Ty Montgomery thrives in kick and punt returns on his intelligent decisions and over-achieving attitude. Can the wide receiver pace Stanford past Notre Dame on Saturday?
Pete Alamar and Devon Cajuste have seen so many impressive kick returns from Ty Montgomery that it’s tough to pick a favorite. Alamar leans toward one from last year’s 31-28 win over Washington (NOT the one that went 99 yards for a touchdown), and Cajuste isn’t sure. Montgomery, however, has a quick answer to the question. It happened when he was 7.
At that age, kick returns become touchdowns when fast kids get to the sideline, turn the corner and outrun everyone. Montgomery, who grew up in Dallas, got good at this early. His favorite return isn’t memorable because of the opponent or the outcome but because of who ran with him.
“I’ll never forget this,” Montgomery says, “I catch the ball, I break outside, and my uncle, who was at the game and was faster than me at the time, ran with me all the way to the end zone. Afterward, I told him: ‘I can’t wait to be faster than you.’”
It didn’t take long. Now one of the best kick returners in the country (he averages just under 30 yards per return, ninth-best in the nation), Montgomery laughs and says there’s no way Normal Henderson could currently keep pace.
It’s a problem opposing coverage teams can relate to. And this weekend in South Bend, where No. 14 Stanford (3-1) takes on No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0), it’s something the Fighting Irish are sure to be watching closely.
Alamar, Stanford’s special teams coach, loves to gush about his star pupil.
“Ty takes his speed and his toughness and his vision, which is his understanding of the flow and of the coverage team and the leverage of his blockers,” Alamar says. “He internalizes it in a split second and uses it to his advantage.”
At the most basic level, Alamar says, returns are a game of angles. And Montgomery is good at math.
“I guess (powering through gaps), some of it does come from playing running back growing up,” Montgomery says. “But I also remember, I had this old coach who taught me, ‘You don’t always need a juke move, the kind that makes the crowd go wild.’ If I can get a guy trying to make an arm tackle to miss, that’s just as good.”
Montgomery’s calling card might be as a stellar kick returner -- he’s also returning punts this season and has already taken one back for a touchdown -- but Alamar says that by now most teams know to not underestimate Montgomery as a receiver, too. Cajuste, his running mate, agrees.
“I feel like he set himself up as a freshman as a receiver first,” Cajuste says, and it’s hard to argue with the numbers: He caught 24 passes for 350 yards in 2011, highlighted by seven catches for 120 yards and one touchdown in a 41-38 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. “He struggled a bit his sophomore year because of injuries and yeah, maybe he established himself last season as a kick returner, but before all that, he was the ultimate receiver. He still is.”
Stanford will certainly need Montgomery’s receiving help in the red zone Saturday. Averaging a team-leading 68.8 receiving yards per game, Montgomery acknowledges that the Cardinal’s offense has been woefully inefficient at times this season.
Stanford has scored a touchdown in the red zone on just eight of 19 opportunities (42 percent) so far in 2014. The low point came in a conference-opening 13-10 loss to rival USC when the Cardinal scored just twice in five red zone trips. Stanford’s 413 yards of offense got overshadowed by its inability to convert those yards into points. Better red zone production is a matter of execution, Montgomery says, and making sure to reduce the self-inflicted wounds. Then, a counterpoint from the political science major:
“Sometimes people forget, defensive guys are also offered scholarships,” Montgomery says. “And sometimes they just make good plays.”
Hampered by a knee injury in 2012 -- he missed the Cardinal’s last trip to South Bend because of that injury and is looking forward to his first game on Notre Dame’s campus -- Montgomery broke out in 2013, totaling 61 catches for 958 yards (15.7 yards per catch). Numerous publications named him an All-America for his returns (30.3 yards per kickoff return, with two going for touchdowns) and all-around skills (he ranked ninth nationally with 157.7 all-purpose yards per game).
Like almost everyone else at Stanford, Montgomery is an overachiever: Realistic or not, he expects to get in the end zone every time he touches the ball. Like on Saturday against Washington, when Montgomery plowed through three Huskies defenders to get the final 10 yards to the end zone.
Plays like the touchdown still inspire awe in Montgomery's teammate, though they've become almost commonplace.
"I have the same reaction every time," Cajuste said. "'I can't believe that' ... and, 'I'm not surprised.' He turns into a freight train on his way to the end zone. He looks angry, but he's maintaining his body control the whole time, and it elevates him to another level."
Cajuste says he sees from the sideline “how a big return puts fear in the other team,” and that personally, he appreciates that “80 percent of time we’re not going to have to start our drive at the 20 or 25.”
“There are times during a return when a hole starts to close,” Alamar says. “Human nature is to slow down, go back, change direction. Ty understands there are points in a return where that’s not an option. Most people would say, ‘What else can you do?’ Well, Ty goes and gets an extra 10 yards.”