Blue Ribbon Preview: Navy
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Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows that there's plenty of blame to go around for his team's poor performance last year, in which the Midshipmen finished 5-7, and failed to go to a bowl game for the first time in eight years. A good portion of it, Niumatalolo believes, belongs to him.
"I look at myself, and I think I got a little soft," Niumatalolo said. "I got caught up in the little things, like worrying about what our team meal was going to be, or what hotel we were staying at, or when we were going to have our power milk. I got caught up in the details."
Sept. 1 -- Notre Dame
15 -- @Penn State
22 -- VMI
29 -- San Jose State
Oct. 6 -- Air Force
12 -- @Central Michigan
20 -- Indiana
27 -- East Carolina
Nov. 3 -- FAU
10 -- @Troy
17 -- Texas State
Dec. 8 -- Army**
*Dublin, Ireland *Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
• 2011 Statistics
Niumatalolo wasn't the only person who got soft. It was bad enough that Navy turned in a sub-.500 record. But what made it worse was the fact the Midshipmen arrived at their record by being pushed around by other teams. Navy ranked 86th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense, including 92nd in rushing defense.
"We weren't as physical as we needed to be, not up front, not in the pass, not in the run, not anywhere," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said.
With the bad taste of last year still in their mouths, the Mids focused on toughness during the spring to try and return to their winning ways. They even made it one of their mantras. Niumatalolo said several times that his team was trying to "establish a culture of toughness."
Now's a good time to start establishing that type of culture, because Navy will need it in 2015, when it becomes part of the Big East.
"The Big East will be a monumental task for our program," Niumatalolo said.
Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii '90)
Record at school: 32-21 (4 years)
Career record: 32-21 (4 years)
• Ivin Jasper (Hawaii '94) Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
• Buddy Green (NC State '76) Defensive coordinator
• Chris Culton (Georgia Southern '01) Offensive line/tackles
• Justin Davis (Maine '01) Defensive line
• Tony Grantham (Radford '00) Outside linebackers
• Ashley Ingram (North Alabama '96) Offensive line/centers and guards
• Steve Johns (Occidental College '91) Inside linebackers/special teams coordinator
• Keith Jones (The Citadel '75) Secondary
• Mike Judge (Springfield College '05) Fullbacks
• Shaun Nua (BYU '05) Defensive Line
• Danny O'Rourke (West Georgia '00) Slot backs
• Dale Pehrson (Utah '96) Defensive line/recruiting coordinator
• Mick Yolkitis Wide receivers
Laughing at a teammate who's been thrown out of a meeting for arriving late would normally be considered an act of insubordination by Midshipmen offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. But when junior quarterback Trey Miller (6-0, 199) did it to one of his teammates in the spring, Jasper considered it progress.
"Trey is so hard to read; he's a real quiet kid," Jasper said. "So when he started laughing, I said, 'Go ahead and laugh, you might as well.' "
Miller, who was chosen as the starter before spring, has all the requisite physical tools to thrive in Navy's triple-option offense. But he's still developing the mental ones, as witnessed by Jasper's continued attempts to elicit an emotional response from Miller. While last year's starter, Kriss Proctor, was known for his bravado in the huddle, Miller's more of the strong, silent type, a good character trait for a military man, but not an FBS signal caller.
"At least he comes and asks me questions now," Jasper said. "He used to run around the huddle to avoid talking to me."
Although Miller might be lacking in certain areas, the Mids' coaching staff is hopeful he'll find his voice at some point during the fall. If he does, it could mean big things for a Navy offense that piled up the yards last year but lacked dynamism. It ranked fourth out of 120 FBS teams in rushing offense, but 119th in passing offense.
"Trey's not as good a runner as [2010 starter] Ricky Dobbs, but he's faster," Niumatalolo said. "He throws the ball better than Kriss.
"I'd say he's a little bit of both."
Miller hasn't played very much in his career, but the playing time he's received has been memorable. Last year in a loss to East Carolina, he replaced an injured Proctor in the second quarter and nearly led his team to a comeback win, completing 5-of-12 passes for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The next week, in a loss at Notre Dame, he rushed 19 times for 55 yards.
"That was big," Miller said about his start against Notre Dame. "I just remember looking up and seeing the people."
