WRs Tipping Hard Hat To Best Blocker

No, that was not any special item of equipment provided by adidas. It was just special, period. The hard hat worn by Chris Smith as the Bulldogs arrived for Saturday's kickoff against Auburn was issued by Coach Tim Brewster. And it had nothing to do with statistics anyone can read.

"The first thing I did when I got here, I instituted the Hard Hat Award," Brewster explained. "That's given to the receiver that does the best job blocking in the game. Not the guy that caught three touchdowns or five catches, it's the guy that is busting his tail in the running game. And they're excited about that."

WhaaaHuhh? Wide receivers excited about blocking? To the point of actually competing for a weekly recognition of the best in the Bulldog bunch? Sounds like somebody has taken a few too many skull shots without benefit of a helmet. Or hard hat even.

Seriously though, Mississippi State's newest coach has a legitimate point to make about what he and Coach Dan Mullen demand from their receivers. "It's just a mentality of physical, toughness, that I'm trying to convey to this group of kids. And they're buying in."

Buying in, and getting down to such hard-nosed business with a fresh zest. Smith, having topped Brewster's blocking chart against Jackson State, donned the working Dog's new topper for the pre-game Dog Walk last Saturday. This week, Brewster said, he passes it—so to speak—on to Arceto Clark over at Troy.

"He played his tail off on Saturday against Auburn," said Brewster. "He wasn't 100% and he was out there blocking and running and catching." Make that one catch, for 20 yards, in the SEC victory. Smith was no slouch himself with a team-best five grabs, for 46 yards.

In fact many a Bulldog got into the Auburn-beating act as the 20 Tyler Russell completions were divvied-up among nine targets. This included running backs LaDarius Perkins and Derrick Milton, not to mention tight ends Marcus Green and Brandon Hill. The point is a whole lot of Dogs are running routes and making connections this season, after eight men caught balls in the opener.

This shared success means as much to Brewster as any individual numbers. "I was excited Saturday. Nobody played over 40 snaps, the whole group was between 25 and 40 plays. That's how you build depth and build confidence." It builds plenty of quarterbacking confidence too as Russell, or backup Dak Prescott, don't need to lock-in on any one or two targets now.

Or for that matter, the alternates and backups in the 2012 receiver rotations know they aren't just taking turns as mere decoys. Everybody is getting into the act, whether they are seniors like Smith, Clark, and Chad Bumphis; or the younger guys in this lineup. Sure they all figured to play against Jackson State. But there they were working the same shifts against a SEC opponent.

"Joe Morrow got some very meaningful reps on Saturday. RoJo (Robert Johnson) got some very meaningful reps. That's worth its weight in gold." Then there was the 21-yard gainer by Jameson Lewis, longest play by a true wideout on the day, as he moved the chains on a well-executed read, throw, route-and-grab.

"Jameon ran a great route in that situation, went in there and caught a big third-down conversion. And I think he's got a great mentor. Again the greatest coaches are players. Watching a guy do something really well and learning how he does that. Jameon watches Chad Bumphis and he learns a great deal from Chad."

Yes, Bumphis, the ranking member of this unit. Last Saturday was a big one for Bump as he snagged three balls including a highlight video catch from Russell in an end zone corner. It was his second touchdown of the young season, but his third in SEC play for four seasons. He's now tied for third on the Bulldog career list with 14 scoring catches and just three shy of the record shared by Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins.

Bumphis was coming off a relatively low-key junior season that had critics asking if he had peaked already. Brewster, who only met his men a week before the season in that abrupt August transition, neither knows nor cares about what went before.

"All I can grade him on is since I've been here. I've been extremely pleased with Chad. I love his leadership qualities, he's a great teacher to our young receivers and that's what Coach Mullen stresses to every older guy on our team. Teach the young guys how to do things, how to be a player, and just consistently doing things right on and off the field."

Lewis has become Bumphis' protégé, not to mention top alternate now and replacement of next year. The sophomore has had his own learning struggles of course, trying to translate obvious physical ability into reliable on-field production. That one perfectly-executed effort against a SEC defense showed observers how far Lewis has come. Though Brewster likes the looks of other items maybe more.

Specifically, blocking. Which is something Bumphis has also upgraded as a senior, by the way. Brewster points out that perimeter blocking is something slot receivers must do on rushing plays. Anyone can see what split ends are doing downfield once the runner breaks in the clear. Bumphis' and Lewis' work at H-back are easier to miss in traffic.

"It's critical, the blocks he makes in the slot in the run game that allows us to get explosive runs," Brewster explained.

What might impress most is just how quickly, even easily, these players have meshed with their brand-new boss. Nothing against the likable young predecessor, but an old hand like Brewster has instilled something State's wideout corps needed at this stage in their collective development. As the coach puts it, everyone is reading from the same proverbial page.

"The whole key is the ability to communicate as a player what you're seeing on the field," Brewster said. "I'm not out there with you! So the ability to communicate with me what is going on on the field is absolutely critical. And all our guys are understanding about being a student of the game, studying the game so that the game slows down and allows you to play the way you want to play."

Something else stands out here. In the first three Mullen seasons it was hard to pull the better or at least older receivers off the field in any SEC game. Barring injury or other issues, the top three or four played every possible snap. Now? Rotations begin early and often. It isn't just a sign of improved recruiting, much as that obviously matters. It is a plan.

"What we're trying to do is have a program where we develop young players," Brewster said. "Where we allow young players to gain experience because that is what is going to help. You never know when a guy is going to get hurt; ‘next man up' is the mentality. And the next man up better be ready to play. Well, you have to play them!"

The best part is now Mississippi State has to play everyone because they all are making plays. Which means more than catching passes to this coaching staff. Sure, said Brewster, receiving is what the kids came to college for.

"But again you've got to do the dirty work. You have to be willing to do the hard work. To me you earn the right to catch the ball by how you block." Block well enough and one Bulldog each week earns something else, too. Or something extra to wear getting off the bus on Saturday.

"A whole bunch of people were excited about seeing that hard hat," smiled Brewster.

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