Oct. 19, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - It's not exactly The Fearsome Foursome, but Stanford's outstanding group of tight ends was due for a nickname.
"Coby came up with `Trees' Company,'" Zach Ertz revealed. "That's better than Andrew's nickname: The `Tall Trees.'"
That is true. And it's also true that Stanford's tight ends are a unique group, in collective performance and individual skills. Ertz, Coby Fleener, and Levine Toilolo have combined for 44 receptions and 12 touchdowns are are undoubtedly the top tight end trio in the country.
"Even though they're all tight ends, they all have wide receiver tendencies," Stanford safety Michael Thomas said. "Fleener has more speed, Ertz is strong in his route running and precise, and Levine is tall, but gives you the most wiggle in his routes."
David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach and perhaps the Mr. Roper to the tight ends' Jack Tripper, explained how Stanford developed such depth at a position that's underutilized at the high school and even college levels.
"It's been a process," Shaw said. "We've gotten fortunate."
First, consider that all three were on the roster last year with Konrad Reuland, a standout in his own right and now on the practice squad of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.
Toilolo was a highly recruited tight end out of Helix High School in the San Diego area, but was projected as an offensive tackle. When Shaw went down to see him play, he found a 6-8 athlete with a small waist.
Shaw returned and told then-head coach Jim Harbaugh, "This kid's never going to play tackle. He's going to be big, but he's not going to be wide."
Toilolo didn't want to play tackle anyway. He wanted to stay at tight end.
"It definitely figured in my recruiting," Toilolo said. "I couldn't see myself weighing 315 pounds."
Toilolo won the starting job last year, but blew out his knee moments into the opener and was out for the remainder of the season.
"Him missing a year put a lot more pressure on Zach Ertz to develop faster," Shaw said.
As for Fleener, the coaches knew he could catch, but found him to be a tweener -- a receiver buried on the depth chart, but not strong enough to be a tight end. That changed when Fleener began to embrace the weight room and came on at the end of last season, capped with his three-touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl.
Realizing the talent at hand, Shaw said he issued a challenge to the tight ends last spring.
"Talent is great," Shaw told them. "But talent doesn't win games. Production wins games. If you guys can use your talent in this offense the way we have it structured, you'll have a chance to be the best group of tight ends in the nation and one of the best groups of tight ends I've ever seen at any level."
They have lived up to the challenge.
"It's a pretty unique bond," said Ertz, a junior. "Most guys in position groups compete against one another. In camp, that's pretty much what we focused on. But once the season rolled around we were pretty supportive of one another and happy for the other's success."
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Receiver Griff Whalen has played under Shaw for four years and said he's never seen his coach as animated as he was toward officials after the blow to the head Chris Owusu took when attempting a catch early in Saturday's 44-14 victory at Washington State.
The hit was not penalized despite what Shaw felt was an intent to go for the head.
Shaw said Owusu, who did not return to the game, suffered a concussion, but "should be ready to go," for Saturday's game against visiting Washington.
Though Owusu hadn't been cleared by doctors by Tuesday morning, and may not practice until later in the week, if at all, Shaw said he anticipated Owusu would receive medical clearance and would not be limited in his play.
"Chris will bounce back," Shaw said. "He's a tough kid."
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Luck, projected by many as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, is refining skills that will help him in pro football, Shaw said.
"Everything we do helps him get ready for the NFL," said the coach. "The scheme that we run, the protections, the way we use play-action passes, the way we integrate with the running game really prepares him for the next level.
"As much as we put on Andrew at the line of scrimmage, I venture to say he's doing as much if not more than most NFL quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage anyway."
Shaw said that in playcalling, "It's rare to get back the detail that we get back from our guy. "The `coach on the field' quote gets way way overused. There are very few guys that are truly like that.
"Sometimes he'll say, `The defensive ends are playing really wide. We should probably think about more inside runs. I don't know if we can capture the edge.' He's great at telling where the linemen were, where the linebackers were, how deep the safeties are, how wide the safeties are. That's the feedback we truly need and helps us call plays."
Shaw encourages Luck to provide input.
"I tell him all the time, `I can't see a doggone thing from the sideline,'" Shaw said. "A lot of times the coaches can see things from the box, but he's got the best seat in the house.
"'If there's something that you see on the field, that's something we haven't said or that looks different than what you looked at on film, just let us know, we can always adjust.'
Luck said, it's part of playing the position and has been since he arrived and played behind Tavita Pritchard.
"It's imperative to have a clear line of communication between the quarterback and whoever's calling the plays," Luck said. "If they're putting something in there that you're uncomfortable running and something bad happens, I think it's on the quarterback for not making his opinion heard earlier."
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The Jim Harbaugh handshake inevitably came up at Tuesday's weekly press luncheon.
"It took you guys 16 minutes," Shaw said, joking with reporters when the subject finally was brought up.