Miller, who finished last season with 150 yards on 49 carries and completed 12-of-29 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns, might never be as emotional as Jasper would like, but Miller believes he's ready for the challenge of being a starter.
"It's a big responsibility, but I'm ready to take it," Miller said. "I just need to be the point person [of the offense] and make the right decisions."
One of spring practice's greatest revelations regarding the Mids' fullbacks was that Niumatalolo is apparently an "American Idol" fan.
When asked to describe the play of sophomore Noah Copeland (5-10, 205), who'll receive the first shot at replacing Alexander Teich, Niumatalolo didn't directly compare Copeland to some of his outstanding fullbacks of the past, like Teich or Eric Kettani, but did it rather circuitously, by way of American Idol finalist Jessica Sanchez.
"You look at her and she's so little, but when she sings, she has such an incredibly powerful voice," Niumatalolo said. "It shocks you.
"That's Noah. He may not have the size of an [Kevin] Eckel or a Kettani, but looks can be deceiving. He's powerful."
Copeland didn't do much last year, rushing twice for five yards. But he enjoyed a productive spring, which helped him earn the job over senior Prentice Christian (5-11, 214). Although Copeland is listed as the starter, he'll most likely share time with Christian and junior Mike Patrick (5-8, 203), who carried the ball 15 times last year for 96 yards.
While Navy will likely platoon three fullbacks, its slot back situation is a bit more concrete, with seniors Gee Gee Greene (5-8, 185) and John Howell (5-8, 188) returning to the starting lineup. Greene, who rushed for 501 yards on 64 carries and three touchdowns last year, is one of the most experienced players on the team, having started 25 consecutive games. He's also one of its most productive. For his career, Greene is averaging 7.1 yards per carry, the fifth-best yards-per-carry average in program history. He caught 11 passes last year, four of which went for touchdowns.
Greene gets a lot out of his carries and catches, but it's nothing compared to Howell. Howell, who rushed for 340 yards on 35 carries and five touchdowns last year, including a three-carry, 113-yard, two-touchdown performance against Western Kentucky in which he broke off touchdown runs of 50 and 57 yards. In 2010, he caught two passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns, including a 77-yarder. Greene and Howell will be backed up by senior Bo Snelson (5-7, 180) and junior Darius Staten (5-6, 196). Snelson wasn't a major factor in the offense last year, rushing for 91 yards on 17 carries. But he commands respect, as evidenced by the fact he was voted one of this season's co-captains by his teammates.
It's doubtful the Midshipmen's passing game will return to its 2010 form, when Ricky Dobbs threw for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns. But they should be better than last year, when Proctor accounted for only 787 through the air and seven touchdowns. That's because Miller's a better thrower than Proctor, and Navy possesses a relatively talented receiver corps.
The only returning starter is junior Matt Aiken (6-0, 195), who started 11 games last year, catching 13 passes for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Aiken's sure hands could make him one of Miller's favorite targets.
Starting opposite Aiken is senior Brandon Turner (6-4, 225), who led the Mids last year with 14 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Turner is also one of the best blockers among the skill-position players, a valuable asset in the triple-option offense.
"Greg Jones [who graduated in 2010] is probably the best pure wide receiver we've had here," Niumatalolo said. "But as far as being a complete player for what we want running, blocking and catching, Brandon has a chance to be as good as we've ever had. He comes up with some big blocks in the running game that people don't notice as well."
A third receiver who should see lots of playing time is junior Casey Bolena (6-2, 200). Although Bolena caught only four passes for 53 yards last year, the coaching staff believes he possesses the skills to be a big-play receiver.
Also adding depth will be senior John O'Boyle (6-0, 196) and junior Shawn Lynch (6-0, 190), who started five games at safety last year, finishing with 18 tackles.
Niumatalolo had two choices for replacing his starting center and right guard: he could have gone the safe route, promoting players who'd been patiently waiting their turn; or he could have gone the risky route, promoting players long on potential but short on experience.
He went risky.
Stepping into the void left by two-year starters Brady DeMell and John Dowd are sophomore center Bradyn Heap (6-3, 280) and sophomore right guard Jake Zuzek (6-0, 318). Heap, who's yet to play a game in college, arrived at Navy as a center but switched to tackle last year. He figured he'd continue on the tackle track this season but was informed prior to spring practice that he'd be competing for the starting center job.
