Dan Mullen and Chad Bumphis arrived at Mississippi State together, and since the two got to Starkville, the prize of Mullen's first recruiting class at MSU has been the barometer for the Bulldogs passing game. As Bumphis has gone, so has the passing game gone.
He led the team in receiving as both a true freshman and as a sophomore, while Mullen bemoaned the lack of depth amongst the receivers.
In 2011, the duo's third year together, the receiving corps still depends on Bumphis, but not for on-field production.
"He needs to be a leader though and he needs to develop other aspects of his game," first-year wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando said. "He can't be all buddy-buddy with guys at times. When it's time to work it's time to work. He needs to take that leadership role."
Bumphis said if he can lead the rest of the receivers, and even the team, he will be able to reap the benefits.
"The next thing is just trying to be a leader and make sure we get to Atlanta," Bumphis said. "The thing I think the most is if we got team success, then my success will come. I mean, now the main focus is getting to Atlanta and winning an SEC championship."
Bumphis said that when he got to Starkville he learned from then-senior receiver Brandon McRae. Now, Bumphis is the experienced veteran ahead of a group of youngsters. Even as a junior, Bumphis is the most game-proven receiver on a team without single senior pass-catcher.
He said that now he takes "a lot" of pride in the development of the receiving corp.
While Mullen spent much of the previous two seasons detailing his lack of depth at the position, he said that now he may finally be where he needs to be. Bumphis is one of four juniors with significant game experience, the others being Brandon Heavens, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith. Michael Carr is the most experienced of the sophomores, having played a few games as a true freshman in 2010. Ricco Sanders and Sam Williams are the two other sophomores, neither with a ton of experience, but then the depth picks back up again with youngsters, even if they haven't played.
MSU and Mullen redshirted three highly-recruited freshmen receivers in 2010, 5-foot-9, 185-pound Jameon Lewis, 6-foot, 215-pound Robert Johnson and the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Malcolm Johnson, who has switched to tight end. The biggest receiver on the team is actually a true freshman, in 6-foot-4, 205-pound Joseph Morrow. He was one of two receivers to sign, along with 5-foot-10, 195-pound Devin Fosselman.
Some receivers might be intimidated by the depth, especially when you're the top guy at your receiver position with three more guys trying to get you off the field. Bumphis said it's good, though.
"I think the thing is, we are at last three deep at every position, so I mean, that's good for us," Bumphis said. "They can all play, but being three-deep is good for anybody."
Said Mirando, "There's really no set depth chart. Every job is up for grabs. There's guys who are ones going into day one of camp, but that's always subject to change."
Mirando and Mullen know what they have in Bumphis and many of the veterans. It is the freshmen, both true and redshirt, who they are anxious to see in game action.
As Bumphis put it, "We see them do it every day [in practice]. It's a whole lot different when you're playing in front of 50 or 60,000 people."
Of the receivers who have not yet played in a game, two names come up in nearly every conversation: Morrow and Lewis.
Listed at 6-foot-4, Morrow is the tallest receiver on the team by a couple inches, and he is nearly a half-foot taller than Bumphis.
That fact is not missed by MSU's leading receiver, as Bumphis said that Morrow's strength is, "Stretching the defense. He's just a long receiver who can stretch the defense downfield, vertically."
Typically, true freshmen receivers don't play, though Bumphis is certainly an exception.
MSU does not have another receiver like Morrow, though it may be unrealistic to expect him to make a huge impact in his first year on campus. However, Mirando said not to rule out the possibility.
"I mean, physically he can do it. Physically, he's big, tall, he can run down the field," Mirando said. "He can run all day. Again, it's a mental thing."
Priority No. 1 for Morrow will be learning the offense and dealing with the pressure of, as Bumphis said, playing front of tens of thousands of spectators.
As for Lewis, Bumphis said, "Jameon, he can really play."
In fact Mirando even called him "one of the most dynamic guys on the team."
He must be, as he was the scout team quarterback for Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in Gator Bowl practice.
Mirando and Mullen said Lewis will have to prove his worth on special teams, as evidenced by Lewis working as a punt returner in fall training camp. Mirando said he expects Lewis, who is also at the 'H' position behind Bumphis, to play a lot in 2011, so long as he figures out the offense.
Lewis played quarterback in high school and MSU recruited him as a defensive back. The coaches feel receiver is his best position, but he is still trying to figure out how to play there.
"It's just about [Lewis] understanding the offense and what defenses are doing and him going out and doing it," Bumphis said.
"He needs to continue to develop as a route runner," Mirando said. "He has no idea about how to top end a route or any of that stuff, so he needs to keep developing that. But on pure, natural athletic ability he's extremely dynamic, so we've got to coach him up and he better get on special teams just like all the other of my 10 guys."
The Bulldogs will continue to be a run-first team in 2011, but now that Mullen finally has the depth he's always wanted at receiver, MSU will likely be more active through the air.
The hard part may be finding a place for so many talented pass-catchers, but again, Bumphis isn't concerned.
"When it comes to the season, our gameplan will have a lot of packages," Bumphis said. "You just don't know right now, but there will be a way to get all of us on the field for sure."