Big three on offense power Johns Hopkins football into national semifinals at No. 1 Mount Union

On the Johns Hopkins football team, junior quarterback David Tammaro is called “Sticks” because the numbers of his 11 jersey look like, well, sticks. senior running back Stuart Walters is known as “Splash,” an homage to the textbook jump shot he developed as a high school basketball player in South Carolina.

Senior wide receiver Luke McFadden does not have a nickname, but he doesn’t feel left out. “Sometimes something sticks, and people run with it, but I don’t get into that too much,” he said.

No one is calling them the “big three” as has become routine in the NBA, but Tammaro, Walters and McFadden are keying the No. 13 Blue Jays’ offense and their run through the NCAA Division III tournament. How they fare in Saturday’s semifinal against top-ranked and 13-time national champion Mount Union (13-0) could determine whether Johns Hopkins (12-1) will make its first appearance in the Stagg Bowl, Division III’s title game on Dec. 14 at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas.

Tammaro leads the nation in passing yards (3,861), is tied for third with Purple Raiders junior D’Angelo Fulford in touchdown passes (35) and ranks sixth in completion percentage (67.2).

Walters is tied for 14th in touchdown runs (17) this season, owns the program’s all-time record for rushing touchdowns (47), and ranks second in career rushing yards (3,356). Despite sitting out four games to heal a broken finger, McFadden, the Centennial Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, leads the team in touchdown catches (nine) and receiving yards per game (75.0).

Coach Jim Margraff is usually reluctant to compare players, but he acknowledged the rarity of having three productive skill-position players in the same season.“I think all three are elite players,” he said. “We’ve had other guys before, but we’ve never had a group like that – three guys playing at that high of a level at the same time.”

Walters, who is two years older than the rest of the senior class, played with the Blue Jays from 2013 to 2015 before taking a leave of absence from the team in 2016 and 2017, which he said was to concentrate on grades and personal matters. Walters was charged with a first-degree sex offense and related counts after a fight with his girlfriend in 2016. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to probation for three years.

In a statement provided by the university Friday, Walters apologized for his actions.

“I deeply regret what happened,” he said. “I have sincerely apologized to everyone involved, including the young woman and to others affected, including my family, friends and teammates. I have learned from a very serious mistake and I am determined never to repeat it. I am determined to move forward in a way that brings credit to those who have given me a chance to prove myself since I returned to campus a year ago.”

Walters and McFadden have been playing for the Blue Jays since they were freshmen, making their collegiate debuts in season openers against Randolph-Macon, albeit two years apart. Both Walters and McFadden said playing early contributed to their on-field growth.

“We’re blessed enough that our team has done well over the years that when we go up big in games, in the second half our second- and third-stringers are playing, and all that does is give us experience so that when it is our time, we can do whatever we need to and we’re comfortable and we’re not nervous about anything because we’ve been here before,” Walters said. “And the thing about our coaching staff is when we did get in, instead of running just basic plays, the game scheme didn’t really change. We just continued our offense to get comfortable.”

Unlike Walters and McFadden, Tammaro had to wait until Jonathan Germano completed his career after the 2016 season. Although he threw for 3,010 yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore, Tammaro said this year’s success has been startling.

“I have a lot of confidence in my abilities just from offseason preparation and offseason work,” he said. “But also, coming into the year, you can’t really expect to throw for almost 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns. I’ll say that I have a lot of confidence in myself, but it’s also kind of been a dream year for me so far, and I’m looking to really continue that dream in these next two weeks.”

The trio’s presence has given offensive coordinator Greg Chimera a certain amount of flexibility. In a season-opening 63-31 thrashing of Randolph-Macon on Aug. 30, Tammaro threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns. In a 37-14 rout of RPI in the NCAA quarterfinals last Saturday, Walters ran for 115 yards and two scores, and Tammaro added 81 yards and one rushing touchdown. In between those two games, the offense has gained 150 rushing yards and 300 passing yards in the same game seven times.

“We’ve been a very balanced run-pass offense, but there have been games where we’ve noticed that we have a little bit more of an edge by running the ball with Stu and [senior] Tyler [Messinger],” McFadden said. “I would say that was most evident against Frostburg [in a 58-27 win]. On other occasions, we really think we’re able to do a lot of things through the air to guys on the outside or slot receivers. It really comes down to game preparation and seeing what’s going to put us in the best spot.”

The Blue Jays’ effectiveness on offense will be tested against Mount Union, which has the ninth-best scoring defense in the country (10.8 points allowed per game) and 13th-best defense overall (247.5 yards allowed per game). The Purple Raiders have not surrendered two touchdowns in a game nine times. But Mount Union senior linebacker Danny Robinson was impressed by what Johns Hopkins had done.

“A couple of us get together every Sunday and watch film, and they have a lot of athletes on their team this year,” he said. “Their running back is very tough, their quarterback is pretty accurate and mobile, and they have some very good receivers. So we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

While many eyes will be trained on Tammaro, Walters and McFadden, they are quick to argue that teammates equally as talented will play a vital role in Saturday’s outcome.

“Everybody’s going to have to play well — not just Luke, me and David,” Walters said. “They’re a really good team, they’re ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason. We need everyone to play the best game of their careers.”

Margraff said the players have been as loose and giddy as he has ever seen them during this week of preparation. Tammaro likes where the team is heading and offered a bold statement.

“I think when our offense is clicking, there’s nobody in the country who can stop us,” he said. “I look forward to a big challenge on Saturday with Mount Union and seeing how we can handle those guys.”

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