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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 30: Navy

Ricky Dobbs leads on and off the field. In a perfect world, he'd be in the Heisman mix.

I think we all knew this Navy team was capable of another fine year after the first weekend of season. Even in defeat, Navy took Ohio State down to the wire, trading blows with the eventual Big Ten champion and making a statement in the process: We’re good – again. Good enough to claim yet another Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. Good enough to win at S.M.U. and at Notre Dame – that’s two straight in South Bend – and good enough to beat teams from the A.C.C. — Wake Forest — and Big 12 — Missouri. Good enough for a seventh straight eight-win season, and good enough to win 10 games for the second time since 2004. Good enough, even, to ask: Paul Johnson who? Did I go too far? Coaches change, players change, the schedule changes, but one thing remains the same: Navy’s good – again.

Conference
Independent

Location
Annapolis, Md.

Nickname
Midshipmen

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 64

2009 record
(10-4, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 41

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 6
    Maryland (in Baltimore)
  • Sept. 11
    Georgia Southern
  • Sept. 18
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 2
    at Air Force
  • Oct. 9
    at Wake Forest
  • Oct. 16
    S.M.U.
  • Oct. 23
    Notre Dame (in East Rutherford, N.J.)
  • Oct. 30
    Duke
  • Nov. 6
    at E.C.U.
  • Nov. 13
    Central Michigan
  • Nov. 20
    Arkansas State
  • Dec. 11
    Army (in Philadelphia)

Last year’s prediction

I expect a rough start but see Navy finding its balance during a midseason stretch of winnable games, and locking a bowl bid with either a road win at Hawaii or in the season finale against Army. And what of the C.I.C. Trophy? Yes, I understand the Mids have taken it to Air Force in six straight matchups, and yes, I realize the game is in Annapolis; nevertheless, I believe the Falcons are the better team in 2009, and will take back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after a seven-year drought. My respect for what Navy has done since 2002 knows no bounds, and even with a 7-6 regular-season finish – my prediction – that won’t change.

2009 recap

In a nutshell For the second time in school history, Navy finished with 10 wins. This team had a different feel from the Paul Johnson-led 2004 squad that finished 10-2, with that team slightly more imposing that last year’s version. Nevertheless, let’s give the Mids credit for two things. One, this team made an improvement over Ken Niumatalolo’s debut season, and not just in the win column. The offense was more consistent — thanks to terrific quarterback play — than in 2008. The defense was also improved, finishing in the top 20 nationally in scoring. Two, Navy reached 10 wins despite playing a very tough schedule, one that pitted it against Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Air Force, S.M.U., Temple, Notre Dame and Missouri. Navy did many things very well: run the ball, of course; limit penalties; win the turnover battle; control the clock; and play stout defense. Don’t forget the solid coaching job done by Niumatalolo and his staff, who have continued to build upon the foundation laid by Johnson from 2002-7.

High point Another win over Army. That gives Navy eight straight in the long-standing rivalry. In second place (a distant second) is a 16-13 win over Air Force, which along with the Army victory gave Navy yet another Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. In third place, a 23-21 road win over then-No. 22 Notre Dame, Navy’s second win in three years against the Irish.

Low point Two late-season losses to Temple and Hawaii prevented Navy from finding a spot in the final Top 25 poll. In a home game against Temple, Navy allowed the Owls to score 10 points in the fourth quarter to steal a three-point win. A month later, the Mids dropped one on the road to an underwhelming Hawaii team.

Tidbit Where does Navy rank among non-B.C.S. conference programs since 2003? Right near the top, believe it or not. Navy has posted seven consecutive seasons with at least eight wins, the 12th-longest such streak nationally and the second-most among teams outside the B.C.S.: Boise State has posted 11 consecutive seasons with at least eight victories. In terms of total wins since 2003, Navy’s ranks 17th nationally with 61; that’s fourth among non-B.C.S. conference programs, trailing only Boise State (first with 82 wins), T.C.U. and Utah (both tied for ninth with 69). Perhaps the most telling number is 16 — the number of Navy victories over B.C.S. conference competition since 2003, the most by any non-B.C.S. school in the country.

Tidbit (history edition) Though Navy has never won as many games over a seven-year span as it has since 2003, the most successful period in the history of the program likely runs from 1904-10. These teams – coached by Paul Dashiell (1904-6), Joe Reeves (1907) and Frank Berrian (1908-10) – went 55-12-8, a winning percentage of 82.1 percent. In 1905, the Mids went 10-1-1 and outscored their opposition by 243 points to 20. Since 2003, Navy has gone 61-29 for a winning percentage of 67.8.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 WR Tyree Barnes (New England), FB Kyle Eckel (Denver), RB Eric Kettani (New England), WR Shun White (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Important naval battles
1. Salamis (480 B.C.).
2. Actium (31 B.C.).
3. Trafalgar (1805).
4. Gravelines (1588).
5. Midway (1942).

