One of the biggest questions coming into the 2014 season that has been debated for months is whether any of the young tight ends on Stanford’s roster will be ready to contribute in a meaningful role this fall.
After being coined "Tight End U" for producing active NFL tight ends Jim Dray, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo over a four-year stretch, the Cardinal had a gaping hole at tight end last season. Luke Kaumatule, Charlie Hopkins and Davis Dudchock produced a combined 10 catches for 69 yards and zero touchdowns in the season after Ertz alone went for 69 catches, 898 yards and six scores in 2013.
While those cumulative numbers certainly tell a big part of the story, nowhere did Ertz seem more valuable than third-down situations. Every time Kevin Hogan needed to convert a third-and-medium, everyone on the field knew Ertz was the most likely target. And even with defenses keying on him, Ertz would find a way to get open enough to make the grab.
This was such an essential component of the Stanford offense in 2012, especially after Hogan took over for Josh Nunes, that many people attributed many Hogan’s struggles in 2013 to missing that tight-end presence. Sure Stanford had a significantly better receiving corps in 2013 than 2012, but on third-and-5, deep-threat wide receivers — even those as good as Ty Montgomery is — may not be as valuable as a guy like Ertz.
Stanford has a few potential risers at tight end who, with good camps, could play big roles in 2014. Sophomores Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada, who all redshirted in 2013, and star freshman signee Dalton Schultz, who probably has the most raw talent in the unit, will battle to try to provide at least one target at tight and that Hogan can rely on.
Many think that the fate of the 2014 season could depend on whether one of these guys can be an impact player and another can be serviceable. So here at Rule of Tree, we decided to take a deeper look at how they could impact one of the most important phases of the game — third downs — by digging into Stanford’s habits on third down with Hogan at quarterback.
Overall, Stanford improved on third downs in the two most meaningful metrics: conversion rate and yards per play. The improvement in yards per play was pretty dramatic, increasing from 5.83 to 7.53, which is a 29.1-percent increase. Interestingly, the conversion rate only went up from 45.5 percent to 50.8 percent, which is an 11.6-percent improvement. This is even more surprising due to the fact that Stanford averaged easier third downs in 2013. The average yardage needed for the conversion in 2013 was only 5.69 yards, down from 6.51 yards in 2012.
So what does this data tell us? It seems like a microcosm of the difference between Stanford’s offense in 2012 and the Cardinal’s offense in 2013. In 2013, Stanford had a better offense overall, and that improvement came almost entirely from the dramatic increase in big-play potential from wide receivers like Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. But it seems like the offense was held back by a decrease in efficiency, at least partially due to a lack of tight ends. Let’s take a deeper look at third-down plays broken down by play type:
The breakdown of the top chart is surprisingly similar for 2012 and 2013 with one notable exception: Stanford redistributed almost all of the tight-end targets to the wide receivers. This isn’t shocking, as it fit the talent that the Cardinal had at its disposal.
The yards to gain chart gives a little bit of a more nuanced look into some of the smaller differences between the two seasons. More success on first and second downs meant that Stanford had significantly shorter third downs in 2013 on average. That trend probably explains the small difference in the passes to wide receivers and Hogan’s runs. It does not, however, explain a few of the bigger differences. Clearly, Stanford lost confidence in using its tight ends. Additionally, the Cardinal started running the ball only on much shorter downs. This is probably due to a slight decrease in confidence in the running game, but it is also likely a product of a dramatic increase in confidence in the passing game. It’s interesting to monitor but not shocking.
The most surprising part of this chart might be the fullback column. In 2012, passes to fullback Ryan Hewitt were used in shorter-yardage situations — an average 5.33 yards to gain — to pick up third downs of a few yards. In a short sample size of the latter part of the season, Hewitt converted two third downs on three targets. It seemed to be an alternative to running the ball or finding the tight end. In 2013, Hewitt was targeted only one time, and it came on a third-and-9, which is a situation where a fullback pass is just an equally safe alternative to a screen. This is puzzling, as many people expected Hewitt to play a big role in replacing the lost tight-end production.
So how did these plays work? Here are the breakdowns of yards per play and conversion percentage by play type:
These two charts show some pretty dramatic differences between the two seasons. The most obvious difference is in the passes to wide receivers. Stanford’s yards per play on third-down passes to wide receivers jumped from 8.92 to 11.73, an increase of over 30 percent. Yet the conversion percentage dropped from 61.5 percent to 50.7 percent over the same period, even though the third downs were shorter on average in 2013. There is only one explanation: Stanford went for a lot of home-run balls on third downs, so a fewer number of the passes worked, but the ones that did went for much bigger gains.
That is certainly a big departure from the traditional West Coast Offense that Stanford had run since Jim Harbaugh. Stanford’s points per game went up from 27.9 to 32.3 and average time of possession didn't decrease, so it’s hard to argue too much with this strategy, but it is an interesting shift.
Now the big question is this: If Stanford finds an intermediate passing game in 2013, will the strategy change? What Shaw decides will be interesting to watch for early on in the season. And if Shaw does lean more on the tight ends on third downs, can Stanford manage to keep the game-changing plays to wide receivers on some third downs while potentially raising the overall conversion rate? The answers to these questions could decide whether Stanford’s offense can do enough to overcome one of the most difficult schedules in the country to contend for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
There are probably a dozen more trends or question to pick out of this data, but that would be a little too much for one column. Comment below, reach out on Twitter @SamFisher908 or send an email to samfisher908 ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com to let me know anything that you found that you think I missed.