AMES — The epiphany began forming four plays into the first game, when his ACL snapped, his season ended, and speed-driven dreams hit the reality of a slow-burn rehab.
Going into that rebuilding and repairing process, Iowa State star wide receiver Quenton Bundrage knew he was good. He’d eventually be fine physically and better than ever once he began running again. What he didn’t know is how much he’d mature from a mental standpoint; how his appreciation for the game of football would bud, flower and burst with blooms of leadership set to benefit a receiving corps intent on providing the long-sought, consistent explosiveness the Cyclones’ offense has lacked in recent memory.
“I grew a lot,” Bundrage said after sitting out roughly 99 percent of a 2-10 season.
He’s not alone. Growth can come in many guises. For the 6-2, 192-pound senior from Palmetto, Fla., it’s that trademark blur he creates after a quick-cut into a deep route, or lighting-fast veer into an inside slant.
In other words, he’s back — even though he’s draped in that constraining blue jersey all spring.
“I’ll definitely be the same thing, same person, with more knowledge,” said Bundrage, who made 48 catches for 676 yards and a single-season school record-tying nine touchdowns in 2013. “Same player, if not better.”
Same goes for sophomore receiver Allen Lazard, whose confidence has grown to the point Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads said he could be one of the best pass catchers in the Big 12 this fall.
"He will be a featured played as far as what we do and people will know it," Rhoads said.
In other words, the former U.S. Army All-American’s right on track.
“I have high expectations for myself,” said Lazard, who caught 45 passes for 593 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. “I think I should win every battle and i should catch every ball. That’s what I want to hold myself to. Until I do, I won’t be pleased.”
As for junior D’Vario Montgomery — ISU starting quarterback Sam Richardson’s favorite target back in the day at Winter Park (Fla.) High School, growth ironically stems from shrinking his body; turning a 6-5, 240-pound frame into a leaner, but faster more powerful 6-5, 220.
In other words, he’s working toward being his old self after being what Rhoads deemed “overweight” his first season in an ISU uniform.
“Speed and also just getting around people,” said Montgomery, who’s also been sidelined this spring by a left knee surgery that’s expected to be fully healed before fall camp. “Last year, I kind of struggled with some of my abilities, but it was due to weight.”
The term “struggle” came to characterize ISU’s 2014 season, which included four losses by seven points or fewer — and four more by 20 or greater.
Both sides of the ball epitomized that word, as the offense eked out an average of 23.2 points per game (96th nationally) and the defense allowed an average of 38.8 points per game (115th nationally).
The most experience returns on the offensive side of the ball — and at quarterback and receiver, specifically — pushing the comfort level of all involved to new heights in year two of offensive coordinator Mark Mangino’s system.
“Strides-wise, I think guys are getting confident in what we’re doing now,” said Richardson, who ranks fourth all-time in career touchdown passes at ISU with 37. “It will only continue to grow from there.”
That’s the hope — and expectation.
For Montgomery, the thought of taking the field this fall with Lazard and Bundrage alongside causes him to smile.
“We talk about it all the time,” said Montgomery, who totaled 565 of his 605 receiving yards last season in the final seven games. “Quenton’s a guy, he loves to play any position you throw him at. Allen, he’s an explosive young guy and me, myself I just love to play the game. I can’t see any other place being more explosive on our field other than the receiving corps’ room.”
That potential for production doesn’t stop with the talented trio. Lazard’s quick to point out the steps he’s seen fellow sophomores Dondre Daley and Jauan Wesley, as well as redshirt freshman Orien Salters take in the offseason and spring ball.
“I think our whole group is explosive and the sky’s our limit,” Lazard said.
Bad times can bring out a person’s best. Growth is often preceded by stagnation. Losing something, then regaining it often renews focus, deepens devotion and turns pressure into a positive agent for change.
“I’m very confident,” Bundrage said. “I don’t worry about my knee at all. God forbid, if I do end up getting hurt again, then I guess it’s just meant to be. I’m going out there attacking the field like nothing happened.”