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The NCAA allows college football teams 15 spring practices, 12 of which can be in pads, and eight of which can involve tackling. Rarely do coaches take advantage of all eight tackling days. But this spring, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo did just that.
"You have eight tackling [practices out of 15], so that means approximately 50 percent of the time you can tackle," Niumatalolo said. "Forty-nine-point-nine percent of the time we were tackling."
Niumatalolo isn't a masochist, but he is a realist. The Midshipmen entered the spring with plenty of holes to fill and depth to build, especially on defense, where they lost eight starters. Niumatalolo knew that shell drills weren't going to help him and his staff figure out the depth chart. He needed to see the players in action.
"The only way you're going to answer any questions is by tackling," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo didn't limit his pads-on philosophy to the defense.
"Normally, we have the quarterbacks in green, which means they are off limits to hit," Niumatalolo said. "But this spring, the only quarterback that [was] off limits is [Kriss] Proctor. The other guys are going to be in blue because I don't know what Trey Miller or Jarvis Cummings can do."
Senior fullback and co-captain Alex Teich, who sat out the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, saw (and heard) the difference more tackling made in practice.
"Every day, we were having guys going against each other, getting after it," Teich said. "We needed to see who could step up."
Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii '90)
Record at school: 27-14 (3 years)
Career record: 27-14 (3 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
• Danny O'Rourke (West Georgia '00) Slot backs
• Dale Pehrson (Utah '96) Defensive line/recruiting coordinator
• Napolean Sykes (Wake Forest '06) Assistant outside linebackers
• Mick Yolkitis Wide receivers
Niumatalolo not only has confidence in senior quarterback Kriss Proctor (6-1, 200), who's spent all but one game of his college career as a back-up. He has high praise for him. "He's as good of an option quarterback as we've had since Kaipo [Noa Kaheaku-Enhada]," Niumatalolo said. "He's in that category."
All but the most faithful Midshipmen fans will have to take Niumatalolo's word for it, because Proctor's body of work is miniscule. For his career, Proctor has rushed for 527 yards on 85 carries, and completed 4-of-9 passes for 60 yards and an interception. Approximately 40 percent of his rushing statistics and 50 percent of his passing ones came in last year's 38-37 win over Central Michigan. Starting for Ricky Dobbs, Proctor rushed for 201 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, and completed 2-of-5 passes for 33 yards.
Proctor will never be confused with Dobbs as a thrower, but Niumatalolo said that Proctor gives Navy a speed element that Dobbs didn't.
"He's pretty elusive," Niumatalolo said. "Ricky would run you over. Kriss makes you miss. He can take it to the house."
Senior fullback Alex Teich agrees with Niumatalolo's assessment of Proctor's speed.
"Kriss is lightning in a bottle," Teich said. "I think he's one of the fastest guys on the team."
In addition to Proctor's speed, Teich likes his confidence in the huddle.
"I call it his Cali swag," Teich said of the Big Bear, Calif., native. "He definitely has a presence."
"This is his team," Niumatalolo said. "This is his offense. The guys have to gravitate around him as the leader."
Despite his confidence in Proctor, Niumatalolo made it a top priority in the spring to identify Proctor's backup. The winner of the back-up competition was sophomore Trey Miller (6-0, 191), who captured spring practice's most improved award.
At most schools, ranking sixth in the FBS in rushing yards would be cause for celebration. At Navy, however, it's cause for concern.
From 2005 until 2008, the Midshipmen ranked No. 1 in the FBS in rushing yards. But in the last two years they've slipped. They went from No. 1 to No. 4 in 2009, and No. 4 to No. 6 last year. Alex Teich (6-0, 217) wants the slide to stop with his class.
"As an offense, our goal is to get us back to where we were before, which is No. 1 in the country in rushing," Teich said. "It's a big deal for us."
Teich will play an important role in determining whether Navy can return to No. 1. A backup to Vince Murray at the beginning of last year, Teich was promoted to the starting lineup after Murray injured his knee in the fifth game, against Wake Forest. Teich immediately produced, rushing for 95 yards on 21 carries the next week in a 28-21 win over SMU, and 210 yards on 26 carries the following week in a 35-17 victory over Notre Dame. He also rushed for 157 yards in a win over East Carolina. Teich finished the year with 868 yards and five touchdowns, to go along with seven catches for 86 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Despite Teich's production, Niumatalolo expects more out of him this season.
"We're hoping he takes his game to another level,"
Niumatalolo said. "We don't want him to stay the same. If he has a great year, we will have a great year as a team." Niumatalolo will use Teich as much as he can, but he needs a reliable backup. The candidates include junior Prentice Christian (5-11, 209), senior Delvin Diggs (5-11, 202) and junior Kevin Eckel (6-1, 231). Sophomore slot back Darius Staten (5-6, 190) could move to fullback.
Slot back will continue to be a group effort. Last year, Niumatalolo used a four-back rotation. This season, he's hinted at using six.
"I think when more guys play, it helps the chemistry at that position, especially if they're a tight-knit group," Niumatalolo said.
One player who'll see plenty of the playing time is junior Gee Gee Greene (5-8, 180), who rushed for 505 yards and five touchdowns last year, to go along with 18 receptions for 286 yards. His receiving yards were good for second on the team. Greene isn't Navy's fastest slot back, but he makes the most of his touches. He's averaging 6.6 yards per carry for his career, fifth-best in school history.
Senior Aaron Santiago (5-8, 167), who rushed for 204 yards and a touchdown last year, is penciled in as the starter opposite Greene, but he's being pushed by junior Bo Snelson (5-7, 180). Snelson didn't even receive a carry until Nov. 6 against East Carolina, but he still finished the year with 91 yards and a touchdown.
If the Mids need a big play, they might be wise to turn to junior John Howell (5-8, 180). Howell's rushing numbers, 111 yards and two touchdowns, were modest, but his receiving yards, two catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns, were impressive. One of those catches was a 77-yard touchdown reception against Army, the longest pass play in the rivalry game's history.
Last year's Midshipmen offense was unique in that it had both a quarterback in Ricky Dobbs who was adept at throwing the ball and a wide receiver in Greg Jones who possessed playmaking ability. The pair combined for 662 yards and five touchdowns, which don't sound like high numbers, but for a Navy team that is annually ranked near the bottom of all NCAA FBS passing statistics, they were astronomical.
Dobbs and Jones are gone, and with them, apparently, Navy's short-lived dynamic passing game.
Proctor's not known for his throwing ability, and the Mids' only returning wide receiver with any experience is junior Brandon Turner (6-4, 200), who caught only four passes for 113 yards and a touchdown last year.
"Those are some big shoes to fill," Niumatalolo said of Jones' departure.
If Niumatalolo decides to explore the vertical passing game with Proctor, which he likely will not, Turner appears to have some of the same playmaking ability as Jones. His first collegiate catch was a 63-yarder against Louisiana Tech, and he caught a 32-yard touchdown pass against Army.
Navy's wide receiver stats would look better had it not been for penalties. Sophomore wide receiver Matt Aiken (6-0, 190) caught a 61-yarder and 31-yarder last year that were both called back because of penalties. Aiken also returns punts.
Senior left tackle David Sumrall (6-5, 267) bears the same silhouette as the player he's replacing, 6-5, 260-pound Jeff Battipaglia. Niumatalolo hopes Sumrall also possesses a similar skill set.
Battipaglia was the ideal left tackle for the Midshipmen's triple-option attack in that he was not only large, but nimble. Sumrall displayed some nifty feet during the spring, but Niumatalolo is curious as to whether Sumrall's spring performance will be a harbinger of good news in the fall.
"Athletically, he's what we're looking for," Niumatalolo said. "He's 6-5, 275 pounds and can run. He has been playing behind one of the best tackles that we've ever had here and it's time for David to step up. Hopefully he looks at this as a great opportunity. I'm excited about him, because physically he has the tools to do it. Whether he can do it or not remains to be seen."
Sumrall appeared in 11 games last year, but mostly on special teams.
Competing against Sumrall will be junior left tackle Andrew Barker (6-4, 257), who's listed as the backup at both left and right tackles.
Starting opposite either Sumrall or Barker will be senior right tackle Ryan Basford (6-5, 270), the only Navy tackle with any collegiate experience. Basford began last year as the backup to Matt Molloy but stepped into the starting lineup when Molloy was lost for the year because of a concussion. Basford ended up starting 11 games.
The Mids' interior line should be strong, with three returning starters, including two who have multi-year experience. Center Brady DeMell (6-3, 310) and senior right guard John Dowd (6-4, 260) started all 13 games last year and one in 2009.
