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Stanford benefits from return of tight ends

9/15/2014

For years, Stanford's ball-control offense has relied on the power run game to move the chains. But 2014 marks the first time in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era that the Cardinal doesn't have a 225-pound workhorse forming the clock-chewing spine of the offense. Tyler Gaffney and his bruising 1,800 yards are gone. The team's biggest running back is now 204-pounder Remound Wright.

Given the shift in personnel, Stanford has had to turn elsewhere to maintain its effectiveness sustaining drives. The passing game has shouldered a heavier burden. So far, it's handling this new load well (at least outside of the red zone, but that is for another discussion), thanks in large part to the re-emergence of a familiar Stanford position group.

Tight ends say hello again

After seeing four of their own (Konrad Reuland, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo) enter the NFL in a dizzying flurry, the Cardinal's tight ends disappeared. Last season they totaled 10 catches for 69 yards without a touchdown.

In 2014, redshirt freshman tight end Austin Hooper has already blown by those numbers on his own with 12 catches, 170 yards, and a touchdown in just three games.

Fellow newcomers Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada have also contributed, which has the trio on pace to roughly match Ertz's monster 2012 production: 69 catches, 898 yards and six touchdowns.

Shaw is certainly welcoming this development with open arms.

Stanford's mid-range passing game

For quarterback Kevin Hogan, it means an essential intermediate threat is back. Between Michael Rector (30.4 yards per reception) and Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per receptions), Stanford featured the nation's top two wide receivers in per-catch average last season, but it was missing a steady threat to move the chains in situations that required less sizzle. Hogan, in fact, was better converting and more accurate on third-and-long (61 percent completion) than he was on third-and-short (40 percent).

Bizzare, to say the least.

Stanford badly needed a steadying presence, and so far, Hooper has proven to be the answer. Though defensive backs have scrambled to cover Ty Montgomery, Cajuste, and Rector downfield, the 6-foot-4, 249-pounder has found success against linebackers and in soft spots all over the field. Through three games, Hooper has served as a glue of sorts for the Cardinal's offense: Hogan is back to successfully throwing the ball on third-and-short situations -- he's 7-for-8 in those situations, and Stanford credits much of that success to its newfound presence on shorter passing routes.

The continued emergence of Hooper, Cotton, and Taboada remains a point of emphasis for Stanford's offense moving forward, especially since the rest of the team's regular season features six of nine games on the road. The Cardinal's precarious College Football Playoff chances will rely on sustaining drives in hostile environments.

Thanks to this new crop of tight ends, it appears Stanford's passing game is better equipped to do this than it was a year ago, and that is good timing for Shaw, since his power running game isn't the machine-like juggernaut it once was.