Coaching

Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii ‘89), 18-10 after two full seasons at Navy. Niumatalolo is the first Polynesian head coach in F.B.S. history and the first Samoan head coach on any collegiate level. Reaching eight wins, matching the team’s 2007 total, had to make the 2008 season a successful one for the Midshipmen. Reaching 10 wins last fall, tying Paul Johnson’s single-season record set in 2004, indicates that with its system in place, Navy is in no danger  of ending its streak of winning seasons anytime soon. Each of Niumatalolo’s teams have failed to match the Johnson-coached teams’ offensive output, but the defense has made great strides in scoring, keeping the team competitive in most games. In 2008. Niumatalolo joined George Welsh as the only first-year Navy coaches to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy (something, admittedly, I didn’t think the Midshipmen would do that season). Niumatalolo has served two stints at Navy: the first from 1995-98, under the former Louisiana-Monroe coach Charlie Weatherbie, and from 2002 to 2007 under Paul Johnson. Niumatalolo has several ties to his predecessor: in addition to serving as his assistant head coach and offensive line coach, Niumatalolo took over as offensive coordinator when Johnson left for Georgia Southern in 1996 and was the starting quarterback at Hawaii when Johnson was coordinating the Warrior attack in the late 1980s. His first stretch with the Mids, though marginally less successful (24-21), gave Niumatalolo valuable play-calling experience, which helped in his transition last fall. In addition to his time at Navy, Niumatalolo has coached at his alma mater (1992-94) and U.N.L.V. (1999-2001). Navy could not have found a more perfect fit.

Players to watch

Ok, so it’s 2010 now. Graduate in 2011. Serve your stint overseas. Get home safe. Maybe play a few years in the league, as an all-purpose, Wildcat quarterback. Go into public service, pay your dues, make some connections. By my count, Ricky Dobbs should be making his presidential run in, say, 2040. Give or take a term or two, of course. Off the field, Dobbs is already everybody’s all-American. On the field, he’s the most dangerous run-first quarterback in the country. There’s a reason he finds himself a Heisman contender heading into 2010: he’s coming off a 1,203-yard, 27-touchdown junior season, with the latter total setting a new F.B.S. record for a quarterback. Though not asked to do much with his arm, he illustrated during the Ohio State game just how effective he can be when called upon: Dobbs completed 9 of his 13 attempts for 156 yards and 2 scores in that narrow loss. Better yet, for a true example of what Dobbs is capable of on a weekly basis, check out this line against Missouri in Navy’s bowl win: 9 of 14 through the air for 130 yards and a touchdown, no interception; 30 carries for 166 yards and 3 scores on the ground. He completely dominated a Big 12 defense. The Tigers — though they didn’t help matters with their poor attitude — never had a chance.

Due to his activity on the ground, Dobbs’ health is always going to be a concern. He missed one full game and most of another — the Temple loss — last season; Dobbs must remain on the field in order for this team to reach its full potential. It’s worth noting that Dobbs played on a broken kneecap for the final six games of last season. Just how good is he? Let’s put it this way: if I were building a team, regardless of what type of offense I wanted to run, I’d give heavy, heavy consideration to making Dobbs my first pick. On the field and off, he’s everything we want out of our student-athletes. Get on board now: if Dobbs stays healthy, lifting Navy to a Top 25 finish, he should be firmly in the Heisman mix. If he’s not, it’s an indictment of the process, not the player.

Navy makes good use of its fullbacks, with senior Vince Murray the next at the position to crack the 1,000-yard mark. He nearly did so last season, breaking into the starting lineup midway through the year en route to finishing with 971 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns, both totals good for second on the team. Murray’s first four games in the lineup went superbly: 141 yards at S.M.U., 175 against Wake Forest, 115 against Temple and 158 yards — on 11.3 yards per carry — in a road win over Notre Dame. He replaced junior Alexander Teich, who returns in a key reserve role.

The offensive line will again get the job done. It is strong on the outside, with senior Jeff Battipaglia returning on the blind side, senior Matt Molloy on the right. This is a very strong bookend pair, with each bringing multiple years of starting experience — each are two-year starters — at a high level into their final seasons. While the Mids must replace a trio of important linemen, they bring back two players with starting experience: junior Eric Douglass returns at center after starting the final four games of 2009; and junior Brady DeMell, a key reserve last fall, will start at right guard. That leaves the left guard spot to sophomore Josh Cabral, though Navy could also turn to juniors Francis Archibald and Zach Dryden should Cabral stumble.

