If you are of my generation and you know a Stanford fan from a younger generation, sit this person down and tell a story. Don't begin with "once upon a time," because then your story surely won't be believed; it will be dismissed as a fairy tale or the product of a deluded mind. What follows is not a fairy tale, it is canon.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away....
It was a period of prolific offenses. Rebel forces, striking from a secluded base in Palo Alto, had won important victories against the evil galactic powers from Los Angeles. During a fiercely fought campaign, rebel spies had managed to discover secret plans allowing for the infiltration of the Empire's ultimate stronghold, the ROSE BOWL, a storied destination with enough history to intimidate most ordinary football programs.
Soon to be pursued by sinister agents from another corner of the galaxy, head coach Tyrone Willingam raced through the Pac-10 at the helm of his Cardinal, custodian of the game plan that would save his players and restore competitive balance to the conference....
Every story needs heroes, and so it is with this one. Instead of Luke Skywalker, the Cardinal had wide receiver Troy Walters, and instead of Han Solo, there was DeRonnie Pitts. From 1997-1999, Walters and Pitts formed what is unquestionably the greatest receiver tandem in Stanford history.
Walters and Pitts produced three of the eight 1000-yard receiving seasons in school history, and they rank first and second in both career receptions and career receiving yardage. By most measures, they are the two greatest wide receivers in Stanford history, and they stood together in the same huddle for three years. (In case you're wondering, the lucky quarterbacks were Chad Hutchinson and Todd Husak.)
Whether coincidence or not, Stanford football began to decline after the departure of these two receivers, and never again has a Stanford wideout topped 1,000 yards in a season. Given the nature of the Stanford offense over the past decade, it isn't likely that we'll see another prolific duo like Walters and Pitts any time soon, but there have been some productive wide receiver groups. Take a look at this chart...
I know that's a lot of data to digest, but I'd argue that you're looking at the five most productive groups of wide receivers in Stanford history, with the numbers from 2017 thrown in at the bottom for comparison's sake. Why does all that history matter? It's simple, really. I think this year's receiving corps has the potential to finish as one of the program's best.
There's a lot to be excited about here, and it begins with the experience at the top of the depth chart provided by seniors J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin.
Last year's yardage total from Arcega-Whiteside not only led the team in 2017, it was the highest since Ty Montgomery graduated in 2014, and would've been good enough to lead the team in all but six years this century. More important than the yardage, however, is how it was gained. According to the stat heads at Pro Football Focus, Arcega-Whiteside is the most productive returning wide receiver in the Pac-12 by at least one measure. His 2.65 yards per route run is significantly higher than Arizona State's N'Keal Harry, the player most would name as the best receiver in the conference. If you're looking for a less esoteric statistic to wrap your head around, Arcega-Whiteside's 16.3 yards per catch is also pretty nice.
Beyond the numbers, though, it's Arcega-Whiteside's physical presence that separates him from most receivers. The Stanford offense under David Shaw has always featured big receivers, and the line between wideouts and tight ends is sometimes a bit blurry. At 6'3" and 221 pounds, Arcega-Whiteside is another in this mold -- a highly-skilled receiver with the size and strength to dominate smaller defensive backs. No where is this more obvious than in the red zone where he's often called on to execute the end zone fade, a play he clearly loves.
If you dip into the Stanford football Twitterverse from time to time, you know that few things about Shaw are as controversial as his attachment to the end zone fade. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Shaw and Arcega-Whiteside, and this was topic number one. It was kind of like talking to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker about the Force. (Full disclosure: I absolutely LOVE the fade, mainly because I also love touchdowns.)
If you've watched even one Stanford football game, you know this play. Inside the 10 yard line, the offense comes out in a spread formation of sorts, usually with Arcega-Whiteside and a tight end out wide with another tight end in the slot. Since Arcega-Whiteside is the smallest target (Kaden Smith is 6'5" and Colby Parkinson is 6'7"), there are mismatches all over the field, so the result is usually positive for the Cardinal. Undersized defensive backs essentially have two choices: yield the touchdown, or clutch and grab -- which usually results in pass interference.
The defense is in a terrible position, Shaw explained, because no matter what they do, quarterback K.J. Costello always has a great option. The quarterback only has to find which of his three receivers has single coverage, and that becomes his target. Sometimes, Shaw admitted, there's a particular matchup they want to exploit, but usually it's up to Costello to scan the field and make a choice. And then Arcega-Whiteside interjected, "But if the defense tries to take away the pass with extra defensive backs, K.J. can just walk it in." As I said, there are no bad options.
