Don't go asking Bumphis for any inside info on who will be throwing the first pass Saturday, either. "They both looked good," said the wideout of senior Chris Relf and soph Tyler Russell. "Both of them have been going with the ones and rotating in with the twos. I mean we won't know until later on in the week but both of them have looked good so far."
This is an opinion worth knowing. Besides his well-proven talents catching passes these three Mississippi State seasons, Bumphis was a pretty good high school quarterback when forced into substitute duty after the Tupelo High starter—a top college prospect—went down with injury. Bumphis has even asked opportunities of his coaches to toss a pass or two here at State, when he does slide over into the ‘wild' position.
More to the immediate point, Bumphis sympathizes with Bulldog quarterbacks for first-half season critiques of the passing game. Which, admittedly, was stalled for most of three whole games and the first half of last week's battle at UAB. Pinning all such problems on the passer is the easy answer, though Bulldog fans are equally well-aware how injuries and inconsistent blocking lineups have impacted the air game.
Still, Bumphis said, there is much more than meets any grandstand eyes. "Because people see an offensive play go bad and they automatically look at the quarterback. They don't understand it all works together on offense. On defense one guy can make a play and make the whole defense look good. But on offensive ball it's all eleven guys working together, or it's going to look bad.
"And most of the time the quarterback gets the credit or criticism. But you have to look at it, we probably weren't where we were supposed to be or made him hold the ball too long. Half the time it's the receivers anyway!"
Happily, in last Saturday's second half the receivers were getting where they were wanted; the blocking gelled nicely; and Russell took over to throw three touchdown passes as well as eight other excellent completions. Bumphis was the recipient of one of the scoring tosses, the longest of the whole day as he hauled in a fourth-quarter post strike and finished a 57-yard play. Both Dogs saw UAB's safeties were vulnerable, so Bumphis pulled one in before dashing by—the Blazer even grabbed at him preferring a holding penalty to getting beat deep—while Russell shoulder-faked and froze support.
That sort of play summarized what State's passing attack can produce when all parts work together just as Bumphis pointed out. Of course, he joked, "You ask a wide receiver and we're always going to say we're open!" Which the junior is man enough to admit has not been the case often enough so far this season no matter who was under-center.
At the same time progress showed the most recent two quarters is encouraging, no matter who it was against. It was the sort of play the throwers and catchers ran day after day after day in summer, honing their steps and progressions and just plain field-feel for one another. State worked so much on pass plays in June and July the frustration was all the greater when things didn't work for-real. Now hopefully a barrier has been breached and these Dogs can do what they do best.
With either quarterback, Bumphis added. "It really doesn't matter to us who is throwing the passes. Last summer we did a bunch of work with both of them and all camp and so far this season, so it really doesn't matter to us. They're both good and both know the offense, so they're both able to get the job done." Nor has Bumphis and cohorts given up on the guy who threw all the big balls in 2010's victories.
"I think (watching the second half) helped Chris actually, because he's come out more confident and ready to go. You're not going to see too much negative feedback from Chris anyway, I mean that's just the kind of person it is."
Other positive points in game-six were big plays from an under-exploited group of eligible receivers. In the first five games Bulldog tight ends had totaled seven catches for no touchdowns; at UAB they combined for three grabs and two scores. That, said Bumphis, was great news for slot receivers and split ends.
"It helps us a lot because it gives them confidence." And, presumably, shakes up defenses that now have to pay Marcus Green, Malcolm Johnson, and Brandon Hill closer attention. "I think it helped Green more than anything because he's been down with that knee," Bumphis said. "And you could just tell this week in practice he's been more confident."
Bumphis along with junior classmates Chris Smith and Arceto Clark are setting the wide-receiving pace as expected, while Ricco Sanders and Brandon Heavens are making their presence(s) known more lately. The kid everyone wants to see hauling in balls though has just one catch the last four games. Jameon Lewis needs more, in Bumphis' expert opinion.
"People like that you've just got to let them play. Because once he gets the ball he's pretty fun for people to watch. You can't just coach that up too much, you just put him in the right position and help him learn the offense."
Lewis has an extra agility and burst which Mississippi State will need even more as SEC season resumes. Especially against a South Carolina defense that has allowed a league-low 771 passing yards, total, with a dozen interceptions. These Gamecocks can be beat in the air on occasion with nine touchdowns to their expense…but with a ferocious rush and ball-hawking secondary waiting for the unwary pass every throw is a gamble.
"They've got some good athletes on defense," Bumphis said. "You watch them on film and they're all big, athletic, and fast. But they're just another defense to us, we're going to go out and execute the gameplan. In the SEC everybody is going to have athletes."
Including Mississippi State. The trick has been getting those athletes in best positions to beat their peers. It has been the game-prep focus for Bulldog playmakers all week, and come Saturday results can be judged. As well as whoever is taking the first snap, last snap, and biggest snaps. Hmmm, and should Mullen actually be serious about giving Bumphis that initial play, how would he feel about going ‘wild' the rest of the way? This time the grin is matched with a head-shake.
"I don't think we'd be too successful the whole game!"