STANFORD, Calif. (AP) Tight End University is graduating two more of its finest.
All-American Zach Ertz and fellow redshirt junior Levine Toilolo announced Monday that they would forego their final year of eligibility at Stanford to enter the NFL draft.
While the moves had been somewhat expected, the Cardinal's recent run of success - and the emergence of quarterback Kevin Hogan - made both consider returning for one more run at a national title.
``Kevin's special, man. All those guys coming back on defense, I think they're going to be one of the best teams in the country next year,'' Ertz said by phone. ``They're going to be really good. But at the same time, I have to do what's best for me and my family at this time. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.''
Luke Kaumatule and Devon Cajuste will be in the mix to replace both next season. Standout fullback Ryan Hewitt also has played tight end sparingly, and Stanford coach David Shaw said last week that tight ends have been his biggest focus in recruiting.
After all, the two are the latest Cardinal tight ends to head to the NFL.
Coby Fleener was drafted 34th overall by the Indianapolis Colts last year. Jim Dray (2010) is playing for the Arizona Cardinals and Konrad Reuland (2011) for the New York Jets.
``Stanford's had a lot of great tight ends for sure,'' Ertz said. ``Guys like Jim and Konrad really started it lately, and I'm just thankful to have been a part of it.''
Ertz submitted paperwork to the NFL to gauge where he could be selected. He's expected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in April.
After playing in the Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl the previous two years, Ertz had a team-best 69 receptions for 898 yards and six touchdowns while leading No. 8 Stanford (12-2) to the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Cardinal had not won the Rose Bowl since 1972.
Ertz delivered in the biggest moments of the year, too. He caught the tying touchdown to force overtime in a win at top-ranked Oregon, the winning score against No. 2 Southern California and a 17-yard reception on fourth-and-9 on the final drive of regulation against Arizona to rally Stanford from a two-touchdown deficit for an overtime victory.
The 6-foot-6, 252-pound Ertz starred at nearby Monte Vista High School in Danville, Calif., where coaches convinced him to leave basketball behind and focus on football. Former San Francisco 49ers standout and four-time Pro Bowl tight end Brent Jones also helped mentor and mold Ertz into an elite blocker and receiver.
Back in seventh grade, Ertz hated football so much he wanted to quit. Instead, his mother, Lisa, convinced him to give the sport a chance- if nothing else just so he could see his full potential.
``I'd say it worked out all right,'' Ertz said.
Ertz plans to take the winter quarter off before finishing his degree in management science and engineering in June. He will train at California Strength in San Ramon, Calif., the same facility where former Stanford receivers Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu worked out before they headed to the NFL.
Toilolo's departure is based more on his potential than production.
He had 24 receptions for 393 yards and four touchdowns last season. He's not nearly as polished as Ertz, but at 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, Toilolo's size is enough to make scouts salivate.
A native of La Mesa, Calif., Toilolo majored in science, technology and society. Toilolo, who also is on pace to earn his degree in June, released a statement thanking his coaches, teammates and professors for helping him reach his goals.
``To all of my teammates, I wish you all the best of luck next season,'' Toilolo said, ``and I look forward to being able to cheer for you guys during the National Championship Game!''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP