Zimmerman: Tight ends key to dominance

Dec. 1, 2010, 1:32 a.m.

After 11 wins, a BCS bowl birth and the revival (or creation) of Stanford football culture, you may have forgotten about poor Levine Toilolo.

Actually, you may have no idea who Levine Toilolo is.

It’s tough to miss the 6-foot-8, 264-pound tight end. The sophomore from La Mesa, Calif. could possibly be the most talented Stanford football player that you’ve never heard of. Picked as the opening-day starter after receiving amazingly high praise from head coach Jim Harbaugh, Toilolo’s campaign ended on just the second offensive play against Sacramento State when he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Losing the tallest kid on the team who happens to jump like a vintage Vince Carter and run like a gazelle is a recipe for disaster, right?

Not when you have the deepest tight end-corps in the country.

Senior Konrad Reuland, redshirt junior Coby Fleener and redshirt freshman Zach Ertz are the most underrated players on a team full of overlooked stars. While the offensive juggernaut that is Stanford football is most often praised for its quarterback phenomenon Andrew Luck and his nationally touted offensive line, an 11-1 season would have been much more of a long shot without the tight end trio.

Reuland, Fleener and Ertz all stand 6-foot-6, weigh at least 245 pounds and are integral components of the weekly game plan, be it as receivers, blockers or both. They have combined for 54 receptions and have been on the receiving end of nine of Luck’s 28 passing touchdowns. Only one wide receiver (Doug Baldwin) has more touchdown receptions (nine) than either Fleener or Ertz (four apiece). Suffice it to say, when the Cardinal offense is in the red zone, Luck is looking for his big three.

And although third-and-short plays are often forgotten, Stanford’s tight ends have come through in the clutch, time and time again. On the road against Arizona State just three weeks ago, the Cardinal offense played its worst game of the season. The rushing attack was nonexistent through three quarters, allowing the Sun Devils to drop more guys into coverage and stifle an abnormally flustered Luck.

However, Stanford began to find success when the ball began to find the hands of the tight ends. Arizona State doesn’t start a defensive back taller than six feet, and although it took 45 minutes too long to recognize this, Harbaugh turned to his most trusted guys for some mismatched help. Numerous third downs resulted in small, yet immeasurably important receptions by Reuland, Fleener and Ertz. The Sun Devils’ defense eventually gassed out, the rushing game opened and Stanford preserved its BCS hopes for another week.

But at the end of the day, the Cardinal is first and foremost a running team. Luck’s success goes as far as the ground-and-pound, and the 211 rushing yards per game would be a mere fraction of its current stature without nearly 800 pounds of lean, mean tight end topping off the jumbo package. To say that Stanford’s tight ends are critical in the rushing game would be a drastic understatement, and Harbaugh’s have been among the nation’s best for three consecutive years.

Stanford may not possess a top-10 talent at the tight end position. It’s tough to gauge Toilolo’s potential, but at this point it’s difficult to see Reuland, Fleener or Ertz playing significant minutes on Sundays. Yet the beauty of college football lies in the importance of an individual’s performance in a given system, and watching the Cardinal’s tight ends fill their respective niches week in and week out pays testament to just how far this program has come.

It’s doubtful that you’ve had time to appreciate the work of Reuland, Fleener and Ertz because there’s been too much excitement on the field in the flashier sectors of Stanford’s game. But recognition is better given late than never, and if the Cardinal earns a BCS win this year, the tight ends will unquestionably play a critical role in its success.

The Stanford tight ends put the depth in “depth chart,” and its time that they get some much-deserved credit.

With that taken care of, Zach Zimmerman just has to worry about all of his loose ends (badum-psh).  Give him a better joke at [email protected].

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