STANFORD (AP) — The play that introduced Zach Ertz to most of the country, a 37-yard touchdown catch for Stanford's winning score against Southern California, has a fitting name.
The route requires fancy footwork to fake inside, then out, then back inside, and in this case involved slipping between defensive backs after the catch and diving into the end zone. The play, called "Trojan," also had been designed for an undersized slot receiver — not a 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end with a basketball background.
"The only tight end I've been around that can run that route is Todd Heap," said Stanford coach David Shaw, referring to the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick in 2001, now with the Arizona Cardinals. "Just as far as him being able to have that body control, the quickness and the agility. That route is usually for a 6-foot, 180-pound receiver that can make that triple move."
In the absence of Coby Fleener this season, Ertz has gone from a two-sport star at Monte Vista High School in San Francisco's East Bay to Stanford's top touchdown threat and latest NFL-caliber tight end.
While his go-ahead score against USC showed off his athleticism to a national television audience, Ertz's excellence has been known for years around the campus for the eighth-ranked Cardinal (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12), who play at Washington (2-1) in their first road game of the season Thursday night.
Take last spring for instance.
Some of the football players annually scrimmage the women's soccer team, which just so happened to be the reigning NCAA champion. Ertz and fellow tight end Levine Toilolo, who stands at 6-foot-8, alternated at goalie to lead the football team to a 5-4 upset.
So what happened on those four goals?
"Levine was the first half goalie," Ertz said, chuckling. "I think they had three in the first half."
Ertz has had a chance to shine more this season with Fleener, drafted 34th overall by the Indianapolis Colts along with top pick Andrew Luck, now gone.
But he has always stood out around the end zone.
Of the 52 passes for 682 yards Ertz has caught in two-plus seasons, 10 have been for touchdowns. Coaches and teammates rave about his route running and soft hands, giant mitts that can catch — or squeeze — some by surprise during an introduction.
Ertz catches about 100 balls from a machine every day. He also spends extra time with new quarterback Josh Nunes after practice and in the study room — and not just looking over football.
Both are management, science and engineering majors. They've worked on several group projects, including one last year comparing Nike's marketing strategy to other brands for a business class. This quarter, both are in MS&E 189, a course on social networks.
Coincidence or not, the redshirt junior is one of Nunes' most reliable targets and a nightmare for defensive backs everywhere.
"He's a great route runner and he knows how to use his body and shield you," said Stanford safety Jordan Richards, who leads the nation in passes defended this season. "He's a big guy. You don't want to be playing behind him, because you won't see the ball. You'll see the ball caught."
Ertz's skills on the field took time to evolve.
Also a power forward in high school, he credits his basketball pedigree for his hand-eye coordination and ability to "box out" defenders for jump balls in the end zone. Along with Fleener and Toilolo, he was even among those Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins had inquired about for his team once on campus — but playing basketball, even recreationally, is still kind of a "no-no" from the football coaches for fear of injury, Ertz said.
Some players such as receiver Drew Terrell, running back Stepfan Taylor and defensive end Josh Mauro play occasionally in the offseason. As for the team that usually wins, Ertz smiled and said: "The tight ends are the best position group."
Shaw is quick to point out that Ertz's basketball background actually hindered him at first, often getting him called for pass interference or illegal contact downfield for using his hands too much. Once Ertz realized his footwork was enough to shake off defenders, the rest has come naturally, including one-handed grabs that are becoming customary.
"He made a couple great catches in practice the other day," Shaw said. "You get to the point where you stop saying, 'Yea, great catch.' You just kind of say, 'OK, that's just Zach again.'"