Mammoth Tight Ends Are Keys To UW-Stanford Showdown
Oct. 20, 2011
Weekly Game Notes
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - With spread offenses the rage and wide receivers running across college football like so many deer in continent-wide preserve, the Huskies' showdown at Stanford will be a throwback.
Make that, a throw to the tight end. Many throws. To many, many tight ends.
You remember tight ends, the big guys at the end of the interior offensive line who sometimes block, other times run pass routes. Like dinosaurs, they used to roam much more of the football earth -- until seemingly being rendered extinct by the proliferation of the spread and five wide-receiver sets.
Saturday night at Stanford, six - SIX! - of them will likely have a huge say in whether 22nd-ranked Washington (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) or No. 7 Stanford (6-0, 4-0) stay in first place in the conference's North division (ABC television, espn3.com, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com for another live game chat from the sidelines).
Austin Seferian-Jenkins has been a big-play revelation in his freshman season for the Huskies. He often lines up opposite redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson. Washington also uses a third, 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end, Evan Hudson.
Stanford's most dangerous receiving threat is fleet, 6-6 tight end Coby Fleener, whom Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian says is faster than most wide receivers. Heisman Trophy front runner Andrew Luck also throws to Zach Ertz, another 6-6 tight end, plus 6-8 Levine Toilolo.
When's the last time that many tight ends - a combined 39 feet, two inches of them -- impacted a single college game?
"That's a pretty good question," said UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, a former college and professional quarterback whose coaching career at both levels began in 2001.
He was laughing.
"Obviously, they are a very tight end-driven offense. They do a lot of things with a lot of personnel groupings," Nussmeier said of Stanford. "And we feel like we've got three, very young and talented tight ends.
"I don't get to see everybody play. But I'm sure there will a quite a few more tight ends out there compared to most college football games."
Depth at the position was a huge problem for Washington entering last season. By October, Washington using a walk-on utility offensive lineman at tight end in key situations, such as while rallying to win on the final play at USC.
Not optimal. Not even passable.
Seferian-Jenkins' signing in February was a coup far beyond the fact Texas, USC and just about every major program away from his hometown of Gig Harbor, Wash., wanted the freakishly skilled and fast big man. Sarkisian finally had the tight end upon which his pro-style, play-action-pass offense is based, but without which he and Nussmeier had to operate in their first two seasons at UW.
Voila! Seferian-Jenkins' four touchdown receptions in his first six college games is already tied for 10th in Huskies history for a tight end - for a career.
And Washington has scored 30 or more points in the first six games for the first time in the 120-season history of the program.
"It's probably like anything else. Anytime you don't have it, you realize how much you want it," Nussmeier said. "We spent so much time last year trying to invent ways to run our plays. It takes energy to do that. You are always trying to do different things, and sometimes they aren't as sound as you'd quite like them to be simply because the personnel matchups aren't what you'd like.
"Having these three guys as they continue to improve is going to help us grow."
Asked how much of the playbook they cut out in 2010 without capable tight ends, Nussmeier said: "Quite a bit. Any time you talk about a pro-style offense you start with the tight end position."
They are the integral part of Stanford's scheme.
Fleener leads the Cardinal with six touchdown receptions. Ertz is tied for second on the team with 20 catches. And Toilolo scored two touchdowns last week in Stanford's blowout of Washington State. The 6-8 junior is averaging 21.8 yards per catch.
"They beat corners. That Fleener can run, man," Sarkisian marveled. "I don't know what he runs, or what he runs at the combine, but he can run. That guy, he's a wide receiver that can run. "It's not just linebackers. They are throwing seam routes and go routes and corner routes on defensive backs, and they make plays." The Huskies may be forced to use cornerbacks to cover Stanford's tight ends instead of safeties because of the speed, but their tallest are 6 feet: Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson. The tallest UW safety playing is 6-1 Nate Fellner. Now you see how Luck is in the nation's top five in passing efficiency. There aren't many defenses in college with 6-5, 6-6 cover guys. "We can't get taller in 48 hours. We are who we are," Sarkisian said Thursday. "As much as anything on their tall tight ends, we have to get into their bodies and be physical with them and not just let them run free down the field."
The Cardinal's do that as well as anyone.
"I watched them last year in the Orange Bowl when they played Virginia Tech. They have a lot of good tight ends," Seferian-Jenkins said. "They use their hands. And they can run."
So can Seferian-Jenkins. Last week against Colorado, the score was tied at 7 and Washington faced a third and 2 at midfield. Keith Price found Seferian-Jenkins sprinting from the hash mark to the sidelines about 15 yards down field.
The tight end, who was primarily split out in high school, shifted into another gear and raced toward Price's dart at the sideline. He fully extended his 6-6, 260-pound body in the air for a leaping, diving grab, as exquisite as a 16-yard catch as you will ever see. Kevin Smith scored on the next play, and UW rolled to the victory.
Days later, Seferian-Jenkins shrugged off the play.
"I mean, honestly, it was just another catch for me. Got the first down for the team," he said. "It never matters to me how I manufacture the catch. Just as long I as I catch the ball.
Word is getting out that Seferian-Jenkins can be Price's go-to guy, especially on third downs lately.
Price has targeted Seferian-Jenkins 22 times this season. He's caught 15 of those passes, for 244 yards (16.3 yards per reception) and four touchdowns. The scores already tie the freshman for 10th in Washington history for a tight end - for a career.
Five of Seferian-Jenkins's six catches the last two games have come on third downs. Four have resulted in first downs. The fifth, an 11-yard throw against Colorado, went for a touchdown.
Stanford announced Thursday that senior safety Delano Howell, its hardest hitter and the brother of former UW linebacker Dan Howell, is out for Saturday with a hand injury.
Whoever is covering Seferian-Jenkins, he's likely to have help.
"They've been paying a little more attention to me. I can hear them saying, `Watch 88! Watch 88!' (before plays)," Seferian-Jenkins said of opponents. "That wasn't like at the beginning of the season. I just have to adjust to it.
"When they call my number, I am going to be there to make the play."
QUICK HITS: A noticeably loose Sarkisian - white UW cap on backwards -- led another indoor practice, as the Huskies prepared for an 82-degree Saturday in the Bay Area. "I don't know. Ask my wife about how relaxed I am," Sarkisian joked. "You know, I enjoy the process. I am learning this football team. I think this is a relatively relaxed team as well. I think they perform better when we are a little bit more relaxed than when we are jarred up. So, you have to play to the team as well, and to what I think is the best way to motivate them." ... Sarkisian said backup S Taz Stevenson (knee) might be the only Husky not out for the season who does not make Friday's afternoon's trip to California.