In the Kevin Hogan era (November 2012-January 2016) the Cardinal have had little difficulty replacing receiving production between seasons. Despite the passing game being the less critical half of Stanford's offense, recent squads have consistently featured a clear number one target: Zach Ertz in 2012, Ty Montgomery in 2013 and 2014, and Christian McCaffrey in 2015.
"Top target" is not a common descriptor for running backs, but McCaffrey did lead the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2015. It should also be noted that, even with McCaffrey as the clear top producer, receptions were distributed much more evenly in 2015 than in previous seasons. Ertz and Montgomery both recorded over 60 catches in their years as top targets; McCaffrey had 45 in 2015, and Michael Rector and Austin Hooper tied for second place with 34 each.
Rector's role in this offense has expanded beyond that of a pure deep threat. The following clip demonstrates how his tracking and coordination have improved since 2013, but speed remains his greatest asset.
Michael may still be most valuable as the player who can best exploit defensive overcorrections to Stanford's ground game.
McCaffrey, of course, will remain the centerpiece of the offense, but I am doubtful that he will be able to repeat his production as a receiver from last year, if only because such a large portion of that production came from a handful of chunk plays. He will undoubtedly make a few of these plays in 2016, as those short option routes - like the one that opened the Rose Bowl, or an identical play against Washington - are simply uncoverable.
But as formidable as McCaffrey is, his impact in the passing game is limited by his location at the beginning of each play. Ideally, your top receiving threat isn't standing next to the quarterback at the snap.
If the Cardinal is to continue its recent offensive success, it needs to find alternatives to Rector down the sideline and McCaffrey short over the middle. Devon Cajuste and Austin Hooper provided this service last year, and the most promising candidates for 2016 are Trent Irwin and Dalton Schultz.
Frankly, this could be a significant upgrade. Irwin and Schultz (sounds like a law firm) were both highly recruited and have done well in limited opportunities. Schultz is particularly exciting because of his blocking. Although he only caught ten passes last season, he was consistently featured as a blocker. I prefer him to Hooper in this respect. Irwin's hands and route running were good enough to earn him snaps and even targets as a true freshman—a significant accomplishment in this offense. Because of the small sample size, there aren't many individual plays I can point to that encapsulate the traits of these two young players (unless you happened to catch Schultz's one-handed catch in the spring game), but so far, both have looked like the highly-touted players they were advertised as.
On the periphery of the unit are Greg Taboada and Francis Owusu. Both are primarily targeted in plays designed specifically for them—usually fade routes for Taboada and screen passes for Owusu. Their size and length also allow them to be assets as perimeter blockers, so expect them to keep getting snaps even if other pass catchers become more prominent.
Though much has been made of the losses of Hooper and Cajuste to the NFL, the outlook for Stanford's receiving corps is very positive. The two most important pieces from last season will return, and some of the most talked about recruits from recent classes will enter their prime years. Now, about that quarterback...