Junior left guard Josh Cabral (6-3, 270) entered last year with a lot of hype, and lived up to it, starting 13 games.
Senior Eric Douglass (6-2, 280), who'll back up DeMell, is Navy's most experienced Navy offensive line reserve, having started four games in 2009.
Most of the time, a team has either depth or experience at a particular position. At defensive line, however, Navy has neither.
The only returning starter to the defensive line is senior left defensive end Jabaree Tuani (6-1, 265). Starting senior nose guard Jared Marks (6-5, 297) played in all 13 games last year, but he made only three tackles, while starting junior right end Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (6-2, 220) compiled only four tackles in 13 games. The remaining seven players on the depth chart have seen action in a combined 22 games and made six tackles.
On the bright side, if you're going to have a returning starter, it might as well be Tuani, one of the top defensive linemen in the FBS. Tuani, who's been starting since his freshman year, was a tackling machine last year, especially behind the line of scrimmage. Fifteen-and-a-half of his 72 tackles were for loss, and 5.5 of those were sacks. His tackles for loss ranked 39th in the FBS. Tuani, who was chosen a co-captain along with Teich, sat out the spring recovering from knee surgery. But instead of sitting idly by watching his teammates, he worked the phones, calling former teammates and picking their brains for ways to hasten the development of the defensive line.
Although Marks doesn't have much experience, he did enjoy what Niumatalolo characterized as a "solid spring," distancing himself from sophomore backups Alex Doolittle (6-2, 299) and Barry Dabney (6-1, 289).
The Midshipmen sorted out a lot of position competitions during the spring. Linebacker, however, wasn't one of them.
"If you are a young guy and you aren't a shark that doesn't smell blood in the water, then you probably don't deserve to play, because it's wide open at linebacker," Niumatalolo said.
Nowhere is it more wide open than at inside linebacker, where juniors Matt Warrick (6-2, 223) and Matt Brewer (6-0, 228) and seniors Caleb King (6-0, 223) and Max Blue (6-0, 200) each have a chance to start.
Of the four, Blue appears to be the closest thing to a lock. He finished with 58 tackles last year, including one tackle for loss, and an interception. Blue's problem is his inability to stay healthy. He played in only eight games last year, missing three because of a neck injury and two because of hip and back injuries. He also had wrist surgery during the off-season. King started the first three games last year, but started only one the remainder of the year, a 10-tackle performance against Duke. Warrick, a former slot back, played in only four games last year but started the final two, finishing with 18 tackles and a pass break-up.
On the outside, seniors Jarred Shannon (6-0, 208) and Mason Graham (6-0, 207) appear to have locked up starting spots despite limited playing time last year. But their ascension to the starting lineup was bittersweet, as it was made possible by the departure of Aaron McCauley, who left the team in the off-season. McCauley finished third on the team in tackles last year with 82.
Adding depth will be sophomores Craig Veech (6-3, 225) and Brye French (6-1, 205), who also play baseball and lacrosse, respectively. Niumatalolo considered giving the pair an ultimatum to play one sport, but Tuani and Teich talked him out of it, and Veech and French will join the team in August.
One position group that benefited greatly from the physical spring was defensive backs, where the Midshipmen are long on talent but short on experience.
"We have some guys there that physically, we feel like they can do it," Niumatalolo said. "We just have to find out how good they are."
Senior cornerback Kwesi Mitchell (5-10, 189) is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield, having started all 13 games last year; 12 at cornerback and one at free safety. Mitchell finished last year with 48 tackles, an interception, three pass break-ups, and three forced fumbles.
Vying for time opposite Mitchell will be a pair of players who have plenty of playing experience, but mostly on special teams. Junior David Sperry (5-11, 173) played in all 13 games last year, finishing with eight tackles and a pass break-up, while sophomore Jonathan Wev (5-9, 196) saw time in 11 games.
Junior Tra'ves Bush (5-10, 192) started only one game last year, and that was at inside linebacker. But he has some experience. He played in all 13 games, finishing with 44 tackles and an interception. Bush enjoyed one of the most productive games of any Navy defensive player last year against East Carolina, making 14 tackles. He also intercepted a pass during the spring game.
