One in a series of articles looking back at the 2013 season and evaluating each position group.
When Andrew Luck was doing his thing on the Farm, making Pac-12 defenses look like the JV squads from Bellarmine Prep and Paly High School, the common question bantered about amongst the football experts was a simple one -- What kind of numbers would Luck put up if he had any wide receivers?
Luck had three great possession receivers (Ryan Whalen, Griff Whalen, and Doug Baldwin) who went on to play in the NFL, but they weren't game changers. No defensive coordinator ever gave any of those players a second thought when game-planning against the Cardinal. In fact, prior to this season, the last time Stanford wide receivers struck fear into anyone's heart was way back at the turn of the century when Troy Walters (1996-99) and DeRonnie Pitts (1997-2000), statistically the two greatest receivers in Stanford history, were busy carving their names in the Stanford record books.
I don't think there's any danger that the Stanford offense under David Shaw will ever turn away from the bread and butter of the run game, but Stanford football just might be entering into a golden era of wide receivers. Juniors Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste and sophomores Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield are easily the best group of wide receivers since Walters and Pitts, and when their number is taken into consideration, along with freshman Francis Owusu, they give the Cardinal the most talent they've ever had at this critical position.
Cajuste probably wouldn't be happy to read this, but his size (6'4" and 232 pounds) makes people forget the current paucity of tight ends on the roster. He runs some of the same routes we saw from Zach Ertz last season, but he still has the speed to get behind the defense, especially with the extra help of play action. Even missing two games and being less than healthy for two others, he still managed 27 receptions for 591 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Rector is probably the fastest player on the team, and that speed has translated well into his role as the primary deep threat. Rarely has a player with only twelve receptions been so important to an offense. His preposterous 32.3 yards per catch average speaks to this, as do his three touchdowns. Whitfield also showed great promise this season with 16 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown, that touchdown being perhaps the greatest catch in Stanford history.
If Cajuste, Rector, and Whitfield are the supporting cast, the star of the show is Ty Montgomery. Running back Tyler Gaffney has obviously been the team's MVP, but Montgomery is something more than that. He's the one player on the roster who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, the one player whose blend of speed and strength bends the parameters of the game. (Look no further than his five-touchdown explosion against Cal in Big Game.) Put simply, he is a weapon.
I'll discuss his special teams impact next week, but even if his only contribution to the team were on offense, he'd still be a force. Before the season began I predicted that he'd double his career output by catching at least 50 balls for more than 563 yards, but he has already blown past those numbers.
He currently sits at 58 receptions and 937 yards, numbers which are significant both to the health of the offense and within the broader context of Stanford history. With one game left to play, his yardage total already represents the tenth-best receiving season in the history of the school; a big game against Michigan State could put him as high as fifth. But here's the thing to watch for on New Year's Day. If Montgomery gets to 63 yards against the tough Spartan defense, giving him a total of 1,000 yards on the season, he would become only the eighth player in Stanford history to reach that milestone and the first since Walters in 1999. Combined with Gaffney's prolific season running the ball, this would give the Stanford offense a thousand-yard rusher and a thousand-yard receiver in the same season for the first time since 1978 when Darin Nelson (1,161) and Ken Margerum (1,0129) turned the trick. (It had also happened the year before with Nelson and James Lofton, the only other time in Stanford history.)
But let's forget the historical context for a moment and focus on what happens when Montgomery walks onto the field. He is the one player on the offense that opposing defenses must account for on every play, and the coaching staff has taken advantage of this by moving him around. He's usually split out wide or nestled in the slot, but at least three or four times a game he'll line up alongside Hogan in the backfield. Montgomery has become a dangerous runner this season, either on a sweep directly out of the backfield or on a jet sweep from the typical alignment, accounting for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
As a receiver, Montgomery can be whatever the down and distance calls for. On 3rd and 5 he's fast enough to sell the defender on the deep threat before breaking back for a seven-yard gain, but he's also strong enough to run a simple slant across the middle. (His strength also makes him an excellent downfield blocker.) On earlier downs he's benefitted greatly from the Cardinal's play action game, but he's also been good enough to get open on his own, and he and Keving Hogan appear to have developed the connection often seen between a quarterback and his top receiver. When Hogan sees Montgomery with single coverage, he sees him as open and trusts that his receiver will be able to make the play to get the ball. More often than not this season, Montgomery has done just that.
The Stanford offense still centers around the running game, as evidenced by the 2,742 yards amassed on the ground as opposed to just 2,628 through the air, but the game-changing talent of Montgomery as well as the depth provided by Cajuste, Rector, and Whitfield make this wide receiving corps a formidable group.
Overall Grade: B+
Future Outlook for the Position: A-
Every one of these talented receivers will return in 2014, and we can expect greater contributions from Francis Owusu. They have the potential to form one of the top wide receiver units in the Pac-12.