Oct. 22, 2013
Navy senior wide receiver Shawn Lynch doesn't have much to say, doesn't catch a lot of passes and doesn't mind if he generally goes unnoticed. But his Navy coaches and fellow Midshipmen have long been sold on what the unusually quiet guy from the northern Alabama town of Pelham has to offer.
At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Lynch, who also returns punts for the Mids, is a study in perseverance, versatility and consistency. He is arguably the best pure athlete on the roster, with the strength to dominate opposing defensive backs as a blocker. And he would be the last one to tell you about any of it. The people around him, however, are happy to be Lynch's promoters.
Navy wide receivers coach Mick Yokitis said Lynch has spoiled him with his steadfast commitment to the inglorious act of blocking downfield - the highest priority for a receiver in Navy's spread option offense. Time and time again, as Yokitis reviews practice or game video in position meetings, he points to No. 87 doing the dirty work with gusto.
"I'll be showing our freshmen practice clips, and I'll stop the film and say `Look at Shawn, blocking the cornerback hard on the back side. He's the farthest guy from the play, and look at him working,'" said Yokitis, an ex-Navy receiver and 2006 graduate who coached Lynch and fellow wideouts Matt Aiken and Casey Bolena at the Naval Academy Prep School in 2009. "Is anybody going to see that from the stands or on TV? No. But Shawn doesn't want to let his brothers down. We are such an unselfish team, and that really explains Shawn Lynch."
"My freshman year, I couldn't block anybody. My footwork was bad, and my hands were always outside [the defender] instead of inside," Lynch recalled. "You kind of learn to embrace [being a blocker] around here. It's our way of catching the ball, going out there and bullying DBs."
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo
said it's that kind of willingness to adapt to a role that has made him a huge fan of Lynch's.
"If Shawn gets his hands on a cornerback, it's done. He's a lot stronger than he looks. He's a tenacious blocker, and he makes plays for us," Niumatalolo said. "He doesn't say much, doesn't ask for much and he doesn't look for fanfare. He just does his job. Self-less kids like Shawn are the reason we've had success. He's the kind of kid that really represents us."
"You'd almost miss [Lynch] if you didn't know who he was," said Keenan Reynolds, Navy's sophomore quarterback. "He doesn't expect anybody to praise him. One thing I really admire about Shawn is his quiet confidence. He's so smooth with everything he does. He makes it look effortless. But he's a grinder who plays with a swagger."
Lynch also has a pair of the most dependable hands on the roster. Junior slot back Ryan Williams-Jenkins, a former teammate of Lynch's at Pelham High, located in a suburb just south of Birmingham, swears he never saw Lynch drop a pass on the playing or practice field in high school.
"[Lynch] is always dialed in. I had the privilege of lining up in the slot next to him on every play," said Williams-Jenkins, who added that Lynch had a huge influence on his decision to come to Annapolis. "I saw him jump up to catch a ball once [at Pelham]. Before he got tackled, Shawn got undercut, did a back flip and landed with the ball intact. That's the kind of athlete he is. And he's always leading us in sprints and weight room work."
During a recent, 28-10 victory over Air Force, a win that gave Navy a leg up on another Commander-In-Chief's trophy, Lynch showed up with a huge catch for a third-down, red-zone, third-quarter conversion. It came after Reynolds had scrambled out of trouble and pointed to an open area, where Lynch calmly slid, waited and caught the ball as he was hit inside the Air Force 5-yard line. Navy then quickly cashed in for a huge touchdown that gave the Mids a two-score lead with a 21-10 advantage.
"That was just a real good football play by Shawn," Reynolds said. "He was able to sense the hole [in the Air Force coverage] and find the hole with nonverbal communication. It's a testament to the hard work he's put in for four years, especially last summer."
Lynch has traveled a circuitous path to reach this point with the Mids. He barely got on the field for Navy as a plebe in 2010, when he took just four snaps at receiver. Following that season, the coaches looked at a looming shortage of talent, experience and athleticism in the defensive backfield and decided to move Lynch to safety.
He started the first five games in 2011 at free safety, appeared in six more, and played decently while making 18 tackles, including six stops in an early-season victory against Western Kentucky. But eventually, Lynch lost his starting job to surprise newcomer Chris Ferguson. Following the season, a tug-of-war ensued among the Navy coaches, which is not unusual when it comes to decisions involving position changes.
