LOS ANGELES -- Ty Montgomery's kickoff returns are an aesthetic delight, a harmonious convergence of power, speed and breathtaking motion in which Montgomery seems to move effortlessly through the surrounding chaos.

But his sublime success is less about art than science. It's rooted in launch points and angles of departure, torque and acceleration, and the differential between space gained and space lost.

"It's like a giant geometry lesson," Stanford special teams coach Pete Alamar said after the Cardinal completed a recent Rose Bowl practice. "You need guys who can spatially understand angles."

Consider Montgomery, with an essential assist from his 10 blockers, a master.

The junior from Dallas, who doubles as Stanford's top receiver, leads the nation in kickoff returns and joined Luke Powell as the only players in school history to be named consensus first-team All-America as a kick returner.

Montgomery's average of 31.2 yards per return -- the eighth-best in Pac-12 history -- is all the more impressive considering kickoffs were moved up to the 35-yard line last season after many years at the 30.

The 5-yard advance in ball placement was designed to increase the number of touchbacks and decrease the number of high-speed collisions with the potential to cause concussions.


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From a practical standpoint, the change has made success more difficult for the returner. Not only is the ball fielded deeper -- at the 2-yard line instead of the 7, for instance -- but the coverage team has less ground to cover before converging on the returner.

"It's much harder now," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "You have to have the right player back there, someone who has the strength to run through arm tackles, because there isn't as much open space. Ty's a guy who can hit home runs."

Stanford made kick returns a priority in training camp, seeking just the right blend of personnel and tactics to make use of Montgomery's talent.

With the exception of onside kick situations, the Cardinal uses 4-2-3-2 alignment with the first line occupied by receivers and defensive backs -- players with the speed to scamper back 20 or 30 yards and position themselves for blocks. The middle rows are usually stocked with tight ends, fullbacks and linebackers, followed by the returners (Montgomery and Jackson Cummings).

The players are carefully chosen for their ability to execute the unique blocks required on kickoff returns. They must have the ability to swing their hips and torque their bodies to gain maximum leverage against members of the coverage team running full speed toward Montgomery.

"When you've got 11 guys running at you trying to take your head off," Montgomery said. "you've got to be able to trust those (blockers) that they'll do their jobs.

"And they do those jobs very well."

Stanford's plan typically includes three or four different returns. But at the core of each is the same blocking scheme the offense uses for its favorite running play -- the play that has opened so many holes over the past five seasons: Power.

Whether it's executed to the right side or the left, Power features a pulling lineman, a lead blocker, a kick-out block and a double team.

Those tactics are used on kickoff returns, with Montgomery playing the part of the tailback.

Stanford isn't the only team to use the blocking scheme on kickoff returns. But the Cardinal executes well -- just as it does when running Power at the line of scrimmage.

"We fine tune it as far as which players we use for the double team," Alamar said. "We teach the technique and then change who does what."

But proper personnel and sound tactics would be meaningless without a skilled, savvy returner. Montgomery's speed and strength are essential to his success, but so is adhering to four rules of engagement: Attain a running start; make no more than one cut; never (ever!) stop your feet; and always hit the hole at full speed.

"When the kickoff team closes more ground than you gain, they win," he said. "If you see hole and you're not in it, it won't be there.

"I'm hitting it faster this year. I've been back (returning kicks) for three years, and there's no more hesitation. I'm more confident and understand what I need to do."

What Montgomery doesn't know in the split seconds before fielding the ball is the location of the potential hole -- he creates it by luring one member of the coverage team out of position.

That's where Montgomery's innate sense for angles enters the equation. His first few steps inevitably cause a directional shift somewhere within the first wave of would-be tacklers.

"He understands how to stretch the initial angle of departure," Alamar said. "That forces the coverage team to create open space."

His 99-yard kickoff return against Washington is a perfect example: Montgomery angled right for 8 yards -- the equivalent of a hard sell -- then made a slight but full-speed cut to the left.

By the time he reached the first wave, a seam had formed near the right hash mark, and his blockers were clearing out the remaining Huskies, one by one.

"We stretched them wide to the right, and there was a gaping hole," he said. "One guy out of his lane is all it takes."

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

WEDNESDAY'S GAME

Stanford (11-2) vs. Michigan State (12-1), at Pasadena,
2 p.m. ESPN

INSIDE

Defensive coordinator Derek Mason is at home on the Farm.
Rose Bowl notes, PAGE 5