The Cardinal are kicking off spring ball extremely early this year and there is already a lot of excitement around the 2013 squad as many have them pegged as the favorites to repeat as Pac-12 champions and to compete for the national championship. While there certainly is a lot to be excited about for the Cardinal, that doesn't mean that they don't have some serious questions heading into spring practice with none being bigger than who will step up at tight end to replace Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo?
No team in the Pac-12, and maybe the entire country, uses their tight ends as much and as effectively as Stanford. Stanford seems to have made a recent habit of developing stud tight ends and Ertz and Toilolo definitely fit the mold as they combined for nearly 100 catches, nearly 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. Both were eligible to return as seniors in 2013 but opted for the draft and the exit of the two big bodies leaves a massive hole in the Cardinal offense.
What makes the loss of the two even more painful is that the Cardinal literally do not have a tight end on their roster now that has caught a pass in a game. What they do have is a cluster of completely unproven candidates among their roster who will be asked to step up with not one sticking out like a clear heir apparent.
One potential solution could be swinging standout fullback Ryan Hewitt over to tight end permanently. Hewitt has the size and blocking ability to fill the role and caught 14 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown last season. Hewitt was actually recruited as a tight end and also saw some time there early in his career. The problem with that is that one has to think that the Cardinal would like to mainly utilize Hewitt at fullback where he was especially crucial in short-yardage situations in 2012.
Regardless if Hewitt makes the switch, the Cardinal use three tight end sets more than anyone in college football, so they still need to establish two or three other guys who can slide in and contribute. The only listed tight end with any extended playing experience is senior David Dudchock who saw some time in 2011, so it is likely that he will have a good shot at filling one of the spots due to his experience. Another interesting player with a little playing experience is senior Eddie Plantaric, who has seen time on the defensive line and was moved over to add some depth on offense. Plantatic is big (6'5 267) and his toughness from playing on the defensive line could really fit well with the Cardinal's emphasis on nasty run blocking.
A couple players who have yet to really see the field could be the most interesting candidates though. Junior Charlie Hopkins and sophomore Luke Kaumatule were both highly-regarded players when they signed coming out of high school and both very much fit the mode over super tall but built players that the Cardinal have utilized at the position with Hopkins being 6'6 269 and Kaumatule 6'7 260. Neither has done anything yet to really show why they were so highly-rated as recruits, but they likely have the highest ceiling of any of the tight ends on the Cardinal roster and could be the next two-headed monster in cardinal and white to terrorize Pac-12 defenses.