This season will be a test for Newport Harbor High School football player Mark Craig.
Receivers do their job most effectively with a minimum of attention and fanfare, but Craig's cover--if a 6-foot 6-inch athlete could be said to have a cover--is blown.
Not only is he justifiably heralded as the top returning wide receiver in Orange County, the impression created by his height is sure to set off alarms inside the helmet of almost any defensive back.
And when Craig's around, defenders have reason to travel in pairs.
As a junior last season, Craig caught 72 passes for 1,097 yards as Newport Harbor (10-3) went to the semifinals of the Central Conference playoffs, its best finish in conference history after losing in the quarterfinals three straight times. Craig also scored 13 touchdowns.
At season's end, he had moved into fifth place on the all-time Orange County receiving list and was third for the season behind two outstanding seniors, Capistrano Valley's Nathan Call with 73 catches and Los Alamitos' Robbie Katzaroff with 93.
Every receiver who had ever been wide open only to see a pass drilled into the ground or sail out of reach must have envied Craig's position last season. He was teamed with one of the best high school passers in Southern California, Shane Foley, who earned the county career passing record of 5,264 yards.
"He was superb," Craig said. "He was probably one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in Orange County and I was privileged to play with him. I was really lucky to be a junior when he was a senior. He made me look pretty good."
That combination won't be repeated this season. Foley is a redshirt freshman on scholarship at USC and the Sailors' quarterbacking situation is anything but settled.
"We'll get along without him," Craig said of Foley, whom he visited at the USC-Illinois game last weekend. "Yeah, I miss him. But I can't let myself, because that's selfish. All our quarterbacks are going to do great."
Three quarterbacks played for the Sailors in Friday's 29-6 loss at Santa Ana, but the most experienced, Vince Brejtfus, left at the half with a hyperextended thumb that will probably prevent him from throwing for two weeks. Despite the revolving door in the backfield, Craig caught 8 passes for 80 yards.
That's just another day at the office compared to his numbers in the loss to La Quinta in last fall's semifinals--15 receptions for 220 yards. He was named to the All-CIF team, along with his brother, offensive tackle Scott Craig, who graduated in June and postponed acceptance of an appointment to the Naval Academy to go on a mission for his church.
Some of his teammates have nicknamed Mark Craig "the praying mantis" because of his stature. But to cast Craig as simply a human skyscraper on the field is unfair.
"It is a great advantage because most cornerbacks are usually under 6 feet and I can get up over people and catch the ball," he said. "But every week (the issue of height) comes up and the opposing coaches say, 'I know they like to throw high to their tall receiver,' as if my height was the only reason I can catch the ball."
Although he is not tremendously fast, he has other assets--most notably, excellent hands, Coach Jeff Brinkley said. A forward on the basketball team, his vertical leap is more than 30 inches, according to assistant football coach David Shaw. And attendance at passing camps at Stanford and Brigham Young University has helped Craig develop some sophisticated wiles for fooling defenders.
"I like to play some mind games with them (the defensive backs)," he said. "They're taught not to think, just to react. I love it when I can get them to start thinking too much."
Said Shaw: "He's deceptive. He gives the impression of being really lazy, and then he'll throw an elbow at them, or put his hands up inside, and turn and catch it outside."
His physical aggressiveness adds another dimension to the Sailor offense.
"The thing that impressed me is that he is not afraid to go across the middle and catch the ball," said Brinkley, who took over the team in the spring after the resignation of Mike Giddings. "Sometimes you'll get a big, tall wide receiver and he'll be gun shy, but with Mark it seems like the rougher things get, the better he catches the ball. He's a pretty competitive guy."
Said Foley: "He's a clutch player, somebody we could depend on whenever we needed the big catch."