Indeed, the phrases most often used in describing Navy wideouts have become trite and worn out to followers of the program over the last seven seasons, but that still hasn't stopped opposing fans and national media members from overlooking - if not underestimating – the often forgotten members of the triple option offense. Yet if Navy's two top returning receivers from a year ago were more than a tad annoyed at the stereotypes which come from playing in the run heavy system, they sure did well to hide it through the first week of spring practice.
That's because Washington and Schupp, who enter 2009 atop the depth chart at wide receiver for the Midshipmen, have been among the pleasant surprises for the Navy coaching staff through the last week of March, showing off good hands and crisp route running in early work with quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Not bad for a couple of guys who logged just four catches a season ago.
"I am really excited about those two guys" said coach Ken Niumatalolo after practice last Monday when asked about his young receivers. "Mario had a good practice on Saturday. He has been really aggressive going after the ball and making some big plays. He just has to become more consistent…Schupp is a very consistent player. He is a steady player."
The Midshipmen are of course known much more for their rush offense than their pass offense, and with good reason. Navy's dynamic triple option attack has led the nation in rushing each of the past four seasons, averaging 292 yards on the ground in 2008 after having averaged above 300 yards per game on the ground in each season previous since 2005. In contrast, the Midshipmen were second to last in passing offense a year ago, throwing for a total of only 792 yards through 13 games. With production that low, it's no wonder Navy's receivers have often become the target of opposing fans' jokes, who all too often see the Midshipmen receivers as nothing more than a rag-tag collection of overachieving blockers. Still, the popular stereotype hasn't deferred Schupp or Washington in continuing to try to improve their games this offseason, as both say they are prepared to do whatever it takes as both blockers and receivers to help the team get better.
"You know, [the perception of being just blockers] gets to you a little bit, but really we just want to win," said Mario Washington, who also doubles as a punt returner for the Midshipmen. "Whatever it takes to win, we're going to do it."
Mike Schupp agreed, saying that although playing wide receiver at the Naval Academy may not seem like the most glamorous position in the world, it doesn't stop him or his teammates from contributing in both the running game and the passing game. If anything, says Schupp, the presence of a strong run-based attack opens up big play possibilities for Navy receivers when the Midshipmen do decide to pass.
"Obviously our bread and butter is the running game, but we feel like we can hit [the defense] with a play action pass and we feel like we're always out there to make a big play."
Statistically speaking, Schupp has history on his side. While Navy may rank annually at the bottom in terms of total pass offense among the 120 FBS team in the country, the Mids generally rank within the top third of those teams in terms of passing efficiency. Navy finished 40th in terms of passing efficiency a season ago, after finishing 14th in the country in the same category during the 2007 season. With numbers like that, it's no wonder that Schupp and Washington have made a renewed commitment to improving their ability as both blockers and receivers this spring, counting on their dual roles to continue a tradition of quick strike scores that have become commonplace at Navy over the past several seasons. Working closely with Navy wide receivers coach Danny O'Rourke, Schupp and Washington could be seen practicing a technique called "stalk blocking" after practice last week. Unlike other blocking techniques, including the ubiquitous "cut block," stalk blocking revolves around keeping the defender (often a cornerback or safety) screened out of a play by using leverage to inhibit the defender's angle to the ballcarrier. When executed properly, the technique can effectively create gapping running lanes for the ballcarrier once he reaches the second level, leading to the long gains and touchdown runs many onlookers have come to associate with the triple option.
"The key to stalk blocking is having a good base, not lunging, and keeping your feet so they don't get too wide or too narrow," Schupp explained to me after practice last week. "And obviously to deliver a good blow. There are a lot of things that have to do with [stalk blocking], but the real key is your feet."
Even in their continued development as blockers, Schupp and Washington say that they're committed to taking on leadership roles within the unit this spring, especially with 2008 star and leading receiver Tyree Barnes moving on after graduation. While both readily acknowledge that replacing the six foot, two-inch Barnes won't be easy, they don't subscribe to the idea that Navy's wide receiving corps will see a significant dropoff in production during the 2009 season. If anything, say Schupp and Washington, the presence of quarterback Ricky Dobbs, coupled with the emergence of several young but inexperienced wide receivers, should ensure the continued growth of the unit.
"Obviously Tyree was a great receiver, so we have some shoes to fill leadership wise," said the five foot, ten-inch Schupp. "But I think we've got a good core of guys this year…everyone brings a little something different to the table, so we're expecting good things out of the receivers this year."
One player both Schupp and Washington are expecting to contribute is Doug Furman, a 6'3 rising sophomore who is currently listed behind Schupp on the depth chart. Furman, who attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School before arriving in Annapolis last season, was a three sport standout in high school and brings a welcomed combination of size and speed to the position. Not only that, but he's looked nearly flawless through the first week of practice, displaying hands of glue and a gritty determination to go after the ball. Yet it has been his effort and tenacity in blocking drills which have most impressed onlookers this spring, leading some of his teammates to speculate on his chance to play in 2009.
"Doug Furman is a real tough kid" said Schupp, who like Furman was a relative unknown at wide receiver this time last spring. "He loves to hit, he loves to block, and I'm excited to see him lay some licks on some guys this year."
Mario Washington agreed, saying that while it may sound cliché for a Navy receiver, Furman embodies everything the coaching staff is looking for.
"If the coaches tell him to do it he's going to do it 100%."