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper wanted Lynch back. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green wanted one of the team's better athletes to stay put and bolster the defensive backfield with a more experienced player. Niumatalolo did the math and made the call. After deciding he'd rather have Lynch on the field in the receiver rotation - where he would get 25 to 30 snaps per game - than on defense as a nickel back getting a handful of snaps, the head coach brought Lynch back to the offensive huddle.
Lynch said he never lobbied one way or the other. But he admitted he did some honest, self-examination, as he reviewed his performance as a sophomore.
"I really had to look at what I was doing. The truth was, I wasn't preparing myself [to play safety] as well as I should have been," Lynch said. "I knew I had the ability to do it, but I wasn't really ready to perform in every game. That's on me.
"I was willing to try safety. I had played some in high school. I just wanted to be on the field. Then, Chris Ferguson really stepped up. I was fine going back to receiver, and I guess I ended up finding my place on the team."
Lynch indeed blossomed at his old position as a big-play threat in 2012, when he started the final 12 games of the season. Besides being a reliable blocker who sprang Navy slot backs on the perimeter to energize the Mids' potent ground game, Lynch led the team with an average gain of 20.1 yards on his 14 receptions. That included a four-catch, 87-yard day against Notre Dame that was highlighted by a 25-yard touchdown.
Through the first six games of 2013, Lynch had taken care of his business with three catches for 46 yards and five punt returns for 35 yards - with minimal mistakes and chatter.
According to his parents, Raquel and Shawn, their son has been that way since he was a young boy. Raquel, a Jefferson County parole officer, and Shawn, a high school football coach who was a star quarterback at Jackson State from 1988-90, separated when Shawn was a pre-schooler. The three remain close and talk on a regular basis.
"Shawn was always more of an observer than a talker. He didn't like being photographed. We used to joke when he was a kid that he was going to end up in the CIA," Raquel recalled. "His teachers used to ask us if he was OK and why he doesn't have more to say. He just likes to be off to himself. He's played football since he was six, and even then, he really liked to observe the game."
And Shawn could catch the ball well from a young age. His father, who led Jackson State - Walter Payton's alma mater - to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and is a member of the school's Hall of Fame, remembered playing catch with Shawn during his grade school years.
"I'd shoot it out there pretty good to him, and he could catch it with his bare hands," said Shawn, Sr. "He slept with a football after he was born. He understood the game at a young age. He's still very short on words. You've got to have an inside scoop to know what's going on with him, but you know he's going to compete. He's fired up, you just can't see it. He believes he's going to be better than you, as soon as you put a challenge out there."
The father learned that up close when his son, as a high-school freshman, whipped him in one-on-one basketball with more quickness and the ability to use either hand effectively. He also learned it again when he posed a direct challenge to his son during his junior year at Pelham High. Shawn was in the process of earning his driver's license, and his father told him he could have his vehicle if he scored at least a 20 on his ACT test, the college readiness assessment.
"Shawn scored a 21, and I gave him my Toyota Land Cruiser," his father said.
Brett Burnett, the head coach at Pelham, said Shawn showed the same type of determination from the day he walked onto the field. He wasn't the most gifted player early on, but the kid kept pushing, kept making strides, and broke through as an upperclassmen. Lynch was selected to the all-state team as a wideout and a team captain in his senior year.
"Shawn got better every year and he was a big-time playmaker as a senior," Burnett said. "He could catch a screen pass and run 60 to 70 yards for a touchdown or he could go up strong between two defenders and come down with the ball. He was a very humble young man. He didn't need to talk. His actions did the talking. I wish we had three kids like him right now."
Lynch drew serious interest from smaller Division I schools, such as Jackson State and Middle Tennessee State. But he was bent on playing at a higher level, and along came Navy to recruit him. Next spring, Lynch will graduate with a degree in oceanography and hopes to report later in 2014 for flight school training in Pensacola, Fla.
"It makes me feel proud that Shawn would want to take on such a task. He wanted the best education money could buy and he wanted to play Division I football," his father said. "A lot of kids don't know what they're doing and don't have a plan. It's a blessing to have a kid who has a plan and really wants to do well. I know he's going to make the right decision."