Backing up Bush will be a player who's in the running for best name in the FBS: sophomore Wave Ryder (6-2, 205). It should come as no surprise that Ryder, who picked off a pass in the spring game, hails from Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Niumatalolo might have been more confident about Navy's defensive backs situation had he retained the services of free safety De'von Richardson, who finished eighth on the team last year in tackles. But Richardson was dismissed from the school for academic reasons.
Attempting to fill the void left by Richardson's departure will be three players. Junior Jordan Fraser (6-2, 191) missed the first six games of the season, but he played in the final seven and was productive, finishing with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a pass break-up. Senior Gary Myers (6-1, 194) appeared in 11 games last year, while sophomore Shawn Lynch (6-0, 205) was moved to free safety after playing wide receiver last year.
If Myers can't do the job, Aiken appears capable. He's yet to return a college punt, but he put up some impressive numbers as a wide receiver last year.
Sophomore Marcus Thomas (5-7, 165) will assume the starting kick returner role after taking it over for the final eight games last year. Thomas, a slot back, did well in those eight games, returning 26 kicks for a 21.7 average. Staten will back up Thomas. Staten returned three kicks last year, for a 15.3 average.
Football players have a difficult time waiting a week to redeem themselves after a bad performance. Navy senior kicker Jon Teague (6-3, 209) has to wait four months.
Teague missed all three of his field goal attempts in the Mids' spring game, whiffing from 52, 35 and 33 yards.
"That was a little surprising," Niumatalolo said. "Jon had been kicking really well this spring."
That's the bad news. The good news is that Teague's sub-par performance did nothing to shake Niumatalolo's confidence in him, and he'll be Navy's opening-game starter at place-kicker for the first time in his career.
Teague has started at times for the Mids, but his sample size is small. Last year, playing in place of an injured Joe Buckley, he went 16-for-16 in PATs, including a school-record 10-for-10 performance against East Carolina. He also went 2-for-2 in field goals.
It will be interesting to see how placekicking affects Teague's other duty -- kick-offs. In 71 attempts last year, he registered seven touchbacks, which aren't a lot, but they were an improvement over the two he managed to boot into the end zone in 2009.
Sophomore Brynmor Hughes (5-10, 169) will be the primary backup for Teague. He'll also be the backup punter. Hughes, a San Diego native, has yet to attempt a college kick.
Niumatalolo never thought he'd be looking for an upgrade to Kyle Delahooke this season, but he is. Delahooke enjoyed an outstanding career for the Mids, but last year he struggled, finishing with a 38.4-yard average, almost five yards below his junior-year average.
Attempting to improve on that paltry number will be junior Justin Haan (6-2, 211). Haan, who handled holder duties last year, has never attempted a punt in a college game, although he did play a year of soccer at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., before transferring to Navy. Haan might not receive any Ray Guy Award attention this season, but he could be up for humanitarian awards. In 2009, Haan spent a month volunteering at an orphanage in Kenya.
Brynmor Hughes will serve as Haan's backup. Like Haan, Hughes has never attempted a college punt.
While many incoming recruits will be heading for Navy's prep school in Newport, R.I., Crestview, Fla.'s Allen Caldwell (6-5, 240) expects to go straight to Annapolis.
Caldwell received high enough grades in high school that he should be able to skip prep school, which means he'll be able to contribute immediately.
Caldwell, who was the 98th-ranked tight end in the country according ESPN Recruiting, expects to make that contribution on special teams, but he eventually envisions himself as a defensive end, rather than a tight end.
Joining Caldwell in a couple years will be a pair of defensive standouts in inside linebacker Grant Clifton (6-0, 225) and defensive tackle Bernie Sarra (6-2, 305). Clifton was a force at Katy (Texas) High, finishing his career with 450 tackles. Sarra won a state championship his junior year at Greensburg (Pa.) Central Catholic.
All that anyone can be sure of this season is that Navy will be able to run the ball on its opponents, because it can always run the ball on its opponents. Other than that, the Midshipmen's season is a mystery.
Niumatalolo has confidence that Proctor can run the Mids' option offense, but he'll have to be nearly flawless, as Navy's passing game will be most likely non-existent. Defensively, the Midshipmen are replacing eight starters, and of the three returning starters, only Tuani is an impact player. For the last decade, the Mids have grown accustomed to Commander-In-Chief Trophies and bowl games. This season, however, a winning record against FBS opponents might be a more realistic goal.