STANFORD — In a fast-moving NFL, the big-play tight end is becoming a trump card in the deck of offensive coordinators around the league. They’re too quick for linebackers to cover and too big for defensive backs to handle. They can act as a fourth receiver against traditional 4-3 defenses or serve as run blockers when coaches bring in the nickel.
“The tight end is that mismatch position,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “If you don’t have [a versatile tight end], you miss it — you have to coach around it. But if you have one, defenses have to account for him.”
The growing demand for highly athletic tight ends is what makes the Stanford’s Zach Ertz such a valuable commodity in the 2013 NFL Draft, which gets underway on Thursday. Ertz is the prototypical 21st-century tight end and he’s expected to be the first player chosen at the position this week, somewhere in the first or second round.
“If you have a guy like Zach who’s 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and the safeties are in the 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-1 range — it’s like basketball,” Shaw said. “He can get out in space and post them up.”
Not surprisingly, Ertz fell in love with basketball long before he realized that he was born to wreak havoc on the gridiron. As a freshman at Monte Vista High School (Danville), he played wide receiver and quarterback on the junior varsity football team, but he dreamed about competing in the Final Four at one of the top schools like UCLA, Duke or North Carolina.
“He played a year of Pop Warner and they stuck him on the line, which is what they do with the big kids,” Monte Vista football coach Craig Bergman said. “So he kind of gravitated toward basketball.”
As a sophomore, Ertz was 6-foot-6, 195 pounds, agile and athletic, a natural power forward in the Mustangs’ frontcourt. Shaw said Ertz uses the skills he picked up on the hardwood to outmaneuver defenders at tight end.
“When the ball is up in the air, you’ve got to go get the rebound and you saw the perfect example of that in the Oregon game,” Shaw said, referring to Ertz’s game-winning touchdown against the Ducks last year. “If you see the picture, it looks like the ball’s bouncing off the rim and here’s a power forward going up and grabbing it.”
Ertz played basketball throughout high school, but he started to take football more seriously after moving to tight end during his sophomore year. After his first-full year at the position, Bergman told him to bulk up.
“I said, ‘Zach, you’re a good high school basketball player, but you could be a great, great football player,” he said. “Your future is in football — there’s no question.”
As football took priority, Ertz developed a relationship with former 49ers tight end Brent Jones, who’s daughter attended Monte Vista. Ertz said Jones taught him the in’s and out’s of route running, blocking and how to condition himself like a professional.
“I needed some guidance. He just kind of came out there and showed me the ropes,” Ertz said. “Ever since then he’s been instrumental in my life, on and off the field.”
Ertz overwhelmed defense during his last two years of high school football, grabbing the attention of then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who was experimenting with double-tight end formations.
“He told me that the tight end was going to be a big part of the offense,” Ertz said. “I didn’t necessarily know we were going to run no huddle with three tight ends on the field at once.”
With Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener, Stanford earned the nickname, “Tight End U.” Of the three, Ertz left the biggest imprint.
After a knee injury shortened his junior season, he returned to field in 2012 earning consensus All-American honors while leading FBS tight ends in receptions (66) and receiving yards (837) en route to the Cardinal’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1972.
Now, fans, pundits and prognosticators are speculating that Ertz will reconnect with Harbaugh as a member of the 49ers on draft day, filling the void left by Delanie Walker, who departed through free agency in March.
While Ertz said he would enjoy playing in his backyard, he insisted that he will be pleased wherever he winds up.
“It’s hard to not pay attention to it growing up in the East Bay,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I just want to go to a team where I can help them win a championship.”