One could hardly blame Michael Rector if he decided that Kevin Hogan’s beautiful 42-yard bomb through the Pasadena night was the final catch he’d make in his Stanford career. It went for a perfect season-capping touchdown and was Hogan’s final pass as a collegian. Rector himself was non-committal when asked about his plans immediately after the game.
We know now that Rector chose to return, and he headlines a position group not grabbing many headlines while under the shadow of McCaffrey-Mania, but that shouldn’t detract from either the potential or the importance of Stanford’s wide receiving core in 2016, especially with a first-time starter.
Rector’s return means that 63% of the team’s catches from the WR position return for 2016. The remainder went to the departed Devon Cajuste, whose production may be replaceable but as a matchup problem will be a bigger challenge for the Cardinal to replicate. Size-wise, the closest Stanford has among returners is Francis Owusu at 6’3” to Cajuste’s 6’4”.
Stanford was nowhere near as dependant on its receivers for catches as some other teams. That group’s 93 catches comprised of only 44% of the team’s overall receptions. Christian McCaffrey was the team’s leading and most reliable receiver in 2015. Certainly he’ll remain a big part of the Cardinal’s passing game, but it would seem with Austin Hooper and Cajuste moving on that the Cardinal receivers stand to shoulder more of the pass-catching load this year.
Rector, Trenton Irwin, and Owusu return as the only wide receivers to catch passes last season. Isaiah Brandt-Sims was targeted twice last year but did not make a catch. Five other players return from last year’s team: Sophomores Jay Tyler, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Sidhurt Krishnamurthi, and Seniors Taijuan Thomas and Treyvion Foster. Donald Stewart, Paxton Segina, and Harry Schwartz join the squad as incoming Freshmen.
Amongst that group, there’s a pretty clear top three, so the real issue is about depth. It’s very tantalizing to think about Rector and Irwin joining McCaffrey and Love on the same field at the same time. That’s speed that Stanford hasn’t been able to put on the field in such quantity even in the great years of the recent past. Despite Irwin’s success as a chain mover last year, his ability as a deep threat shouldn’t be a secret much longer.
Thomas comes over to the position from the defensive backfield, and you can see the thinking of the coaches there. DB’s are a position of experienced depth and WR is clearly not. How much of the field will Thomas see? Tough to call, but you’d think he stands a better chance than he did as a cornerback.
Donald Stewart’s recruiting courtship was heavily tracked, and the way the coaches have been increasingly willing to let Freshman play over the last couple of years, Stewart may get some snaps this year, though it’s unlikely that’s Plan A for him.
So what can this group contribute this year? Despite being a nationally elite offense in 2015, there was one area where Stanford could stand to improve: explosiveness. Football Study Hall measures this with isolated points per possession, which basically tracks how successful and offense is on plays that gain yardage. In other words, how often do you turn yards into points? By this metric, Stanford averaged 1.22 points per possession. That ranked 83rd in the nation, and was just under the national average of 1.27.
Again, it’s not like Stanford struggled to put points up, but if they are to improve in this category, it would seem now is the time when you factor in the speed of Rector and Irwin (Owusu can get deep as well) and the inevitable preoccupation with McCaffrey and the Cardinal run game. Chryst and Burns can both get the ball downfield, so we’ll see if they can make any hay this season downfield.
So in summary, can this group stretch the field and do they have enough depth? There is talent in this receiving core, but it’s not really that experienced. Because of that, Rector’s decision to return may have earned more than a few sighs of relief from a coaching staff facing a number of variables in other position groups.