This was bound to be a game-week subject already, as just last week when discussing all the basic three wide receiver positions Coach Mark Hudspeth mentioned Heavens' name first, then Bumphis at H. The other slots, Z and X, are the outside receivers and have two-man rotations of their own with what Hudspeth sees as essentially interchangeable parts.
But…this is Bumphis, the explosive athlete who burst onto the Bulldog scene last fall with a team-topping 32 catches, 375 yards, and four touchdowns. The last time a true freshman led State in receiving, it was 1977 and the kid was named Mardye McDole. So stardom seems certain for this young play-maker. To be fair, Heavens also played as a rookie and had seven catches for 36 yards.
The fact is though that camp competition has been tight between these classmates…and that is a positive development for the slot-receiver position. "Chad has done a good job," Mullen said today. "Brandon has done a really good job. Even though Chad was the leading receiver Brandon played a lot." Which is why the head coach and receiver coach are confident both can do the opening-night job in taking turns.
Besides, Mullen said, "Chad is still developing. He was our leading receiver last year as a true freshman because of complete lack of depth at the receiver position. He's doing a good job working to improve himself as a college receiver." Which is a clue why State's staff isn't just handing the job without strings now. As Mullen has said about other positions on this lineup, there are young athletes who got by in 2009 on pure talent.
That isn't enough in 2010. Not if State is to make team-strides in all areas, and most importantly of all at the receiver positions. This is where pressure is being applied to Bumphis, per the boss.
I think it's just understanding being a wide receiver. He was a playmaker last year for us, but (now it is) really understanding how to beat man coverage, how to run routes the right way, how to be a blocker, how to play when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. Those are things he'll continue to work on the next couple of years."
All the above applies to all underclassman receivers, of course. Hudspeth is counting on redshirt Ricco Sanders, re-convert to offense Arceto Clark, and soph Chris Smith to upgrade their own games. They were cut some slack in '09 in the haste just to get the guys who could play in the gameplan up to speed. Now everyone has to make plays when on the field, even if those plays just mean blocking or decoying coverages or non-statistical snaps. Hudspeth said he has six players he will count on for the first week; more are needed as the season progresses. In fact Mullen has said that to really run his style of spread will require ten or twelve reliable receivers to rotate, mix, and match.
After all, in spring and August drills there were plays showing four true wideouts on the field, along with a pass-catching tight end too. That is the sort of truly multiple offense Mullen wants to operate. Thus, "We need some young guys to step up still. We just don't have the depth at that position, we need those young guys to get ready to go contribute on the field."
By which Mullen includes the two newest wideouts on the roster. No dress-out list has been finalized, much less publicized, but it seems safe to expect rookies Jameon Lewis and Michael Carr will be in the opening-weekend mix. Naturally it helps that as a non-conference game State can dress more bodies than in league contests…but are these pups really potential players?
Maybe, Mullen said, just like any true frosh. If he's ready, we'll play him." See Bumphis 2009 as Exhibit A. Or John Banks, the defensive counterpart of Bumphis, for another. Or defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd.
"Like all our freshmen, if we feel they're ready to go into a game and contribute, they're going play," Mullen has said before. "If we feel they are not 100%-ready to go play, where they're going to have success on the field, we'll protect them until they are 100% ready to go."
RATE OF RETURNS: It is equally feasible that Bumphis' alternative status also depends on how the game begins. The soph, after all, is one of the two kickoff return men if State sticks with the two-deeps set shown in camp; paired with Leon Berry. Should Bumphis be winded on the opening return, it would only make sense to have a capable cohort taking first-snap at H.
Either way, "I feel comfortable with our return game because there are guys who have returned kicks in games before," said Mullen, speaking of Berry and Bumphis. "And Maurice Langston did a bunch in junior college," the coach added. "LaDarius Perkins will be a new guy who gets back there some."
Mullen has maintained close competition at both specialist spots in camp, too, and isn't naming who gets to take first leg-swing at the ball in either punting or placekicking. It does seem reasonably sure Derek DePasquale gets to kick it off though, and he was very impressive in August with goal-line and end-zone range showing now. DePasquale and Sean Brauchle have gone at it daily in field goal work and it is still too close to be worth calling for Mullen at the moment.
"It might be the middle of the third quarter," he joked. "I have a good idea where we are right now. After warm-ups that might change on Saturday, if they hit ‘the zone' I might go with that guy. That's how comfortable I feel with either one on the field." Apparently the kickers themselves aren't all that uncomfortable with the uncertainty as well.
"They don't worry too much about it. They're both really focused on improving themselves. That is the whole key, it's not how can I out-do the other person but how can I make myself a better kicker."
SWING COACHING? Speaking of better kickers, Mullen has good words for punter Heath Hutchins. Particularly the camp consistency this senior has shown. Mullen said that where before Hutchins could loose a 60-yarder, then come back and bump it only 30 or so, this time around things have been much more reliable. Just what coaches like.
Hutchins agrees. "This year it's been there. I may have one bad punt this whole fall camp. I just want to do well in practice, and do well in games." The trick, he has learned, is to treat the one the same as the other. Really.
"Any time I'm at practice I just pretend it's the game. There is never the ‘practice' mentality, I'm back there thinking this is a game and visualizing another team. It's a lot more consistent and has helped me a lot with zoning in, zoning in. It's almost like slow-motion."
Now it also needs noting Hutchins has made some more tangible adjustments as well. Nothing major that a fan would notice from row 30, though.
"Really, I was technically OK and then I kind of got off the path it seemed like. I watched a lot of film on what I used to do and kind of compared it, then changed a lot when I came out this fall. And Coach Mullen noticed it a lot. Just the leg-swing and the drop, it's a lot better this year."