The deep passing game that has eluded Stanford could finally be rehabilitated this fall.
Speedy wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector each partially tore a posterior cruciate ligament last year. Both recovered without surgery and are expected to be the top deep threats for redshirt sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan when the fourth-ranked Cardinal open the season against San Jose State on Sept. 7.
They have to be.
Stanford lost starters Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson to graduation. All-American tight end Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo are in the NFL now. And along with school-rushing leader Stepfan Taylor, the quintet combined to catch 18 of Stanford's 19 touchdown passes last season.
With a dominant defense and a promising quarterback, replacing that production is by far the biggest question for the defending Pac-12 champions and Rose Bowl winners.
"We take that really seriously," said Rector, who redshirted last season after injuring his right knee in training camp. "If we want to be a great team, then we need the receivers to step up."
Stanford coach David Shaw has touted his receivers since spring practice.
He admits they are short on game experience, but he insists it's not because they lack talent. They just haven't stayed healthy enough to beat out others before.
Perhaps no position has confounded Shaw, a former Cardinal wideout, more in his first two seasons at the helm. Stanford has relied on short and intermediate passes — and mostly to tight ends — to go with a run-first offense, and Shaw would love nothing more to mix it up more downfield.
"We got two guys with some serious speed that are healthy now," Shaw said. "It's hopefully what we've been missing on our offense for the last two years."
While Montgomery and Rector rehabilitated the same injury last season, they are at different stages in their development.
Montgomery is the unquestioned leader of the retooled receiving group, which also includes Devon Cajuste, Kodi Whitfield, Keanu Nelson and Jordan Pratt, among others. As a freshman two years ago, Montgomery caught 24 passes for 350 yards, including a career-high seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown from Andrew Luck in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
Much was expected of Montgomery last year. He started off slow under new quarterback Josh Nunes and a nagging knee sidelined him three games and slowed him down even when he played, finishing with 26 catches for 213 yards and no touchdowns.
"That was the first injury I ever had that's taken me out of football. That kind of hit me pretty hard," Montgomery said. "And it was a knee injury, which scared me. Just coming back was a big mental hurdle. It wasn't a good season for me last year. I don't mean to sound like an individualist. I'm very happy with the Rose Bowl. Mentally, I just wanted to come out here and help the team. I couldn't."
Rector can relate.
He started out like "gangbusters" in training camp, Shaw said, before he partially tore his PCL in practice. By the time he recovered, most of the season had expired and it made little sense for the freshman from Gig Harbor, Wash., to waste an entire year of eligibility.
Around that time in November, Montgomery's knee problems persisted. The diagnosis came back the same as Rector's injury, though not quite as serious, and he had to start his own rehabilitation process.
The PCL ligament is located in the back of the knee and helps connect the thighbone to the shinbone. Strengthening the muscles around it helped the ligament heal on its own and allowed both to avoid surgery, each said.
"When he got injured, he kept asking me little things to get back and better. We kind of felt the same," Rector said. "And now, it's good to be back."
The pair spent the summer catching pass from Hogan along with the rest of the wide receivers to speed up the learning process. Often, Hogan would just tell them to run any route they wanted to learn what each prefers.
They also competed in races. Officially, coaches clocked Montgomery's 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds, and Rector was just a "nose behind," he said.
"I had a bad day," Rector said.
Hogan said throwing more vertical passes will force defenses to back off the line of scrimmage and open up the running game. He also said the lack of experience from his receivers is not as big a deal as it might seem because he spent most of his first two years throwing to them in practice before he became the starter.
All of the receivers also said experience is not something they think about.
"You know if you start fighting the idea with each other like, 'Oh, we don't know.' Or you're kind of lacking or you're kind of worried like, 'Oh, I haven't thrown with Kevin before.' Then that's when the sync never happens," Cajuste said. "But if you just know that Kevin's a great player, we as a receiver corps believe we're all great players together and we all support each other. We don't worry."