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    BLOG: Building Blocks at Wide Receiver

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    They are now, an hour into Wednesday's practice, off by themselves, isolated from their 'Cat teammates at Camp Kenosha. Here, at one corner of the field, it is just the wide receivers and Dennis Springer, their position coach, and for long minutes they take turns pairing off in front of his watchful eyes. At his first whistle, one in the pair will chop step. At his second whistle, that same one will half-block the other. After his third whistle, there is almost always some instruction.

    "That's a drill we do to get them to understand being in the proper position (for blocking)," Springer will later explain. "Sometimes kids don't understand that sometimes, if you take the wrong step, that gets you out of position even before you get the opportunity to block someone. So that's kind of a finish drill that we do in order for them to understand that, right before contact, this is the position you need to be in and this is how we finish."

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    Is that drill indicative of just how important blocking is to his group?

    "No question," Springer says immediately. "If we do nothing else, we do blocking drills everyday. They know that. It's going to be part of our individual practice. We're going to work on blocking. They know how important it is."


    Nearly three decades ago, out in San Diego, the Chargers hired a man named Arnold Mandell to serve as their team psychiatrist through the 1973 season. Later, in a book entitled The Nightmare Season, he offered personality profiles for each position, and here is some of what he wrote about the wide receiver. "(He) is a vey special human being. He shares many features with actors and movie stars. He is narcissistic and vain and basically a loner. . . They love to be the center of attention. They need to be noticed."

    The 'Cat wide receivers have certainly been noticed throughout this preseason and the reasons are obvious. They are a deep group, a speedy group, a group with good size, a group that offers up the prospect of a passing game that is lethal and explosive and something extraordinary. But a week ago, at Media Day, Pat Fitzgerald demurred when asked to canonize its members and then subtly, almost surreptitiously, he concluded his comments by saying, "The guys who block are the guys who're going to play."

    This was, most certainly, a comment that belied the image of receiver-as-narcissist, a statement far removed from that image of a flying receiver corralling a pass and gallivanting into the end zone. But, Fitzgerald would explain on Wednesday, "Being a players-formations-plays team, there's a chance we're going to have four wide receivers on the field and we're going to want to run the football. When you go out there and people look on paper and say, 'Oh, you've got a receiver going against a linebacker in space blocking. It should be a win for the defense.' But if we fundamentally execute, and go out and do the technique that we're teaching the guys to do, and more importantly if we go out with an attitude of physicality, we've got a chance to run the ball better. And that's going to help us throw the ball better. And it will help us build confidence in the play-action game. So I said (what he said on Media Day) more as a challenge to the group because they've embraced it. They were pretty darn good at it a year ago, and now as we continue to move forward through camp, we're in a pretty good place with two weeks to get ready (for the season opener at Syracuse)."

    But how do you get a group described as a bunch of narcissists to embrace blocking?

    "I got a great group of kids," said Springer, giving lie to Mandell's profile. "If they believe in the values of our program, which they do, they get it and they understand what it takes for us to be successful, what it takes for us to win a Big Ten championship. So it hasn't been that difficult. They understand that this is what we have to get done. It's part of our game."

    "It's kind of a mindset," echoed one of his receivers, the sophomore Christian Jones. "It comes naturally and sometimes it has to be emphasized. The coaches have to pound that in your head. You have to know that, to truly be on the field as much as possible, you have to be good at both aspects of the game, and that's receiving and blocking. Most receivers don't want to get their hands dirty blocking. But I think that's what separates you from other receivers. Now I'd say everybody in our room wants to block, wants to get their hands dirty. Plus our coaches, we do a little thing, if we block well, we get a little candy bar or something. It's just a little emphasis on getting blocks finished."


    Here is one more example of how much emphasis there is on the wide's developing into accomplished blockers: Bob Heffner is now the 'Cats' superbacks coach, but as a player he toiled as an offensive guard and through many of those years before he landed here in 2009, he coached offensive lines (at Lafayette, Northern Illinois and Maryland). He, then, is well versed in the art of blocking, which is why he can occasionally be found working with the receivers. "We do a lot of cross-coaching. . .and Bob obviously has a great background in the fundamentals of line play and the fundamentals of blocking," explained Fitzgerald. "So he'll go work fundamental technique with Dennis Springer coaching blocking. Then we'll flip it over and when we're working route-running, when we're working catch-the-ball-technique, Dennis will go wok with the superbacks. So instead of, 'Hey, it's my group, don't touch them,' it's a collaboration. We've done that a couple of years, and we think we've seen dividends from that."

    "He's helped a lot in terms of technique, in terms of departure angles, approach and stuff like that," the wide receiver Demetrius Fields will later say of Heffner. "You could see with (the former superback) Drake Dunsmore last year how good it has turned out to be in terms of getting to blocks and getting into the best position to execute a block."


    We will give the final word here to Christian Jones, who laughs when told Mandell's personality profile of the wide receiver. So, we then ask, just how does that personality accept doing a blue-collar job like blocking? "Oh, man," he says with another laugh.

    "I don't know," he then false starts.

    "I guess," he finally says, "you just have to get your mind right. Like we talked about before. It's focusing, and putting your ego aside and realizing there's other people on the field as well. We're going to run the ball, not just pass it every play, so you have to know you have to block. You want people to pass protect for you, to throw the block for you so you can make that big play. So you have to realize you have to block correctly to help other people make big plays that could win the game."

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