What about the defense? Can it match last season’s strong play? There’s no reason to think otherwise. While a few starters must be replaced, the Mids return a nice mix of senior experience and young athleticism; no, there’s no reason to expect any decline in production. Take the defensive line, for example. Junior Jabaree Tuani, coming off a stellar debut season in the starting lineup, returns at one end spot: he made 54 tackles, the most of any Navy lineman, and 3.5 sacks. He’ll be joined up front by fellow end Billy Yarborough, who made a single start last fall, with senior Shane Bothel earning the nod at nose tackle. Bothel will be aided in his difficult task by senior Chase Burge and junior Jared Marks, with both likely to earn significant snaps in 2010.

The linebacker corps faces a bit of a rebuilding job, thanks to the departure of solid starters Ross Pospisil and Ram Vela, among a few other key contributors. The Mids do return some experience, however, with senior Tyler Simmons chipping with 68 tackles in a reserve role last fall. He’ll be asked to step into Pospisil’s shoes; if any one player can replace Pospisil, it’s Simmons.

He’ll be joined at inside linebacker by junior Caleb King, whose strong spring vaulted him past senior Trey Grissom and sophomores Matt Warrick and Matt Brewer and into the starting lineup. King didn’t earn much playing time last fall, contributing mainly on special teams, but has nice size and — by all accounts — solid speed for the position. Another junior, Aaron McCauley, will flank Simmons and King at one outside spot. The Mids have options at the second outside linebacker position, with both senior Jerry Hauburger and sophomore Collin Sturdivant making claims to the starting role. Keep an eye on Sturdivant, a converted defensive end, who could be utilized as an edge rusher on passing downs.

You have to like the secondary: both starting safeties return, as does one starting cornerback and a few experienced reserves. The leader of this defense is senior Wyatt Middleton — technically playing the rover spot — last year’s team leader with four interceptions. Senior Emmett Merchant is back at free safety; he added 54 tackles and another pair of picks. This pair can get it done.

The Mids must supplant one starting cornerback in Blake Carter, a 25-game starter over his four-year career. Navy does return 2009 starter Kevin Edwards, though the second cornerback spot remains open to debate. It will be key for Edwards to remain healthy: the senior missed a few games last fall and was limited during the spring. It would make sense for Navy to insert Kwesi Mitchell into Carter’s former position, as the speedy junior was the team’s third cornerback last fall. He certainly holds the edge over the competition, which includes juniors Corey James and David Wright and sophomore Caleb Lucas. Still, let’s see how Mitchell responds to his added duties.

Position battles to watch

Slot back Marcus Curry’s dismissal from the program cost Navy its most talented — and most productive — returning slot back. He played very well last fall, rushing for 585 yards on a team-best 7.3 yards per carry with a team-leading 287 yards receiving. In a perfect world, Navy’s slot back would have that type of impact, both on the ground and in the passing game. Curry’s departure opens a hole on the depth chart. Stepping into the void — potentially — is sophomore Gee Gee Greene, who rushed for 253 yards in his rookie season. Greene also made an impact on special teams, averaging 18.7 yards per his 33 kick returns. Junior Aaron Santiago is also in the mix, though he’s far less game-tested than Greene. Who else could Navy turn to? Junior Mike Stukel rushed for 58 yards rushing last fall; sophomore Bo Snelson and senior Andre Byrd earned limited action; and sophomore John Howell, who brings no game experience to the table, sits third on the depth chart. What can we expect from this group? Perhaps Greene — or some combination of Greene, Santiago and Stukel, among others — can recoup Curry’s lost production on the ground. I don’t know if any returning slot back can duplicate Curry’s impact in the passing game, unfortunately. The ground production is not as large a concern as losing Curry as a receiver.

Game(s) to watch

If you’re not watching the Army-Navy game every year, do yourself a favor and begin to do so in 2010. (Why anyone is not watching it is beyond me.) Navy’s schedule will pit it against a handful of talented opponents, but games against Army, Air Force and Notre Dame seem to mean more than others. Navy can claim the Blue Crab Trophy – a trophy I just invented, awarded to the best team in Maryland – by defeating Maryland in the season opener.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s not a game on this schedule that Navy cannot win. Truly. Find me one. Notre Dame? The Irish have improved, by Navy has had their number since 2007. S.M.U.? That game was close last year, and certainly should be again. Maryland? The Terps will be far better than a season ago. Air Force? As always, the game could go either way — but the Mids own the Falcons. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the Mids are a national title contender, nor do I think this team capable of running the table. Yet the Mids should have little trouble repeating last season’s nine-win regular season. The offense will be strong; if it’s not, Dobbs will simply put this group on his shoulders and will it to victory. There’s no reason to expect any decline in production from this defense, which returns several of last season’s talented pieces. Both sides have contributors to replace, obviously, and neither could lift Navy past a premier B.C.S. conference opponent. Nevertheless, the pieces are place for a 10-win run. That’s how good Navy can be: dominant on the ground; capable of making plays through the air; strong at each level of the defense; and, most importantly, very finely coached. The schedule will help, but don’t be surprised to see Navy make a home in the Top 25 at some point this season. We’ll know early, when the Mids take on Maryland, Air Force and Wake Forest through early October, how good this team can be.

