Growing up in Vienna, Keith Mumphery was always a student of football.
He didn’t want to rely solely on his talent.
So, the future Houston Texans wide receiver did extra homework and kept a detailed notebook.
His assignment was football: studying coverage schemes, jotting down tendencies of defenses and building scouting reports of opponents and himself as a tough self-critic.
As a blue-chip Michigan State recruit for Dooly County, Mumphery left no stone unturned in his preparation.
“We require students to carry notebooks to their lockers in the fieldhouse, and Keith would always bring his pen and paper to film sessions and take detailed notes,” said Darryl Silas, Mumphery’s high school coach. “I would go through Keith’s notes and make copies for the other kids. Keith was like a coach. He understood defensive coverages: Cover 2, Cover 3, man-under.
“He acted like an NFL ballplayer in high school. He was the total package academically and athletically. His work habits were second to none. He prided himself that no one would outwork him. It was a joy for me as his head coach because of that tenacity.”
Last year, the Texans drafted Mumphery in the fifth round and installed him as a reserve wide receiver who regularly returned punts and kickoffs. He wasn’t a standout, but he did produce and was reliable. As a rookie, Mumphery caught 14 passes for 129 yards and no touchdowns.
He also averaged 7.8 yards per punt return and 24.1 yards per kickoff return.
“We’ve tried to home in on the vision for a player,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said. “We identified a very definitive role for Keith, and he’s come in and done that. Keith has done a nice job. He’s a very hard-working guy.
“He was one of my favorite guys in the draft. We do lot of research. The entire draft room fell in love with this guy, and we wanted him on our football team.”
Now, Mumphery, 24, is looking to build on a rookie season in which he played in every game and started three times. He faces stiff competition for playing time after the arrival of first-round wide receiver Will Fuller and third-round wide receiver Braxton Miller from Notre Dame and Ohio State, respectively, and the development of Jaelen Strong one year after he was picked in the third round.
All of the young wide receivers take their cue from Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
There are other candidates to return kicks in addition to Fuller and Miller, and Mumphery will need a strong preseason to maintain his role from last season and fight for a roster spot.
“That’s my job to be ready whenever my number is called,” Mumphery said. “I think it’s time for me to step up and do what the team needs me to do. I feel a lot more confident and knowledgeable with the playbook and understanding what’s going on around me.
“The game is still fast, but you have to be more prepared. Preparation is the main key. The more prepared you are, the more success you’ll have.”
Although nothing is promised, Mumphery has made a strong impression on head coach Bill O’Brien.
“Really good daily approach, consistent, hardworking player,” O’Brien said. “Not easy to pick up our offense, and I think he’s come in here and done that. He’s returned punts pretty decently. We looked at him as a receiver that could help us on special teams, and we like what we see so far.”
What Mumphery provides is versatility, durability and athleticism. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, he is as stout as most running backs. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and had a 32½-inch vertical leap.
Against Denver, Mumphery hustled to catch a punt on the fly, sidestepped defenders and skirted the sideline for a 12-yard return.
Mumphery caught 88 passes for 1,348 yards and seven touchdowns as a three-year starter at Michigan State. He caught 26 passes for 495 yards and three touchdowns in his final season for the Spartans, averaging 19 yards per reception. He also rushed for 85 yards and a score.
“I’m not shocked by anything Keith has done,” Michigan State receivers coach Terrence Samuel said. “He’s a very intelligent, intuitive kid. He refuses to be outworked. He was very raw when he got here, but he worked on every negative until he turned them into positives. We nicknamed him ‘Mayhem’ because of how he finished every route.”
Although Mumphery was recruited by several programs as a wide receiver and a defensive back, he declined scholarship offers from Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt.
“Keith had the ability to do so many things — wide receiver, returner, defensive back,” Silas said. “He was never afraid of anything. He had the heart of a champion. Football is in his blood, and it’s in his mind.”
At Dooly County, Mumphery got outstanding grades and was a team captain.
“Keith was very humble, and he set the tone as a role model,” Silas said. “He was the icon of what you want to epitomize as a student-athlete. He had that champion’s heart and spirit, and you could trust him. I wish every kid I’ve coached was like Keith.”
Just like in high school, Mumphery has quizzed veterans like Hopkins on how to approach the game.
“He’s doing an amazing job, not just on the field, but in the meeting rooms,” Hopkins said. “He’s asking a lot of questions and working hard. I think he’s going to be in this league for a while.”
That blue-collar strategy Mumphery adopted back in Georgia continues to serve him well as he heads into his second NFL season. Not that he’s satisfied, of course.
“I feel pretty good, but I still have to continue to make progress,” Mumphery said. “I’m trying to learn things on the go. It’s a process every day.”