The Mids' best returning lineman is senior left guard Josh Cabral (6-3, 297), who's entering his third year as the starter and has started 25 consecutive games. Cabral is a Niumatalolo favorite because of Cabral's no-nonsense attitude and work ethic. Niumatalolo believes Cabral will be a positive influence for Heap and Zuzek.
The Midshipmen's defensive line probably thought it couldn't get any worse than last year, when Navy's defense ranked 92nd out of 120 FBS teams against the run.
But it did.
First, the line lost one of the program's all-time greats in defensive end Jabaree Tuani, who graduated ranked second all-time in tackles for loss, and third in sacks. Then, two potential starting defensive ends, Jamel Dobbs and Joshua Jackson, left the team. Dobbs quit the team and school after suffering a medical scare before last year's Army game, while Jackson gave up football to focus on his academics. The line also received a new coach in Shaun Nua, who arrived in Annapolis after playing four years in the NFL and serving as a BYU graduate assistant.
Nua will make a name for himself if he can whip this season's line into shape, because on paper, the Mids don't have much.
Their most experienced defensive lineman is senior left end Wes Henderson (6-2, 255). Henderson played in nine games last year, making three starts at right end. He finished with 26 tackles, including a pair for loss and a sack. He'll be backed up by junior Evan Palelei (6-3, 247) and sophomore Daniel Godkin (6-4, 230).
The main benefactor of Jackson's departure was senior right end Collin Sturdivant (6-3, 242). Sturdivant played in five games last year, making three tackles, including a sack. He'll be backed up, at least initially, by the line's second-most experienced player, senior Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick. Dowling-Fitzpatrick appeared in 11 games last year, making two starts at right end. He finished with 10 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and half a sack. Adding depth on the right side will be sophomore Aaron Davis (6-0, 242).
For now, junior nose guard Barry Dabney (6-1, 297) is penciled in as the starter. But he'll be pushed by junior Travis Bridges (6-0, 318), a converted offensive guard. Bridges impressed coaches during the spring game, making a game-high seven tackles.
"Travis Bridges has all the tools to be a very good nose guard for us," Niumatalolo said.
Two years ago, Niumatalolo gave senior linebacker Brye French (6-1, 216) an ultimatum: football or lacrosse. He chose not to follow through only after Teich and Tuani talked him out of it. Niumatalolo might want to send the two former standouts a thank-you card.
French, who's since given up lacrosse, has been on a pretty good run since almost being asked to leave the team. Last year, he started nine games at outside linebacker, finishing with 55 tackles, including six for loss and a sack. Before spring practice, he and Snelson were voted co-captains by their teammates. And during spring practice, French made a near-seamless transition from outside to inside linebacker, performing so well that Niumatalolo dubbed him one of the MVPs of the spring.
Starting opposite French is senior Matt Warrick (6-2, 229), the Mids' most productive returning defensive player. Warrick led the team with 103 tackles last year, including four for loss. He also led the team with seven pass break-ups and recorded an interception.
Backing up Warrick and French are junior Shawn Reed (6-1, 221) and senior John Michael Nurthen (6-2, 217). Not included on the depth chart is Matt Brewer, who started 10 games at inside linebacker last year but was suspended during the spring for disciplinary reasons.
At outside linebacker, Navy has a lot of potential talent, but not much that is proven. Senior Keegan Wetzal (6-3, 218) earned his first career start last year but suffered a concussion and never started again, finishing with six tackles, including one for loss. He'll be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Josh Tate (5-11, 203), a top high school recruit out of Tennessee who impressed coaches during the spring.
Tate's spring performance bumped sophomore Jordan Drake (6-4, 220) down to the second unit, but he should see plenty of action after appearing in nine games last year. One player to keep an eye on is junior Jarvis Cummings (5-11, 220), who switched to linebacker from quarterback in the spring.
The Midshipmen appeared poised to have four returning starters in their defensive backfield this season, but as it turns out, they'll have only three. That's because junior Jonathan Wev (5-9, 196) beat out senior David Sperry (5-11, 182), who started 12 games last year, finishing third on the team with 70 tackles, including four for loss.
Sperry didn't play his way out of a starting job, but rather Wev played his way into one, impressing the coaching staff with a couple of notable spring game interceptions.
Lining up opposite Wev will be sophomore Parrish Gaines (6-2, 196), who started the final five games last year, finishing with 30 tackles.
