INDIANAPOLIS – Heading into the 2012 season, Stanford had sent Coby Fleener to Indianapolis and needed to have the production line continue at a school some had started to label as, 'Tight End U.'
Fleener had toiled in the same vein as had Jim Dray and Konrad Reuland, who both went on to the NFL. The Cardinal had turned around its fortunes because of many reasons, one being the production it was getting from tight ends.
Zach Ertz had shared duties with Fleener and Levine Toilolo in 2011, and he made his final year a memorable one.
The athletic Ertz started a career-high five games and caught 66 passes for 837 yards and six touchdowns – all career seasonal-bests.
Ertz added three more receptions for 61 yards as Stanford won its first Rose Bowl since 1972, a 20-14 victory over Wisconsin.
A bow tied on his collegiate career, Ertz feels very equipped to play any role asked in the NFL. He has experience down the field as well as with a hand in the dirt.
"I think I can do both, to be honest," said Ertz. "At Stanford, we were a run-first offense. We started with the power running game, and I took a lot of pride in my run blocking. As a receiver, that stuff kind of came more naturally, but I look forward to doing both."
At 6-6, 252, Ertz has size that can be used anywhere on the field, and one touchdown in particular from last season showed his explosiveness.
Ertz had a 37-yard touchdown in a tie game against USC, then number two in the country, where he was split wide left, put a double move on a cornerback, cut to the middle of the field where he caught the pass and made a third move to the post. Ertz eluded a safety and dived into the end zone with a linebacker on his back.
Stanford coach David Shaw said Ertz's hands are "absolutely" the equal of Fleener. His highlight play against USC worked the previous season for wide receiver Griff Whalen and requires such athleticism that Shaw estimated the only other tight end he has seen who could have pulled it off was Todd Heap, whom Shaw coached for two seasons in Baltimore.
"Zach has uncanny body control," said Shaw. "That route (against USC) is usually for the six-foot, 180-pound wide receiver that can make that triple move."
Stanford is a laboratory for all pursuits of excellence. Ertz, studying a discipline of management science and engineering, used the time before this past season to hone his talents. He caught 100 balls a day outside of practice, many to better his one-handed skills. Blocking techniques were part of the extra work.
"He wants to be a complete tight end," said position coach Ron Crook. "He wants to be just as dominating a blocker as he is a great route runner and pass catcher."
Ertz said Fleener gave him a crash course for how to deal with last month's combine. Ertz is leaving no stone unturned and likes how he sees tight ends being used in a wide-open NFL.
"I think seeing what all those tight ends do and all those things they've been doing, it is very neat," said Ertz. "You see Jimmy Graham out there against corners all the time and just seeing what he does is very impressive. It's something that I just hope I can do at that same level.
"I think Jason Witten is somebody that I've kind of look towards the past couple of years. He truly is a complete tight end, a very good run blocker and a very good pass catcher. I think that's something that I kind of try and emulate."
Ertz's first two years at Stanford were under Jim Harbaugh. He feels the pro-style offense he was introduced to and played in will help in getting acclimated to the NFL.
"I think it helps a lot. I think that helps all the players coming out of Stanford," said Ertz. "Everybody talks about the speed of the game and how it changes from college to the NFL. I'm just very looking forward to seeing how that translates."
Ertz also played in the offense directed by Pep Hamilton, now the Colts' offensive coordinator. Ertz's time with Andrew Luck, too, helped his maturation.
"He's (Hamilton) a (heck) of a coach," said Ertz. "What he did my redshirt sophomore year with Andrew (Luck) and the offense and then this year with the two young quarterbacks, seeing the kind of evolution of our offense the whole year, speaks volumes about him."
Ertz joined a tight end lineage at Stanford, then advanced it. The school has been a proving ground for talent, and Ertz is confident he will join other Cardinal players who have moved to the NFL.
"I think seeing some of the success that some of the Stanford tight ends had in the NFL kind of helps me being an optimist," said Ertz. "I was used all over the field at Stanford, in-line and in the slot and out wide. That versatility is going to help me at the next level."
LOOKING AT THE 2013 NFL DRAFT'S TIGHT ENDS
THE LAST FIVE
The last five tight ends drafted by the Colts:
2012: Coby Fleener, second round, Stanford
2012: Dwayne Allen, third round, Clemson
2010: Brody Eldridge, fifth round, Oklahoma
2008: Jacob Tamme, fourth round, Kentucky
2008: Tom Santi, sixth round, Virginia
THIS YEAR'S DRAFT
An alphabetical list of tight ends expected to be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft (*-denotes underclassman):
Jack Doyle, Western Kentucky
Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame
Zach Ertz, Stanford*
Gavin Escobar, San Diego State
Travis Kelce, Cincinnati
Jordan Reed, Florida*
Mychal Rivera, Tennessee
Dion Sims, Michigan State*
Mike Williams, Alabama
Note: The content in this story and in the series of draft-eligible players that appears on Colts.com in no way reflects the position of the Indianapolis Colts.