Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - With tight ends taking on a more active role in NFL passing attacks, college programs are following suit and developing star talent at the position throughout the FBS.
Following is a list of the top safety valves that college quarterbacks will look to in 2012:
TYLER EIFERT - Notre Dame has to find a way to make up for the production lost in the passing attack with the departure of Michael Floyd on the outside. The 6-foot-6, 259-pound Eifert will be called upon to do just that. Brian Kelly envisions his star tight end lining up all over the formation in an attempt to create mismatches. Eifert was a Mackey Award finalist as a junior, finishing second on the team behind Floyd with 63 receptions for 803 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. With the passing game being funneled through Eifert, those numbers are likely to increase and as a result, Eifert could go from being a Mackey Award finalist to taking home the hardware in 2012.
ZACH ERTZ - Stanford's passing game was lethal under Andrew Luck and a talented trio of tight ends certainly helped in 2011. Coby Fleener ended up going to the Indianapolis Colts in the recent NFL Draft, continuing his relationship with Luck. The 6-6, 249-pound Ertz hauled in 27 balls for 346 yards and four TDs a year ago, but should step out of Fleener's shadow a bit and become a true go-to guy in the Cardinal's new look offense in 2012.
JOSEPH FAURIA - This UCLA Bruin didn't become a starter until last year, but certainly made the most of his opportunity. Fauria finished the season with 39 receptions for 481 yards and a team-best six TD catches. It marked the most TD receptions by a Bruin since Marcedes Lewis in 2005 (10). The sky is the limit for the 6-7, 258-pound senior, who is expected to see his role increased in 2012 under new coach Jim Mora.
JAKE STONEBURNER - The 6-5, 245-pound Stoneburner arrived at Ohio State to play wide receiver, but was quickly moved to tight end and it could finally pay huge dividends in 2012. The Buckeyes are under new management with Urban Meyer now at the helm and utilizing his top talent will be a must. Stoneburner only caught 14 balls a year ago, but half of them went for touchdowns. The senior has worked hard on becoming an all-around player and should see more balls coming his way in 2012, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Big Ten.
GAVIN ESCOBAR - A bit of on unknown on the national level in playing for San Diego State, the 6-6 Escobar was named an All-Mountain West first-team member in 2011, after picking up Freshman All-American honors in 2010. He gets plenty of looks in the Aztec passing attack, finishing his sophomore season with 51 receptions for 780 yards and seven TDs. More than a red zone threat, Escobar finds a way to get open down the field and usually makes a play once he gets the ball in his hands.
JACOB PEDERSEN - Wisconsin has had a longstanding tradition of quality tight ends and the 2011 season was no exception. Sophomore Jacob Pedersen earned All- Big Ten second-team honors and was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award. The 6-4, 242-pounder was productive, hauling in 30 balls for 356 yards and a whopping eight TDs, the second-most in the country by a tight end last season. Opportunities weren't plentiful with the monster season by Heisman Award finalist Montee Ball, but Pedersen did make the most of his chances and is expected to do so once again as a junior in 2012.
CHRIS GRAGG - Arkansas is loaded on the offensive side of the football and despite the loss of Bobby Petrino at the top, the Razorbacks will move the football on just about everyone. The receiving corps has taken the biggest hit in terms of loss of personnel, but star quarterback Tyler Wilson will rely heavily on Cobi Hamilton on the outside and Gragg at tight end. A bit undersized at 6-3, 236 pounds, the senior plays much bigger and heads into 2012 off a junior campaign in which he amassed 41 catches for 518 yards and two TDs. With a Heisman candidate running the football (Knile Davis), expect things to open up in the passing game, especially the intermediate stuff. Gragg could be in store for a huge season.
PHILIP LUTZENKIRCHEN - There are certain changes on the horizon down at Auburn this season, but the return of Lutzenkirchen to the Tigers' roster is certainly noteworthy. After earning All-SEC second-team honors in 2011 after catching 24 passes for 238 yards and a team-high seven TDs, the 6-5, 250-pounder flirted with the idea of leaving for the NFL. A gifted pass catcher and bona fide red zone threat, he may bring just as much to the Tigers this season as a vocal leader on the field.
LEVINE TOILOLO (Stanford) - Yet another Stanford tight end that could find himself playing on Sundays in the very near future. Toilolo wasn't Luck's favorite target in 2011, but he is an undeniable talent, especially in the red zone, where he can use his 6-8, 263-pound frame to his advantage. Toilolo saw plenty of snaps in 2011, playing in 13 games with 10 starts. He ended up with 25 receptions for 343 yards and finished second on the team in TD catches with six. He will have to share the workload with Ertz this season, but there will be plenty of opportunities for both gifted playmakers.
RANDALL TELFER - There's a good chance that USC has the top two players in the country regardless of position in quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods, so it is no surprise to see the rich talent pool for the Trojans extends to the tight end position. The 6-4 Telfer made an immediate impact in 2011, earning Freshman All-American honors after posting 26 receptions for 273 yards and five TDs, the receptions marking the most by a freshman tight end in school history. The ceiling is extremely high for this youngster and with Barkley slinging the ball around, every eligible receiver on the USC roster has a chance to put up big numbers in 2012.
HONORABLE MENTION: Ryan Otten (San Jose State), Michael Williams (Alabama), Lucas Reed (New Mexico), Jack Doyle (Western Kentucky), Chris Pantale (Boston College), C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa), Mychal Rivera (Tennessee), Ryan Griffin (Connecticut), Dion Sims (Michigan State) and Kyler Reed (Nebraska).