Spring practice opens as Cardinal look to replace Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo

STANFORD — Stanford is referred to as “Tight End U” these days because of the steady stream of NFL picks the football team has churned out at that position in recent years. But when the Cardinal set out to defend their Rose Bowl championship in the fall, they’ll be featuring a pair of fresh faces in their double-tight end set.

Spring practices got under way at Dan Elliott Field on Monday, kicking off auditions for the roles previously performed by Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.

At this point, several players are in the mix and coach David Shaw said he is simply trying to assess what each candidate brings to the table.

“For the guys that are here right now, we just want to see what they can do,” he said.

The reigning Pac-12 Conference champions are returning a load of talent at several key positions this season, but a gaping hole opened up at tight end in January when Ertz and Toilolo declared eligibility for the NFL draft.

Ertz’s departure isn’t surprising. He is a likely first or second-round pick in April’s draft. Last year, he led FBS tight ends in receptions (69) and receiving yards (898), while earning consensus All-America honors. 

Toilolo was the heir apparent to Ertz’s throne, but the 6-foot-8 junior is deciding to test the pro waters, as well, despite numbers (25 receptions, 393 yards) that would surely improve with another season on the Farm.

Redshirt freshman Luke Kaumatule is the most likely candidate to start at tight end in the season opener against San Jose State on Sept. 7. Kaumatule’s size is reminiscent of Toilolo (6-foot-7, 260 pounds) and several recruiting services listed him as a four-star recruit coming out of high school in 2012.

“He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s got a huge upside,” Shaw said.

Senior Eddie Plantaric is moving from the offensive line to tight end to give the team another option and former defensive lineman Charlie Hopkins will also jump into the position later in the spring.

Shaw said senior fullback Ryan Hewitt could also line up at tight end from time to time.

“I’m very comfortable where Ryan is from his fullback position, but we can move him around as we always do,” he said. “He can do just about anything.”

The Cardinal hauled in three highly touted tight end recruits — Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper — on national signing day and Shaw didn’t rule out the possibility that at least one of them could see action in 2013.

“I have no issues playing freshmen at tight end,” he said. “If they come in, they know what to do and can make plays for us in the running game or passing game; if they can help us out, we’re going to put them on the field.”

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By Al Saracevic