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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. 54: Navy

You have to love an offense whose idea of flash is the forward pass. Navy’s offense reads like the back of a shampoo bottle: run, run, repeat. Devotees of option football, rejoice. And the Midshipmen would have it no other way. The program is in the midst of its finest stretch in modern history, having won at least eight games for eight straight years, reaching eight straight bowl games with 70 wins over this span, 18th-most in the nation. Over the same period, Air Force has won 56 games and reached four bowl games, Army 27 games with one bowl berth. Heads above the Falcons, heads-and-shoulders ahead of the Cadets — that’s what makes these the glory days of Navy football.

Conference
Independent

Location
Annapolis, Md.

Nickname
Midshipmen

Returning starters
11 (8 offense, 3 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 30

2010 record
(9-4, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 37

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Delaware
  • Sept. 10
    at W.K.U.
  • Sept. 17
    at S. Carolina
  • Oct. 1
    Air Force
  • Oct. 8
    Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 15
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 22
    E.C.U.
  • Oct. 29
    at Notre Dame
  • Nov. 5
    Troy
  • Nov. 12
    at S.M.U.
  • Nov. 19
    at San Jose St.
  • Dec. 10
    Army (in Landover, Md.)

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Navy continues to roll off successful regular seasons with relative ease, though the Midshipmen are surely disappointed in the fact that Air Force, for the first time in eight years, reclaimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. That was the only thing that changed from, say, 2007 and 2010: Navy beat Army, again; beat Notre Dame, again; racked up ridiculous amounts of rushing yards, again; and, once again, entered bowl play with a shot at 10 wins. This is nothing new. What is somewhat new? The rebirth of a capable Navy defense. The program had struggled keeping points off the board in 2007, allowing a school record 473 points in Johnson’s final season, but has given up less than 23.3 points per game in each of the last three seasons. But the defense can certainly be better than it was last fall, especially against the pass.

High point The season-ending win over Army. Yeah, the barrage of scoring against East Carolina was fun to watch, but nothing comes close to another win over the Cadets. Still, the lovable totals from that win over the Pirates: 76 points, 591 yards of total offense, 521 yards on the ground, seven players with at least 25 yards rushing. If money wasn’t tight, I’d put a TV in the bathroom and play that game on a loop. Too much?

Low point The 14-6 road loss to Air Force. Navy had chances to at least even the score, but were undone by careless play with the football and a somewhat uncharacteristic reliance on the pass. At the point, Navy stood at 2-2. The Mids also lost to Duke, falling behind by 24 points at halftime and, despite a late charge, losing by four.

Tidbit Navy’s streak of seasons with at least eight wins puts the program in some very elite company. Virginia Tech has the longest such streak in the F.B.S., one that goes back 13 years. Boise State is next at 12, then Oklahoma and L.S.U., both 11. Ohio State, West Virginia, U.S.C. and Texas Tech are at nine, followed by the Mids at eight.

Tidbit (state representation edition)  Navy’s roster features student-athletes from 25 states — and I can’t decide whether to list the states that are represented or those that are not. Louisiana, Utah, Oklahoma, Michigan and Colorado have only a single representative; Virginia, Ohio, Washington, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Arizona, Illinois, South Carolina, Alabama and New Jersey have less than five; Maryland, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Hawaii have between five and 10; and California, North Carolina, Texas and Florida are in the double-digits. Texas and Florida lead the way with 15 student-athletes on the roster.

Tidbit (Army-Navy edition) Army’s last win over Navy came on Dec. 1, 2001, a span of 3,508 days. When the two teams meet on Dec. 10, it will have been 3,662 days since the Cadets last tasted victory over their rival. In comparison, Ohio State’s length of dominance over Michigan currently stands at 2,787 days, and will be at 2,927 days when the two teams meet on Nov. 26.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Navy leads all non-B.C.S. conference programs with 18 wins since 2003 over B.C.S. conference competition. It helps that Navy does not play conference games, of course. Can you name the eight other schools with at least six such victories since 2003?

