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Stanford's special teams hold the key to success in 2014

The field position battle will be crucial in aiding the rebuilt Cardinal offense this fall

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Lots of new faces will take the field when Stanford opens their 2014 season against UC Davis.

Gone are the Cardinal's top two running backs, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, creating a hole at that position that Barry Sanders will most likely fill. To further complicate things on offense, Andrus Peat is the lone returning starter from an offensive line that ranked 22nd in rushing offense, 11th in sacks allowed, and 7th in tackles for loss allowed.

The 2014 defense, too, will look much different than the 2013 team's. The Washington Redskins used their second round draft pick to select Trent Murphy, who led the nation in sacks, while the Eagles drafted safety Ed Reynolds in the fifth round and Ben Gardner went to the Cowboys in the seventh round. Gone also are key defensive contributors Shayne Skov and Josh Mauro, who signed with San Francisco and Pittsburgh, respectively, as undrafted free agents.

So how can Stanford continue to compete in a loaded conference after experiencing so much turnover on both sides of the ball? Two words: special teams.

Ty Montgomery went crazy as a kick returner last year, finishing third in the country in both return yards (1,091) and yards per return (30.3), while placing second in return touchdowns (2). Montgomery and his return game will not only be critical to how Stanford fares this upcoming season, but also to solidifying his draft stock as a potential first round pick.

In order to fully appreciate how good Montgomery was last year and forecast how Stanford's special teams may look this upcoming season, let's examine three of his returns.

Stanford's week six matchup against a then-undefeated Washington Huskies team served as the Cardinal's first real test of 2014. Although the Cardinal had beaten then no. 23 Arizona State 42-28 at home in week three, the game was not as close as the final score suggested due to three fourth quarter ASU touchdowns. How Stanford performed against a fellow Pac-12 North team, lead by current NFL TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and RB Bishop Sankey, would dictate how good of a chance the Cardinal had at returning to the Rose Bowl.

However, before either offense could take the field, Stanford was already up 7-0.

Wow. Montgomery showcases his game-breaking, 4.4-second-40 speed in this clip. He gets the ball, then 12 seconds later he's in the end zone. But after taking a closer look, the touchdown can't be fully credited to Montgomery's speed.

ty montgomery touchdown on Make A Gif

Where are the Huskies? Their delay in getting down the field has given Stanford the second or two they needed to set up their blocking scheme.

Fullback Ryan Hewitt, now of the Cincinnati Bengals, has completely flattened a UW special teamer, opening up a gap right in front of Montgomery. Linebacker Joe Hemschoot is out in front to take out Huskies receiver John Ross III (no. 1), while Stanford's Ronnie Harris absorbs another block.

The Huskies' kicker can't catch up to a breaking Montgomery, who's free to waltz into the end zone.

Montgomery's kick return a week later against Utah follows a similar pattern, this time with the Cardinal tied 7-7 midway through the first.

Again, it's all about Stanford's blocking, combined with Montgomery's speed.

ty montgomery td return on Make A Gif

Montgomery appears ready to head over to the left sideline, but the blocking develops in front of him so nicely that he has a change of heart.

Hewitt has again set up one of the key initial blocks, and you can see Hemschoot holding the gap open for Montgomery. At this point, he's off to the races. You can see Jarek Lancaster, a two time recipient of the Phil Moffat Award, which honors outstanding special teams play, running with him to provide further blocking downfield.

Although both these plays netted Montgomery his two return touchdowns on the year, perhaps his biggest play came against archrival Oregon, then ranked number three in the country, on November 7.

This time, the Ducks, regarded as one of the fastest teams in the country, have done a much better job of getting downfield than either Washington or Utah. The Cardinal players don't have quite long enough to set up their blocks, forcing Montgomery to weave his way through traffic with some fancy cut moves.

ty oregon on Make A Gif

Here, the return is based around his individual ability to get into open space, rather than a group blocking effort as in the Washington and Utah returns.

Montgomery's return eventually set up a Cardinal field goal, putting them on top of the Ducks 20-0 while dashing any confidence the halftime break might have given to them.

If Stanford is going to compete with the likes of Oregon this year, Montgomery and the special teams unit as a whole, will have to step up. Lancaster and Hewitt may be gone, but fullbacks Patrick Skov and Lee Ward, as well as linebacker Joe Hemschoot, should comfortably slide into their special teams roles given the experience they have from last year.

Without the same talent for a power running game as in years past, Stanford will need the best field positioning it can get.