Sports

'Tree's company' is a triple threat for Stanford

By Rick Eymer

Palo Alto Online Sports

Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo comprise, perhaps, the best collection of tight ends on one college football team in the nation.

The trio has combined for .631 of the receiving touchdowns and .458 of the receiving yardage, while catching just .321 of all completions.

That kind of dominance has led to a nickname, something that Fleener came up with: "Tree's company."

It has a certain ring to it and shows Fleener has a wickedly good sense of satire. Kind of like the wickedly good sense of balance and speed that has led to a team-leading six touchdown receptions for him this season.

Fleener also is a candidate for the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He caught four passes for 128 yards and one touchdown in last week's 44-14 victory at Washington State. For that effort, he was named the Mackey Tight End of the Week.

Fleener, who has 16 receptions for 383 yards, averages 23.9 yards per catch and a 63.8 average yards per game. He's making a run at Stanford's single-season record for receiving yards per catch, held by Miles Moore at 21.5 yards per catch in 1971. He is also on pace to break the NCAA single-season record for receiving yards per catch by tight ends, set in 1984 by Jay Novacek of Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Ertz ranks second (with Griff Whalen) with 20 receptions and Toilolo averages 21.9 yards a catch.

"Talent is great but production wins football games," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "They have a chance to be one of the best groups of tight ends in the country."

"Tree's company" will get to perform on national TV this weekend when the seventh-ranked Cardinal (6-0, 4-0) hosts No. 22 Washington (5-1, 3-0) on Saturday at 5 p.m. in a sold out Stanford Stadium. It's the team's third sellout in four home games this season.

The Huskies represent the first nationally ranked opponent of the season for Stanford and opens a stretch in the regular-season schedule in which the Cardinal will face four teams with winning records, three of which have a single loss entering play this weekend. The combined record of the final six opponents stands at 23-13, with Oregon State and California a combined 4-8.

Washington and No. 9 Oregon are the only teams currently ranked, although both Notre Dame and USC (which play each other Saturday in South Bend) are receiving votes.

The numbers support an efficient, effective group of tight ends and that does not take into consideration their significant blocking skills and what that adds to the Cardinal running game, which is impressive in its own right.

"The tight end is the best of both wide receivers and offensive lineman," Ertz said. "We do focus on blocking. We go through a wide range of work at practice every day."

All three were considered top tight end prospects out of high school, although a lot of teams speculated on whether to turn the 6-foot-8 Toilolo into an offensive lineman, and many saw the fleet Fleener as a wide receiver.

"Through the process we have been fortunate," Shaw said. "Coby Fleener was a tweener and once he started packing on the weight, it came naturally. When you look at Toilolo, you see a slim waist and there's no way he's going to put on enough weight to be an offensive lineman."

Toilolo, whose stretching abilities led to a touchdown during Stanford's victory over Washington State, said he made his decision to attend Stanford in part because of the chance to play tight end.

"I wanted to play tight end or defensive end," he said. "I felt I was athletic enough to do it and I didn't see myself as getting to 300 pounds."

Toilolo's touchdown, when he was tackled on four-yard line and still managed to reach out and get the ball over the goal line before crashing to the ground, became an instant classic on the highlight reel.

"We started joking that you can tackle him at the seven and he'll still score," Ertz said. "It shows you he's an unbelievable athlete."

Toilolo has thought about testing out the theory during a practice.

"I'd like to see how far I could reach just falling down," he said. "It's also good being able to stretch for touchdowns or first downs."

Toilolo won the tight end job last year as a redshirt freshman. His season lasted two plays.

He caught one pass for 27 yards against Sacramento State and was injured on the play.

"It was definitely tough to see the whole season go like that," Toilolo said. "I never got to get comfortable. But we had Coby, Konrad (Reuland) and Zach and it felt like any one of them could have been the starter."

Ertz may have made the biggest jump. He stepped in against the Hornets and caught his first career touchdown pass and then just progressively got better every week.

"Levine was the best tight end we had last year," Ertz said. "When he went down, I was still behind guys. Having to step up, I wanted that challenge. It's a unique bond, being supportive of each other after competing for jobs during training camp."

Shaw and the offensive staff have been creative in giving all three the opportunity to shine, and has found ways to get all three in at the same time. It's helped turned a weakness into strength.

Chris Owusu, who sustained a mild concussion after a brutal hit against the Cougars, was Stanford's top returning receiver and he's been struggling. Tight end play has been a pleasant

surprise.

"We hoped he would have more of an impact by now but I think he'll get going," Shaw said. "He should be ready to go. He's a tough kid. If he's ready to play on Saturday, he will play."

Whalen, who has one of the non-tight end touchdown receptions, thinks the development of the tight ends has made his job easier, too.

"You can't concentrate on one guy," Whalen said. "It's obvious how big a threat those guys are."

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