Senior Tra'ves Bush (5-10, 192) returns to rover after playing mostly outside linebacker last year. Bush, who finished second on the team with 93 tackles and tied for first with a pair of picks, started eight games at outside linebacker last year, and two at rover, including the final one. He'll be backed up by sophomore James Britton (6-2, 215).
At free safety, sophomore Chris Ferguson (6-2, 195) hopes to produce the same statistics he did last year. Ferguson, who started the final seven games, finished with 43 tackles, three pass break-ups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He'll be backed up by junior Wave Ryder (6-2, 215).
The return game should be a strength for the Midshipmen, as they return both starters from last year. Junior Marcus Thomas (5-7, 165) enters his second year as the primary kick returner, having enjoyed a successful first one. Thomas returned 33 kicks last year for a 22.1 average, which ranked him 85th among FBS kick returners. Thomas showed big-play ability, especially against East Carolina, when he returned six kicks for a 30-yard average, including a 90-yard touchdown, the fourth longest in Navy history.
Aiken will once again serve as punt returner after returning 10 last year for a 5-yard average.
All that is known about the Midshipmen's placekickers is that Jon Teague, who handled field goals and kickoffs last year, will be replaced by someone who's never attempted a collegiate field goal or kickoff. The first player who gets a chance to replace Teague is junior Stephen Picchini (6-0, 180). Picchini enjoyed an impressive prep career for Moorpark (Calif.) High, making 18 field goals and 101 PATs in his junior and senior years.
Not only was Picchini prolific in high school, he was also clutch. During the playoffs his senior year, he nailed field goals from 48, 46, and 45 yards. Junior Brynmor Hughes (5-10, 169) was Teague's primary backup last year.
The Midshipmen endured a problem at punter last year that's more prevalent at BYU, one of its independent brethren. Justin Haan, who was set to start at punter after an impressive spring, decided during the summer to do missionary work overseas, leaving Navy punter-less heading into fall camp.
After much hand wringing, the coaching staff decided to insert sophomore Pablo Beltran (6-2, 225) into the starting lineup. Beltran rewarded the confidence in him by enjoying a statistically serviceable year, averaging 37.5 yards per punt. The physically imposing Beltran showed he has the leg, booming several 50-yarders, including a 55-yarder. He also showed he has accuracy, landing 10 of his 35 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Should something happen to Beltran, Hughes has experience punting.
The Midshipmen expected the Big East to help their recruiting efforts last year. But they didn't expect Hollywood to lend a hand as well.
Showtime's Sports Emmy Award-winning documentary "A Game of Honor," which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Army and Navy football programs, put the Mids in the national spotlight despite a sub-par performance on the field, and swayed some recruits who'd been considering other mid-major schools.
Thanks to "A Game of Honor," and the Big East, Navy landed six players in the ESPN 150, including three in the top 100.
The Mids' highest-ranked recruit is Canton, Mich. Linebacker Tyler Goble (6-0, 230), the 67th-ranked inside linebacker in the ESPN's Top 100 inside linebackers. Goble de-committed from Bowling Green to sign with Navy. Also helping out on defense will be Nathan Hoff (6-1, 295), the 103rd-ranked defensive tackle, and Brendon Clements (5-9, 170), the 139th-ranked cornerback.
Offensively, the Mids might have found their signal-caller of the future in Naples, Fla.'s Kenneth Mouton (6-1, 206), the 158th-ranked quarterback. They also picked up some weapons for him, landing John Ferguson (6-3, 240), the 94th-ranked offensive tackle, and Toneo Gulley (5-8, 190), the 99th-ranked running back.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Navy spent the spring trying to "establish a culture of toughness," that it believes it didn't have last year, when it went 5-7 and failed to make a bowl game for the first time in eight years. If they can, the Mids should be in line to start another bowl streak.
Offensively, Navy should be able to run the ball as well as it did last year, when it ranked sixth in the FBS in rushing offense. And the Mids should be able to pass it better with Miller at quarterback.
Defensively, Navy has some question marks on the defensive line, but its linebackers and defensive backs are good enough to cover for the line until it establishes itself. This season might not be one of Navy's all-time best, but it should be good enough for seven or eight wins.
BLUE RIBBON: INDEPENDENT PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each Independent school. Take a look: