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September 19, 2013

Stanford Passing Game Update

Two games into the 2013 season and Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has earned a passing grade - but not a perfect mark - from his head coach, David Shaw.

"For the most part, I would say he's operating at a B, B+ level," Shaw said after Stanford's win at Army. "We need to get him in the A's. Got to get in him in the A's."

Though his completion percentage is down upwards of eight points from 2012, Hogan's yards per attempt average is up by more than a yard-and-a-half. That's due to an increased emphasis on the downfield passing game.

"When you look at the numbers he's done a really good job," Stanford quarterbacks/receivers coach Mike Sanford said. "His pass efficiency number is significantly up from last year. I think a lot of that has to do with the yards per attempt piece. And that's been really good. The thing when you take more shots down the field, which really last game the defense that we played against dictated us to try to throw the ball over their heads, I think those throws are going to be a little bit lower percentage. But we hit quite a few of them, and that was encouraging to see."

Stanford's passing game has taken on a different look so far in 2013. While future NFL players Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo keyed the aerial attack last season, the Cardinal's tight ends have combined for only two receptions so far this year.

The Cardinal's receivers know they'll be emphasized more in the passing game throughout the season and are preparing accordingly.

"During the week, it's a different type of preparation than last year," redshirt freshman Michael Rector said. "We come in with a higher sense of responsibility and a higher sense of focus. Not that we weren't feeling those things last year, but we take more upon ourselves to do the right things, to execute correctly and to try to help this team out."

Junior receiver Ty Montgomery has executed quite well over the season's first two games; he leads the Cardinal in receiving yards and touchdown receptions. In fact, Montgomery has essentially matched his season totals from a year ago. The Texas native has 211 yards and two touchdowns so far in 2013. He had 213 yards and zero scores in the entire 2012 campaign.

"I think (the factors that have contributed to his success include) his health, his confidence is at a high level and (the fact that he) put in so much work this offseason," Sanford said. "He's put in work to be a leader on this football team too, just the way that he goes about practice and offseason conditioning mentality-wise. And I think he's become a master of the position. He's really a joy to watch on film the day after because you see some great things in the blocking game. He's an unselfish player and he loves the game of football and he lives for a big block just as much as he does for a touchdown catch, probably even more to be honest, and that's great. Both him and Devon (Cajuste), their style of play in the blocking game kind of resembles what our football team is all about and that's being physical, being violent, finishing every play with a little chip on your shoulder."

Stanford's victory over Army last week marked the debut of freshman wide receiver Francis Owusu, who so far is the only member of the Cardinal's 2013 recruiting class to have sees game action. Owusu played solely on special teams last week, but Stanford plans to integrate him more into the offense in upcoming games.

"We'll definitely find our spots for him offensively," Mike Sanford said. "He's earned that right based off his physical ability. He's got so much ability. He's actually picked up our schemes pretty well offensively, even to the point where we can now put him at multiple receiver positions, the 'Z' and 'X', which is really impressive for a freshman coming in. I think if you look back maybe a couple years ago when we had a little bit less experienced, a less talented receiver group, he's probably playing significant time right now. But I think he's going to get his opportunities, he just has to keep working."

Owusu is the Stanford's third true freshman receiver to play in as many years; Ty Montgomery earned time as a true freshman in 2011 and Kodi Whitfield did the same in 2012. How does Owusu compare to Montgomery and Whitfield at the same stage?

"(Francis) is very good mentally in terms of knowing his assignments," Sanford said. "We put Ty in so many niche type roles and he did those things so well. We're trying to figure out with Francis exactly what niche roles he needs to be in and what he does that's better than another one of our receivers. He's so big, he's so fast, he catches the ball well. He's a very, very physically gifted kid. Whereas with Kodi, he came in and he was absolutely nails on all of his assignments from the get-go. He's as intelligent as I've ever seen in terms of just memorization and retention of our schemes."

Rector gets on the stat sheet: After being held without a catch in his debut against San Jose State, Michael Rector made the first catch of his collegiate career a memorable one against Army. With under a minute left in the first quarter, Rector broke open and hauled in a 26-yard touchdown off a tipped pass from Hogan.

"I came down in motion and off the snap I ran and my guy was kind of trailing me," Rector said. "One of the safeties over the top got his hands on me a little bit but I was able to rip through and then my guy was still behind me. He was the guy that tipped it. Luckily, the ball was tipped and not intercepted and fell into my hands. I just had to reach back a little bit and I'm glad it happened. It was a good first catch.

"It was kind of surreal. I didn't really realize what was happening at first, but it kind of sunk in later and I was pretty excited. It was a good feeling. Hopefully we have some more of those."

Shaw pleased with tight ends: Stanford's tight ends have accounted for a total of two catches so far this year, but David Shaw is pleased with the unit's progress.

"They're doing a good job," Shaw said. "We haven't gone through the gymnastics that we've gone through before for a guy like Ertz or Fleener to put them in position to make catches. They're out there, they're playing. The quarterbacks are just going through their progressions. We're doing more three receiver things than we have in the last two years. It's no slight on them, it's just that our receivers are playing really well. Our tight ends are doing well, the ball just hasn't come their way very much."

Stanford has still yet to determine whether true freshman tight end Austin Hooper will play this season. Thus far, Stanford has relied mainly on Luke Kaumatule, Charlie Hopkins and Eddie Plantaric at the position.

"(Hooper playing) is still up in the air," Shaw said. "It's hard to say which way I'm leaning. After four games if he hasn't played I wouldn't do that to him, burn his redshirt, unless we had a catastrophe with injuries and all kinds of things. Right now we're healthy. He's doing really well, he's going to be a really good player for us. We'll see how the next couple of games go."

Preparing for ASU's defense: For all the talk of Stanford's "party in the backfield" defense, Arizona State's front-seven is adept at attacking the quarterback in its own right. Last year the Sun Devils led the nation in tackles for loss, and were among the national leaders in sacks.

"They're one of the best groups in the Pac-12," Sanford said. "Last year they were a top-10 team nationally in pass defense and they're a physical, fast, violent bunch of guys who have played a bunch of football together. You turn on that film from last year and you see almost the same cast of characters. They're trying to get after your passer. There are aspects of them that remind me a ton of our defense in just the sense that their pass defense is so good because of the pressure that they generate, whether it be through a really talented front four or just generating pass rush from extreme pressures. They're a good football team. It's amazing, every week in this conference is going to be a battle. There are so many talented teams, there are so many talented offenses and there are some really good defenses too with exotic looks."

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