"That's Jim Harbaugh," he said. "It's enthusiasm, it's energy, it's competition. The guy loves to win and he gets fired up."
Luck laughed when asked his thoughts on the subject.
"Not surprised," he said.
Whalen said he watched it live with teammates, and "we were cracking up."
"Good to see that not too much has changed," he said.
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Luck was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season and appears to be the early favorite to win it this season. With that said, it might be tempting for the coaches to call pass plays in an attempt to pad his stats and increase his chances of capturing perhaps the most prestigious individual award in American sports.
"I would by lying if I said it's never crossed my mind," Shaw said.
Though Luck has sometimes remained on the field late in blowouts, Shaw said it's to get practice managing the offense in grind-out-the-clock situations, and rarely throws the ball.
As for television's Heisman hype, Whalen said his roommate Luck will "do whatever he can to avoid it, whether it's turn around or change the channel. He doesn't like all that attention."
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In his first season as a starter, Washington quarterback Keith Price, a 6-foot-1 sophomore out of Compton, Calif., has been a big-time player. After six games, he has 21 touchdown passes and four interceptions, while completing 69 percent of his passes.
Shaw describes Price as, "an athletic kid with an accurate arm. He's not just an athlete playing quarterback, he's a good quarterback who is athletic."
How important will it be for Stanford to stop him?
"Very important," Shaw said. "You can't sit back and let him pick you apart. Our coverage has to be tight. If it's tight enough, it will enable him to hold onto the ball a split second longer than he wants to, so Chase Thomas can get in there and get him on the ground."
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Stanford is No. 8 in the initial BCS rankings, which were released Sunday.
"I don't have one. In order to have a reaction, you have to have expectations. And we don't. We said at the beginning of the season, we don't care what people think about us. It's, Can we win on gameday?"
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Right guard David DeCastro makes so many great blocks that they've become commonplace, Luck said.
"When he's blocking a guy and pancakes him, it's sort of expected now," Luck said. "It's to that level."
For former Raiders assistant Shaw, DeCastro brings back memories of former Oakland great Steve Wisniewski, now a member of the Raiders' coaching staff.
"Steve was bigger, but at the same time, you see the same tenacity, the same athleticism, you see the same brute strength in pass protection as in run blocking," Shaw said. "He's got a long way to go to become what Steve was in the NFL, but I do see similarities in their play."
Wisniewski was a Stanford strength coach last year and made an impression on DeCastro and others.
"He loved having him around," Shaw said of his lineman. "Steve worked in the weight room and talked about what it takes physically to get ready for that next step. More than pass sets -- Steve didn't talk about that stuff -- Steve was down in the weight room saying, `You want to play at the next level, here's what you need to do,' which validated everything that Shannon Turley was teaching those guys in the weight room anyway."
* * *
Michael Thomas said he feels Saturday's game is the true start to Stanford's season. The increase in the level of competition and the homestretch of the team's regular-season schedule plays a role in that sense of thinking.
The coaches have sensed it too.
"They're a good complete team," Shaw said of Washington. "You look at the film, you don't see a whole lot of weaknesses. You see a team that's good at taking advantage of other team's mistakes. And if they make a mistake, you better make them pay, because they're not going to make too many of them.
"It's the reason why, I think our guys when they came in yesterday, there's a little different sense in the room. It's time for us to really play our best football."
Luck said the players don't need any reminders from the coaches as to the importance of this game.
"I think it's understood," Luck said. "I think it's also understood that the deeper you go into the season in conference play, you're going to have to improve your game week to week to be successful."
* * *
Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker - selected as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2010 - is expected to serve as the team's honorary captain for Saturday's game.
Booker was a wide receiver and tight end for Stanford in 1989-90, catching 20 passes, including a 38-yard touchdown reception against USC in 1990. He was ending his Stanford career as Shaw was starting his and the two have remained friends.
"Even in a Stanford locker room, you're going to have leaders," Shaw said. "You're going to have guys with confidence that are well accomplished by the time they are 17. They've already set themselves apart to a certain degree.
"Cory was always one of those guys that maybe didn't talk all the time, but when he stood up and spoke, you turned and listened. He's always been that way. To hear him speak now, if I hear him on the TV, I stop what I'm doing and go over and listen. He's just one of those guys."
Asked if there were any players on this year's team that could follow Booker into politics, Shaw mentioned one - defensive captain Michael Thomas.
"He to me has that same thing that Cory Booker has," Shaw said. "Michael Thomas speaks with such compassion, such conviction, and is such a steady human being, such a guy that you count on. I'd vote for him."
As for Thomas, "Andrew teases me all the time and says I should go into politics. But no, I haven't thought about it."
When told that Shaw thinks he would make a great politician, Thomas reconsidered, sort of.
"If everybody keeps saying it, I may have to look into it," he said.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics