Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is more familiar with Jim Harbaugh’s ability to make the best use of his offensive personnel than he is with NFL rosters.
But Aliotti, who last coached in the NFL 14 years ago, knows Harbaugh will take full advantage of the talents of a certain player in San Francisco.
Whatever that guy’s name is.
“I know he has one heck of a tight end there,” Aliotti said. “What is it, No. 85? Who is the tight end there?”
The tight end in question, of course, is Vernon Davis, who might become even more active in Harbaugh’s offense after posting some eye-popping numbers the past two seasons: 134 catches for 1,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Davis (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and backups Delanie Walker (6-0, 242) and Nate Byham (6-4, 268) are the type of big-bodied, athletic and versatile tight ends that Harbaugh targeted at Stanford: The Cardinal’s tight-end trio this past season featured Coby Fleener (6-6, 244), Zach Ertz (6-6, 249) and Konrad Reuland (6-6, 257).
Stockpiling talented tight ends was clearly a point of emphasis for Harbaugh. And the depth at the position played a key role in his ability to employ endless formations and personnel packages.
Aliotti termed them “hybrid” tight ends, players who were adept at blocking or serving as H-backs and catching the ball in space.
“They’ll use two and three tight ends at times,” Aliotti said. “Typically when you put in a lot of big people in you get more of a hard-ball running thing, but he would still spread you out and run the same plays with those big people. He’d spread them out wide and they could be the widest receiver or they could be the two inside receivers on slot.
“They’ll motion, move guys into the backfield. He does a lot with those guys. And the combination of his offense, and his offensive scheme, and the power running, and the multiple formations and personnel groups … he kept you off balance and did a fantastic job.”
Think Harbaugh coveted tight ends? Ertz (16 catches, 190 yards, 5 TDs) and Reuland (21, 209, 1), a transfer from Notre Dame, were both top-five tight end recruits in the nation out of high school. Fleener, perhaps the least-heralded, was also the most productive this past season with 28 catches for 434 yards and seven touchdowns. The threesome accounted for 13 – or 41 percent — of quarterback Andrew Luck’s 32 touchdown passes.
In a 40-12 Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, they combined for 10 catches for 226 yards and four touchdowns with Fleener (6, 173, 3) doing most of the damage.
An impressive group, obviously. But now consider this: None of those guys – Fleener, Ertz or Reuland — was Stanford’s opening-day starter. That distinction belonged to 6-8, 264-pound sophomore Levine Toilolo, a top-five national tight end recruit who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game against Sacramento State.
Harbaugh used tight ends to create one-on-one mismatches, which are central to offensive success at the NFL level.
“He had the perfect personnel,” Aliotti said. “Or at least he matched his personnel very well to the scheme he wanted to run … His style of play at Stanford will definitely translate to the NFL without out a problem because it’s an NFL offense in my opinion. Whether it’s West Coast or all that, I don’t know. But will he be successful? Will he do a great job? I’d give him five-star rave reviews. The guy is a good coach. The guy has a good offensive mind – probably as good as there is in my opinion.”
Aliotti is a believer after his unit allowed an average of 41 points a game to Stanford over the past two seasons, doubling the average point total (20.6) the Ducks allowed in their other 16 Pac-10 games since 2009.
Of course, those Stanford offenses had Luck at quarterback — the type of elite signal-caller the Niners are lacking.
Aliotti, as noted, has been out of the NFL for more than a decade.
But he’s quite certain one thing hasn’t changed.
In order to take full advantage of depth at a skill position – something the 49ers have with Davis, Walker and Byham – a talented triggerman is a necessity.
“You always need a quarterback in that league,” Aliotti said. “What their situation is there and what Harbaugh wants to do, I can’t speak intelligently to their personnel or anything like that.
“But given equal personnel, or close to equal personnel, I think they’ll be very, very good on offense. They will cause problems. If he can get the right people in his system, I see him having great success.”