By Joseph Beyda
David Shaw knows a thing or two about wide receivers.
As offensive coordinator and head coach over the last seven seasons, the former Cardinal wideout has mentored four Stanford receivers who now play the position in the NFL — as well as a fifth, Seahawks corner Richard Sherman ’10, who has played a little bit of pro ball himself. So when Shaw says that this year’s crop of Cardinal receivers is the best he’s ever worked with on the Farm, you should probably pay attention.
“I think from top to bottom, it’s the best group,” Shaw said after Saturday’s open practice. “And that will cause some angst from some of the guys when they read that report, because at one point we had Chris Owusu, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen and Griff Whalen — all playing in the NFL right now — all playing in the receiving corps. And for me to say that this is an extremely special group, those guys will be upset with me for saying that.
“But I think it’s true.”
This year’s receivers certainly pass the eye test, whether you’re looking at a stat sheet or at the wideouts themselves.
Senior Ty Montgomery headlines the group for a second straight year, looking to build on a season that saw him snag 10 touchdown receptions, take two kickoffs to the house and win The Jet Award for his kick return abilities. That’s not to mention the potential first-round pick’s school-record-tying, five-touchdown performance (four rushing, one receiving) against Cal, his sub-4.4 40-yard dash time or his four percent body fat, which Shaw recently said “makes no sense” for a 220-pound receiver.
But if this unit is truly special, it’s because of the diverse set of weapons behind Touchdown Ty.
“I think probably the biggest reason why it feels [exciting] is that everybody is like a cheerleader to everybody else,” said senior wide receiver Jordan Pratt. “To be honest, I think everybody’s excited about what everybody else in the room can do, not just themselves.”
While Montgomery creates a mismatch with his feet, fellow senior Devon Cajuste creates a mismatch with his 6-foot-4 frame. That stature helped Cajuste set a single-season school record for yards per catch (22.9) in 2013, when the slot receiver was badly needed to compensate for the Cardinal’s dip in tight end production.
That’s not to say Cajuste lacks speed. In fact, he was especially effective on third-and-long last season, reeling in a 57-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-9 against Washington State and a 78-yard grab on third-and-6 in the Pac-12 Title Game. And on both plays, Cajuste found separation against a linebacker deep downfield.
Shaw said recently that Cajuste’s measurables (229 pounds, low 4.4s in the 40) also didn’t make sense, which probably has something to do with why he mystified Pac-12 defenses last season. Those numbers are the result of a lot of hard work, as Cajuste put on 12 pounds between 2012 — when he recorded just one catch — and his breakout 2013 campaign.
“[Cajuste] is a workout warrior,” said wide receivers and quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard. “He’s one of those guys that when he puts his mind to something, like getting in shape and like working his body into a place where he’s ready for a season, it’s a sight to behold.”
So Stanford’s recipe for success at wide receiver is a whole lot of speed and a whole lot of muscle, with a little bit of height mixed in. What else?
Get this: more speed.
Stanford’s No. 3 receiver, junior Michael Rector, was so effective downfield last season that he had a higher yards per catch average (30.8) than Cajuste; he just didn’t have enough receptions to officially set the school record.
But what Rector does have — or at least, what he claims to have — is more speed than Montgomery.
“I’m faster,” Rector said. “Ty’s really fast also. We’re pretty close…This last spring we ran 40s and I was the fastest, but Ty wasn’t there because he was injured with his shoulder.”
That injury, which still could sideline Montgomery for the season opener against UC-Davis on Aug. 30, puts some pressure on Rector to prove that he can do more than just run deep routes, which has been a focus of his this offseason.
“It’s a misconception about him, that he’s just a deep shot guy,” Pritchard said. “And he’s not that. He runs every route extremely well, coming off the ball, attacking a DB. Those guys feel his speed, which is what allows him to run all the different routes as well.”
At least once last year, a Stanford opponent had to pay the price for respecting Rector’s speed. On a second-and-20 in the Pac-12 Title Game, Arizona State gave Rector eight yards of cushion, setting up an easy 34-yard screen.
That 38-14 Stanford win also served as a coming-out party of sorts for Pratt, who had three catches for 56 yards in what could be a sign of great things to come. The AAA pitcher turned environmental engineer turned 29-year-old depth receiver “does everything right,” Shaw said.
“Just being out there, consistent, bringing a lot of intensity, knowing what to do, being ready to fill in where they need me,” Pratt described himself. “Just a guy who does the job.”
Rounding out the group are sophomore Francis Owusu and fifth-year senior Jeff Trojan, who combined for eight catches last year.
Though the Cardinal’s wide receivers accounted for 65 percent of the team’s catches in 2013 — up from 33 percent in 2012 — the highly anticipated emergence of three sophomore tight ends likely means that the Stanford passing game will regain some balance this season. But with an embarrassment of riches that should keep opponents guessing play in, play out, the Cardinal’s wideouts are primed to capitalize on their opportunities even more effectively in 2014.
“We have a wide variety of receivers,” Rector said. “I think this could be one of the best receiving corps we’ve ever had at this school.”
Someone’s been listening to David Shaw.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series