Receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector provide the explosive elements to Stanford's passing attack and quarterback Kevin Hogan is the one who gets them the ball.
Together, they've helped lead Stanford to its third Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl Game appearance in four years. The Cardinal (11-2) will face Iowa (12-1) on Friday in Pasadena in the 102nd annual bowl.
All three describe their connections, based on years of summer and post-practice workouts together, as vital to their effectiveness. One example, the 43-yard touchdown pass from Hogan to Rector that broke open a 42-10 victory over Colorado on Nov. 7. Hogan and Rector changed the play at the line of scrimmage with an unspoken signal. Such is the familiarity these players share, going all the way back to the Jim Harbaugh era.
Fifth-year seniors Hogan and Cajuste are a little sketchy on the details, but both pinpoint their first meeting to a 2010 junior camp on campus run by Harbaugh, now at Michigan via the San Francisco 49ers. There was a luau, that's what Cajuste, from Seaford, N.Y., remembers.
Hogan recalls that Cajuste made his commitment on that trip, but the quarterback from McLean, Va., Still had a ways to go in the recruiting process. Rector, a senior from Gig Harbor, Wash., was a year behind them.
"That relationship on the field started off the field," Rector said of Hogan. "The first year I was here, Kevin wasn't the starting quarterback yet. During those times, we were hanging out all the time. That was really important, to make that personal connection first. And then when we earned roles in the offense, we were able to take that and translate that on to the field. I think that shows."
At Stanford, players stay on campus during the summer, have internships, take classes, and work out informally.
"That's when you really start to bond," Hogan said. "No one's here, the coaches aren't around, and it's just us. You spend a lot of time with them, especially since we were the young guys, we weren't really the ones throwing to the older receivers. It was kind of us young guys getting reps together and getting throws on our own time."
The payoff came in the forms of timing and comfort level.
"A receiver wants to know where he's catching the ball," Hogan said. "If he's running a slant, he wants to know that he can expect the ball when he's coming out of his break. On deep balls, I want to know exactly where Mike's making a break on a defender so I can put it in the right spot.
"It's little things like that that you get in the off-season and are not necessarily the reps you can get in season because you're trying to save your legs, you're trying to save your arm. Those are the kinds of things we needed to do to get our rapport going."
Hogan may not have realized it, but his example was followed throughout the team, particularly by Cajuste.
"When you're a young buck, you're determined to do extra work, especially if you see one of your buddies doing it," Cajuste said. "If Kevin's working out, I'd want to stay after, because that's my quarterback and I want to be with him. If I see my D-linemen work out, I want to let them know the offense is working out. And if you see the leaders working out, like Andrew Luck, and they're the best already . . . well, I have to definitely work out.
"Each individual wants their teammates to know that they're invested, that it's not just about the individual, it's about the team. So, putting in that extra work and that extra time really matters a lot. Not only to prove something to yourself, but to send your message to your teammates: Hey, I'm invested. I'm here for you guys too. I'm here to work as hard as you guys, if not more."
Hogan became a starter midway through his sophomore season and is the winningest quarterback in school history, with a 35-10 record as a starter.
"He doesn't get enough praise," Rector said. "But we've known for a long time how much he's meant to us. He's the backbone of this team. I don't know where we'd be without him."
Cajuste broke out in 2013 as a big-play option. He set a school season record for yards per catch (22.9) in 2013, and though slowed by injury and illness earlier this season, he still has shown a flair for the spectacular.
With Stanford seeking to draw even in the final seconds of a 38-36 loss to Oregon in November, Hogan threw a high pass to Cajuste on the side of the end zone. Cajuste leaped backward while reaching his right hand as high as possible and snared the ball with full extension. Cajuste landed out of bounds, nullifying the catch, but the defender was flagged for interference on the play and Hogan followed moments later with a touchdown pass to Greg Tabaoda, though a two-point conversion pass failed.
Cajuste's catch didn't count and seemed to be instantly forgotten, but not by his teammates.
"Unreal," Tabaoda said.
"People have said it was the greatest catch that never was," Cajuste said.
"His hands are unbelievable," Hogan said. "You see him making catches like that all the time. He almost just clamps the ball. He has this non-conventional way of catching. It's amazing. That catch was out of this world. It would have been awesome if that was inbounds, but that was probably my fault."
Rector has had previous success, but this has been a breakout year.
"He's definitely grown up a lot," Hogan said. "He's taken his game to the next level in that he's attacking the football. He's not afraid to make that tough catch. He's not afraid to go across the middle. He has that mindset where he's going to get the ball for you. And he's been great in communicating to me, telling me how the corner's playing, how the safeties are reacting. Really, the communication has been one of the biggest parts -- that he understands the game more and knows what I'm looking for and can give me feedback."
They've grown together on The Farm, and now Hogan, Cajuste and Rector have one more run in them, one that will enhance already memorable Stanford careers.