Navy wide receivers coach Mick Yokitis recalled a recent practice when the offense ran a high number of plays in scrimmage situations against the defense.
Standout wide receiver Mychal Cooper spent the entire practice blocking because not a single pass was thrown his way.
Afterward, Cooper approached Yokitis with a question. One might think the rising senior wanted to know why he was not targeted one time throughout practice.
That assumption would be not even close.
“Coach, did I practice hard enough today?” Cooper asked Yokitis.
Cooper is easily the most experienced wide receiver on the Navy roster, having appeared in 33 games with 22 starts through three seasons. The 6-foot-5, 221-pounder is one of the Midshipmen’s most talented receivers during the triple-option era. He has been as productive when given a chance, averaging almost 20 yards per catch over the course of his career.
Navy has another talented returning receiver in Mark Walker, who showed flashes of big-play ability while leading the team in receptions. Beyond those two projected starters, the wide receiver room is filled with question marks.
No other member of the depth chart going into spring camp has so much as made a catch in a varsity game. Cooper’s presence is the main reason why Yokitis is not concerned about the dramatic lack of experience at his position.
“Coop is a really good football player, but more important to me right now is the fact he’s doing a great job as a leader of the group. I think that’s really important during spring practice,” he said.
“Any time your best player is your hardest worker, that’s a great thing. Coop is by far our hardest worker we have in the wide receiver room and all the other guys see that. I tell the younger guys: ‘Just watch how he practices. Watch what he does pre-practice.’ Coop does not say a ton; he speaks when necessary. It’s more about his actions.”
Cooper is carrying on a tradition developed among the wide receivers during the 12-year tenure of Yokitis, a former Marine Corps officer. Yokitis played the position jokingly referred to in Navy’s triple-option system as “wide blocker” from 2002-05.
Those were the formative years of the Paul Johnson era when Navy was establishing the triple-option as a powerful rushing attack and rarely passed the ball. Yokitis played in 37 games with 12 starts and could probably count his number of career catches on one hand.
Since returning to the alma mater to coach the position he once played, Yokitis has preached selflessness, work ethic and accountability. He instills a mindset that effective blocking is more important than catching the football.
Yokitis came up with the nickname “Silverbacks” to define the wide receiver unit. That terms comes from the gorillas of the same name, who are ferocious fighters and fiercely provincial when it comes to protecting their family.
“Every single year the senior wide receivers are the hardest workers, the guys that set the example,” Yokitis said. “We have a really good culture in the room, and you see that from Day 1. When the freshmen see the seniors working really hard, it makes it really easy for me.”
Cooper has accumulated career statistics of 35 receptions for 675 yards and five touchdowns. The San Antonio native is poised for a big senior season and will look to surpass his sophomore season when he caught 18 balls for 380 yards.
Walker provides Navy with a true deep threat that has been a real rarity during the triple-option era. The New Jersey native showed he could take the top off the defense by blowing past a cornerback and catching a 44-yard pass from quarterback Dalen Morris versus Tulane.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound rising junior finished 2020 with 13 catches for 175 yards. Walker started five of 10 games and showed steady improvement as a blocker.
Yokitis wants to see more toughness out of Walker and has been pleased to see him fight through a hamstring injury during spring camp.
“Mark has been hurt all spring. It would be really easy for Mark to sit out, but he has not missed a single practice, a single rep,” Yokitis said. “Mark is not running great this spring — you see him limping and struggling, but he’s out there battling. I’m really, really happy to see him out there practicing.”
As plebes, Cooper and Marcell Gleaton both stood out on the field because of their height, length and big frames. While Cooper has enjoyed a productive career, Gleaton has never blossomed as a pass catcher.
Although Gleaton has made a mark as a member of various special teams, he is still searching for his first career reception. The 6-foot-3, 224-pound rising senior has appeared in 22 games and been credited with five tackles.
Gleaton almost made a spectacular leaping catch of a pass Morris threw too high across the middle against Tulane. He got injured on that play and missed the next game.
As the season progressed, Gleaton settled into a blocking role — either on the outside against defensive backs and linebackers or in the de facto tight end role out of Navy’s heavy formation. Yokitis said Gleaton earned high marks for his blocking ability and executing assignments.
“As far as catching the football, Marcell did not have a great season. For what his role was last season, he graded out the best,” Yokitis said. “Marcell’s role was a lot different than that of Mychal Cooper or Mark Walker. He was an enforcer and really got after some people last season.”
As the third most experienced receiver on the team, Gleaton does need to become more of a factor catching the ball, not just simply an effective blocker.
“We need Marcell to take the next step this year and get more involved with the passing game,” Yokitis acknowledged. “He works extremely hard and strives to be great. I think you’re going to see a lot more out of Marcell this season.”
Gleaton entered spring camp listed No. 2 behind Walker at the Z receiver spot, while current sophomore Zachary Kuhlman was the backup to Cooper at the X position.
Kuhlman, who was recruited as a slotback, switched to wide receiver midway through last season. Yokitis said the 6-foot-1, 203-pounder from Cincinnati was performing well this spring before suffering an injury during an intra-squad scrimmage on April 10.
“Zach has really come into his own this spring as far as understanding what we do and how we play. He has a toughness about him that we like,” Yokitis said.
Freshman Camari Williams (6-2, 205) is a good-looking prospect who is still learning how to play wide receiver in a triple-option offense. As a senior at Seventy-First High in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he led the Sandhills 4-A Athletic Conference with 64 receptions for 960 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Williams started spring camp third on the depth chart at X, while rising junior Michael Naze was third at Z.
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Meanwhile, current plebe John Meagher is a converted quarterback who has made a move up the depth chart this spring. Meagher (6-1, 190), who led Oxford High to a 14-1 record and the 2019 Mississippi Class 6A Championship as a quarterback, is the son of a former Navy football player.