I was hoping to get some insight into Arcega-Whiteside's technique on this play, but like a true Jedi, he couldn't (or wouldn't) get into specifics. "Honestly, I just think about scoring. Beating my man, and scoring." But if you watch closely, you see all of Arcega-Whiteside's basketball background on display as he first boxes out his defender and then outleaps him for the rebound, er, touchdown. Want further evidence of the connection between master and pupil? Sometimes Arcega-Whiteside knows the play is coming before the call is even sent into the huddle. "I can just tell by the look on Coach Shaw's face. Okay, here comes the fade." He is one with the Force, and the Force is with him.
Can you run the fade too much? No, you can't. That's impossible. I reminded them both of that shameless sequence against Oregon State when Shaw called the fade on five consecutive plays. Arcega-Whiteside's eyes lit up, and the two of us rattled off the sequence, counting the results on our fingers like kids on a playground: "PI, PI, touchdown, PI, two-point conversion." He and I laughed and shook our heads, but Shaw sat quietly, clearly proud of his young Jedi.
Irwin will be on the other side of the field from Arcega-Whiteside most of the time, or sometimes in the slot, where he has become something of a possession receiver, living up to the reputation he earned during summer all-star camps in high school where he established himself as the best route runner in America. Irwin is a technician; he is always precisely where he's supposed to be and seldom drops a ball. Perhaps more than any receiver on the roster, he should benefit tremendously from what's expected to be a much more stable situation at quarterback. His production improved steadily over his first three years, and he could be ready for a breakout season this fall, which would probably look like something in the neighborhood of 50 catches for 600 yards.
Probably the most electric player on the roster not named Bryce Love is sophomore receiver Connor Wedington. Few Stanford players have arrived with more of a splash than Wedington, a late flip from Washington who announced his commitment to Stanford with a glitzy video, then had the confidence to ask for jersey #5, just about ten minutes after Christian McCaffrey took it off. But Wedington proved to be at least as much substance as style, and earned playing time immediately. I have neither the time nor the resources to look this up, so I'm just going to assume that his 6 receptions for 82 yards against Rice are both Stanford records for true freshmen. I mean, they must be, right? He remained consistent through the rest of the season, catching at least one ball in all games but one, and coming up with a handful of spectacular plays along the way. His production this fall might not exceed the 31 catches and 243 yards he totaled last year, but he'll still be an important and exciting part of the offense.
Beyond those three players, things get a bit murky. Junior Donald Stewart showed flashes of his potential last fall, and Shaw has mentioned him as a player to watch this season, but the receiver you should be looking forward to the most is sophomore Osiris St. Brown, he of the Receiving St. Browns. (Older brother Equanimeous just finished at Notre Dame, and younger brother Amon-Ra is already turning heads in his first few days at USC.) When the middle St. Brown brother signed with Stanford in 2017, he was one of the highest rated wide receiver prospects ever to sign with the Cardinal, and most expected him, not Wedington, to be the one contributing as a freshman. (You can take a peek at his high school highlights for a reminder of his potential. And remember, St. Brown played for Mater Dei in the Trinity League, the most talented league in California, with dozens of Division I players on every roster.) He wasn't able to overcome an injury suffered early in summer camp last year, so he never saw any playing time, but he's healthy now. When I asked Arcega-Whiteside what to expect from St. Brown, his answer was quick: "Speed. That's the first thing you'll notice when you see him."
This is inarguably the most complete group of wide receivers we've seen under David Shaw. With the defense obviously focused on Bryce Love, and with the stability that K.J. Costello provides at quarterback (not to mention the protection provided by one of the best offensive lines in the country), there will be opportunities for all five of these receivers to impact games on a regular basis. I can't wait to see how it all unfolds.
- In case you're wondering, this was not David Shaw's best year as a receiver. In 1993 he caught 32 passes for 429 yards and 4 touchdowns, and also carried the ball twice for 18 yards.
- Three of Stanford's greatest individual receivers (Ken Margerum, Randy Vataha, and Gene Washington) don't make this list because this discussion focuses on overall depth at the position, and those three players were all essentially one-man shows.