA debut.

“Being recruited, I always wanted to come here because of the great academic history and because of the tight end usage in the offense,” Parkinson said. “You go to other schools and they’ll say, ‘If you want to be a traditional tight end, don’t come here.’ ”

“It’s a tragedy,” Schultz said of the devaluation of the tight end in spread offenses and up-tempo schemes.

Honorary members of the “Tunnel Workers Union” — aka, the offensive line — tight ends at Stanford must be required to be physical blockers.

“Unless you’re Colby, and you just catch two touchdowns,” Schutlz said in jest. “No, you definitely have to block. You have to be willing to block, you have to have good fundamentals, good hands, good technique. That’s kind of what we preach on first. If you can’t get trusted in the blocking game, then you’re not going to get the glory of going out and catching passes.

“That’s something that I think Stanford does differently than a lot of places. Everybody just kind of spreads them out and says, ‘All right, go catch balls, go run routes, go beat slow linebackers.’ But here, you kind of have to earn your keep.”

If that’s the way Schultz tells it, then that’s the way it is.

“From the very beginning, he’s been the ringleader there,” Shaw said. “Being a fourth-year senior, he’s a lot older than these guys and he’s taken a lot of pride in it. He was voted a captain for a reason. They look up to him and he does a great job taking care of them, and also holding them accountable.”

“He’s Papa Bear,” Parkinson said.

Schultz estimated that at least 10 times against Rice the offense featured a package of three tight ends, though most times the quarterback turned and handed it off for a run.

“It’s kind of fun seeing each other in the huddle,” Schultz said.

“I love the fact that we can be versatile without sacrificing the physicality of our running game,” said Shaw, who didn’t wait long to get his tight ends in the passing game.

Before the end of the first quarter, each had caught a pass from quarterback Keller Chryst.

That included 7- and 6-yard receptions by Smith and Harrington, respectively, in their christening after a redshirt year.

“It’s definitely refreshing,” said Smith, who finished with four catches for 55 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown in the second half. “Going from your senior year (in high school) and you don’t get to play a game for almost a year and a half, it’s nice to get back out there.”

“You’re supposed to treat it just like practice — and that’s what we did,” Harrington said. “You just have a little more energy and hype for the game, so you want to perform like you did in practice, same techniques and everything.”

Now that the first-game jitters are out of the way, the next test is a trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for an early Pac-12 showdown on Saturday with No. 6 USC.

The healthy return of wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-3, 222-pound threat on the perimeter who sat out the season opener, will only help to create inevitable mismatches for the Trojans on defense.

“That’s part of our goal,” Shaw said. “It’s to have some personnel that has to make people make some tough decisions.”

“I feel like you put three or four us out there, it puts tremendous stress on the defense to see who they want to cover,” Schultz said. “Are you going to cover them with a little DB, or are you going to going to cover them with a big linebacker? We all have different talents and different niches that we like to use to exploit defenses.”

That doesn’t mean the plan is foolproof, with USC breaking down tape from Aug. 26 to diagram a blueprint to stop the Cardinal. Or maybe this is an opportunity to dig out film from as far back as 2011, when Ertz, Fleener and Toilolo ran the routes and dished out the blocks.

“Obviously, I think there’s a counter to everything — there should be on both sides of the ball,” Shaw said. “But it’s what we’ve missed, honestly.”

“It’s great, finally,” Schultz said. “We’ve got a solid group that’s healthy — knock on wood. So I’m kind of excited. That’s why I came here, to play with a group of tight ends like these guys.”

It appears as if Tight End U is once again open for business on The Farm.

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