LOS ANGELES – Jim Harbaugh sought out a very specific body type when he took over moribund Stanford in 2007. He wanted a defined mix of size, length, and athleticism, so he started recruiting high school tight ends by the bushel.
They became Harbaugh’s building blocks, the pieces he could deploy wherever necessary. They became tight ends, fullbacks, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, outside linebackers. They became the cornerstone of a college football resurrection, an approach David Shaw has continued the last two seasons.
“If we find as many guys as possible that can play that position well and they don’t make it at tight end, you can move them anyplace,” Shaw said.
The best example might be Ryan Hewitt, who arrived at Stanford in 2009 as part of the same recruiting class as fellow tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Coby Fleener was already in the mix, so Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wanted to get all four of them on the field at the same time.
That meant moving Hewitt to fullback, but the senior does more than serve as lead blocker for running back Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for 1,442 yards this season. He can go in motion or split out wide, as part of Stanford’s elaborate package of shifts and unconventional personnel. He can catch the ball.
“He is the hybrid club in the bag,” Hamilton said. “He’s one of the toughest football players in America in my opinion. He is a guy that can line up at fullback and block iso, he can block off the edge in our power scheme, but at the same time, they have to account for him coming out of the backfield in the passing game.”
Hewitt described the main element of his job as being “able to move people” in the run game, a task that also falls to the more heralded Ertz, who earned unanimous All-America honors this season, and Toilolo.
Though they combined for 90 receptions, 1,230 yards, and 10 touchdowns this season, essentially half of the Stanford passing offense, those numbers were secondary to the playcalling ratio, as Shaw and Hamilton called 135 more runs than throws.
That means Ertz and Toilolo must be as equally adept in run blocking as they are in running routes.
“In our offense, I think it is well known that we want to run the football,” Hamilton said. We want to find a way to run the power scheme, so that guy, that body type, you got to be able to block down and double team. That’s our No. 1 priority in identifying guys that can play in our system.”
Of course, that opens up play-action.
“When you have a big guy who is athletic and can block at the line of scrimmage and then goes out for a pass, who is going to cover him?” Shaw said.
“The linebacker? Some of those guys are too fast for linebackers. The safeties, those guys are too big for safeties. Those guys are mismatches in college football and in the NFL.”
The challenge, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said, will be trying to disrupt the timing of Ertz and Toilolo when they run routes and maintaining discipline against play-action.
And while Stanford will relies heavily on personnel packages where Taylor and quarterback Kevin Hogan are the only ones on the field weighing less than 250 pounds, Ertz said it isn’t the length and size that sets the Pac-12 champions apart.
“We think of it as an attitude, especially up front,” Ertz said. “We all like to think we are a physical team. That has been the key cog in this whole thing.”
It starts with the building blocks.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.