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Refusing to concede the middle ground

Bumpus has taken his lumps running inside routes from the slot, but Culver City High grad has become Washington State's leading receiver.

October 28, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The middle of the field is no place for a wide receiver looking to stay healthy. Too many linebackers hungry to hit, too many safeties lurking with bad intentions.

"It takes awhile to get used to that," Michael Bumpus says.

In Bumpus' case, it took two years, with some personal drama added for good measure. But now that the Southern California native has grown comfortable running inside routes from the slot position, he ranks among the top receivers in college football.

And that is a good thing for Washington State, which visits the Rose Bowl to face UCLA today.

Although the Cougars' other receiver, Jason Hill, grabs most of the headlines, Bumpus has caught a team-high 52 passes in eight games. His work between the hash marks has helped Washington State to a 5-3 record -- including a close loss to USC and an upset victory over Oregon -- boosting the Cougars to No. 25 in the latest BCS standings.

Not bad for a team that finished 4-7 last season and was expected to remain near the bottom of the Pacific 10 Conference this fall.

Washington State has won with a gradually improving defense and a consistent passing attack.

"Their quarterback is really starting to make great decisions," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said of the Cougars' Alex Brink. "He's doing a great job managing their offense."

More often than not, that means throwing to Bumpus.

"One, he's got tremendous hands and very soft hands," Coach Bill Doba said of the junior receiver. "Two, he'll go inside right in front of those linebackers and catch the football and take a heck of a hit."

Such determination is mildly surprising given his initial resistance to the slot.

As a senior at Culver City High in 2003-04, Bumpus planned to attend USC until the Trojans signed Dwayne Jarrett from New Jersey and asked the local kid to delay enrolling for a semester.

Rather than play second fiddle, Bumpus chose Washington State, where he was considered a gem of the recruiting class. By the fifth game of the 2004 season, he was in the starting lineup and on the way to making freshman All-American as a punt returner.

But not everything went smoothly.

Hill, one year older, emerged as the Cougars' top receiver. While he lined up outside against small cornerbacks, coaches wanted Bumpus in the slot.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Bumpus recalled.

Things got a little easier his sophomore season until a teammate fell on him during a game at California and he suffered a high ankle sprain, sitting out the last four games. Back on campus, Bumpus suffered another blow when the university suspended him for poor grades.

It was a misunderstanding, Bumpus insisted. He had neglected to drop a class in time -- but it showed up as a failure and drove his grade-point average down.

Pleading his case before a university panel, he waited two weeks for a ruling. The process unexpectedly influenced his attitude.

During that time, Bumpus considered transferring to a school where he could, among other things, line up at outside receiver. But the more he talked to family and teammates, the more he came to appreciate Washington State and the rural -- some might say bland -- landscape of the Palouse.

"There's really not much to do up here," he said. "It makes you focus."

Once the university cleared him academically, that meant hitting the weight room to strengthen his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame.

Bumpus also worked on running precise routes, drawing close to the defender before cutting to establish separation. He concentrated on body language.

"Making the defender believe you're doing one thing but you're really setting him up for something else," he said.

Washington State opened the season in hostile environs at Auburn and the change was evident. Stronger and smarter, Bumpus led his team with six receptions.

The pattern continued, aided by defenses that often double-teamed Hill. Bumpus caught seven passes against Baylor, and 11 for 112 yards against USC.

Now, he ranks No. 12 nationally in catches per game and the slot doesn't seem so bad.

"He seems happy," Doba said. "I hope he stays happy because he's sure a big part of our offense."

Today, Bumpus will have a chance to display his newfound enthusiasm in a crucial Pac-10 game before family and friends at the Rose Bowl.

The Cougars need one more victory to become bowl-eligible and Bumpus understands they need him across the middle. He talks about developing a rhythm with Brink.

"Things are really starting to click," he said.

It was simply a matter of time.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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