Dream season Wins over Army, Air Force, Notre Dame and Maryland highlight the finest season in Navy history: 12-0. Yes, 12-0. It’s a dream, but it could happen.

Nightmare season Dobbs’ early-season injury damages Navy’s high hopes, with the C.I.C.’s Trophy heading to Air Force and the Mids settling for a disappointing 6-6 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Navy fans congregate? Your best option is The Birddog, which gives you plenty of blog action, message board chatter and incisive discussion of the option. I don’t know about you, but I could read breakdowns of the option offense — whether at Navy or elsewhere — with breakfast, lunch and dinner. When it comes to recruiting coverage with a healthy dose of message board action, nobody does it better than GoMids.com. In addition, you can find local newspaper coverage at The Capital and The Washington Post.

Up Next

Who is No. 29? Our next program’s mascot shares his (or her) name with an early 1990s FOX sitcom set in Baltimore.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. BFahey says:

    Pitt is up next, though I was hoping against hope there was another college who’s mascot’s name is Homicide: Life on the Street. I know, I know, you said sitcom.

    Paul: The Pittsburgh Munch’s? That show is still beloved in Baltimore, by the way. Nice plaque on the warehouse down where it was filmed in Fells Point.

  2. jharris says:

    Roc the Panther?

  3. Zaboo says:

    I believe your little column of information has Navy’s Ranking last year switched with its re-ranking.

    Not a big deal though; excellent work, as always. Less than a month ’til kickoff!

    Paul: You’re right, thanks. And 30 days to go! It’s the most wonderful tiiiiiiiime of the year….

  4. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next

  5. Adam Nettina says:

    “I don’t know if any returning slot back can duplicate Curry’s impact in the passing game, unfortunately. The ground production is not as large a concern as losing Curry as a receiver.”

    This is a fantastic point. Stukel has oustanding athleticism and is electric with the ball in his hands, but his hands are not as good as Curry’s. I think we’re looking at a rotation. Don’t overlook Andre Byrd in the mix — he’s had a lot of off-field struggles during his career, but he has his head on these days and could remind everybody of why he was being compared to Reggie Campbell as a freshman.

    Dobbs’ health is key, as you say, but the staff has a good option with Kriss Proctor as a backup. He’s a natural option runner who ran the offense in HS at Big Bear (CA) and filled in well last season, even directing the team to the WF win.

    Linebacker is a concern. Simmons had an offseason spleen injury which kept him out all spring, but he told me he’s in the best shape of his life. Hauburger, if healthy, has the potential to have a big year. Athletic guy built more in the mold of a safety.

    Good work Paul!

  6. Nate says:

    I would have thought Pitt would have been ranked higher. I love me some Dion. But I mostly want pitt to be ranked high whenever they play my Miami Hurricanes. That way we get more clout whenever we beat em.

  7. BFahey says:

    I cannot believe I used who’s instead of whose in my post last night. Probably should have slept first.

  8. Navy Vet says:

    Anchors aweigh!

  9. M Meyer says:

    There’s very little I love more than a well-executed option attack. Navy is certainly capable of beating everyone on their schedule, though it’s probably too much to hope that they can sneak into the BCS.

  10. Ezra says:

    This is AFA’s year, too– which means, I think, that the AFA-Navy game should be a real zinger.

    About the 7th real zinger in a row, in that series. There’s no better current rivalry in football than AFA-Navy.

  11. Shawn says:

    As a Maryland resident, I’m particulary excited about the Maryland-Navy game to open the season, a resumption of the “Crab Bowl Classic,” as it once was called. Even beyond that, this could be an exciting year for the Midshipmen. Navy has a favorable schedule, and could be the favorite in all their games. Led by fringe Heisman candidate Ricky Dobbs, you could see this team build off their huge bowl victory against Missouri last season. If the line jells and the team can replace Marcus Curry, they can go far.

    Beat Army.

  12. Colin says:

    Is this the first team profiled whose dream season is an undefeated season?

    Paul: No, B.Y.U. was as well. But that was more a nod to the fact that I felt the 2008 team was going to run the table, and then listed as the dream season heading into last season.

  13. TresselBall says:

    Navy gave the Bucks all we could handle last year. Needed a late interception (by Rolle I think?) to beat the mids. That seemed to be their Achilles as the QB tossed 2 or 3 picks that game.

    Very tough team – those late season losses are head scratchers.

  14. [...] in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 30, is Navy. You can find a larger Navy preview at Pre-Snap [...]

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