Teams already spoken for California (Katster), Iowa (M Meyer), Mississippi (Flint Foster), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Oregon (Eksynyt), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange), Texas A&M (Ol’ Rock), Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 FB Kyle Eckel (Denver).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. players from Patriot League institutions
1. PG Bob Cousy (Holy Cross).
2. C David Robinson (Navy).
3. PF Tom Heinsohn (Holy Cross).
4. PF Kermit Washington (American).
5. SG Carl Braun (Colgate).

Coaching

Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii ‘89), 27-14 after three 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 in 2009, tying Paul Johnson’s single-season record set in 2004, and following that up with another nine wins a year ago 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 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. 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

Ricky Dobbs has left the building, off to his stint in the armed forces, career in the N.F.L. and pursuit of higher office. His replacement will be Kriss Proctor, who spelled Dobbs three times over the last two years, including in Navy’s win over Central Michigan a year ago. If that game is any indication, Proctor’s transition into the starting lineup will be a smooth one: he rushed for 201 yards and a score against the Chippewas, becoming the sixth Navy quarterback to crack the 200-yard barrier in a single game and, in the process, showing the smooth running style that should lead this running game in 2011.

Dobbs never got enough credit for his ability as a thrower. His arm will be missed this fall, as while Proctor is clearly ready to go as a runner he’s not quite there as a passer. Is this is a huge problem? No, of course not. But Niumatalolo still wants to be able to pass when the opportunity presents itself, so Proctor’s questionable passing skills are a slight concern. He’ll make up for this weakness as a runner, believe me: Proctor is quick, agile and extremely athletic. And as a senior, he knows this offense from top to bottom.

This might be Niumatalolo’s best backfield yet. This triple-option offense needs a good fullback to really get rolling, as Army illustrated a year ago, and Navy should feel very confident in Alexander Teich’s ability to be the hammer to Proctor’s more graceful running style. Teich finished second on the team in rushing last fall with 863 yards, coming on very strong from the S.M.U. game on to help the Mids win six of seven to end the regular season. Once again, look for Teich to finish second on the team in rushing. Slot backs Gee Gee Greene (492 yards, 5 scores) and Aaron Santiago (201 yards) are options three and four, but both can make an even larger impact as receivers. Greene notched 18 catches for 286 yards last fall, both totals good for second on the team, while Santiago added 13 receptions for 251 yards. Juniors John Howell and Bo Snelson will also see plenty of time, but it’s the trio of Teich, Greene and Santiago that will lead the way.

Navy will pass even less in 2011, as noted above. When Proctor does drop back, however, he won’t have the luxury of looking for Greg Jones, last year’s leading receiver. Instead, Proctor will turn to senior Doug Furman and junior Brandon Turner, two bigger receivers who could present mismatches against certain cornerbacks. Neither have done much, but that’s not a huge deal. The receiver corps actually has great size throughout, with each of the six options currently listed on the depth chart standing above 6’0.

It’s somewhat rare to see Navy bring back four starters along the offensive front, as the line is typically senior-heavy. That wasn’t the case in 2010, but it’ll be a senior-laden group in 2011: center Brady DeMell, right guard John Dowd and right tackle Ryan Basford are entering their final seasons. Think offensive linemen aren’t bright? Take a peek at Dowd, an Academic all-American a year ago. Josh Cabral, a junior, is the fourth returning starter. There is an ongoing competition to replace left tackle Jeff Battipaglia: senior David Summral and junior Andrew Barker currently share top billing.

The defense won’t be great. Navy would settle for just good, but I’m not even sure if the Mids can count on that: the secondary is a question mark and the front seven has huge shoes to fill. At least there’s senior end Jabaree Tuani, who is a beacon of production on a defense that lacks proven quantities. Can Tuani make 100 tackles? He might be in a position to do so — worse yet, he might have to. At least Navy knows he could: Tuani made 72 tackles last fall, 15.5 for loss, and added 5.5 sacks. But his running mates up front are gone, leaving the Mids searching for two new starters to fill out their three-man front.

Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick will get first crack at replacing Billy Yarborough, who led Navy in sacks in 2010. A converted linebacker, Dowling-Fitzpatrick might have enough speed off the edge to be a factor in the pass rush, helping the Mids recoup Yarborough’s lost production. The Mids could call on junior Ryan Paulson as a stouter presence against the run; this pair will compliment each other well. Senior Jared Marks, an understudy last fall, takes over at nose guard. While Tuani is coming off a monster season, this trio combined for 11 tackles a year ago. In other words, it’s Tuani and a batch of unknowns. But that’s life for Navy football, I guess.

Remember the depth chart at linebacker for most of last season? Toss it, crumple it up, use it in the birdcage: four starters must be replaced, and while Navy brings back one part-time starter, this group will have a whole new look in 2011. As you’d expect, there’s plenty of competition. Even the one linebacker with solid starting experience, senior Max Blue (58 tackles), isn’t assured of a starting role: Navy has him tied with junior Caleb King (28 tackles) at one inside spot. King could also start in place of Matt Warrick, a two-game starter in 2010. The Mids can take some solace in the fact that there are three options inside, all with nice experience: Blue, Warrick and King played plenty in 2010.

No such luck at outside linebacker, as projected starters Jarred Shannon and Mason Graham have made their mark mainly on special teams thus far. They are seniors, however, and that’s often when a Navy defender makes his mark. Youth abounds on the second tier of the depth chart outside. Three sophomores and one junior, Keegan Wetzel, are backing up the senior pair, and there will be opportunities for one or more to make their mark come September.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary Wyatt Middleton’s big-play ability will be sorely missed; his 98-yard fumble return for a score against Army last December won’t soon be forgotten. Middleton is one of three starters who must replaced off last season’s secondary, which was in itself a group that fared poorly against the better passing teams on the schedule. The lone returning starter is senior cornerback Kwesi Mitchell (48 tackles, 1 interception), though he’s not the only defensive back with starting experience: junior Tra’ves Bush (44 tackles, 1 interception) made two starts at linebacker last fall, but moves back to safety as Navy looks to replace Middleton. Junior Jordan Fraser also made a single start last fall, which gives him a leg up over sophomores Gary Myers and Shawn Lynch at free safety. That takes care of three spots, though Navy still needs to make a decision at cornerback. David Sperry? A junior, Sperry saw a good amount of time as a reserve in 2010. Jonathan Wev? Only a sophomore, Wev touched the field on special teams a year ago. What about senior David Wright? He seems like the best option, considering that he has started a game in the past and has the sort of experience his two competitors lack. Bottom line: Navy doesn’t need to get dominant play from its secondary, but does need this group to control the bleeding. That the Mids don’t do a good job getting to the quarterback puts the secondary behind the eight ball from the start.

Game(s) to watch

Well, there’s Army. This year’s meeting will be played at FedEx Field, making it the most important game played in that stadium since its inception in 1997. Air Force is a fairly close second — but a clear second — as the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy goes through the Falcons. More games of note: Notre Dame in South Bend, S.M.U. and South Carolina.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Navy might continue its streak of eight-win seasons, but this team looks weaker than some of the program’s recent versions. This is primarily because of a defense with major issues to address. Each level of the defense brings question marks to the table: Tuani is terrific, but the Mids can’t feel overly confident in the new faces dotting the depth chart; the linebacker corps seems fine inside but must find major minutes from a group of unproven commodities on the outside; and the secondary looks to take a step back with three new starters in the fold — and the pass defense was an issue a year ago. It’s all on the back of this offense, which must not just score points but also control the ball. So it’s a good thing no team can run the ball quite like Navy. After dropping to fourth nationally in carries last fall, look for the Mids to skyrocket back to the top of the list in 2011: this is partly because Proctor won’t be the passer his predecessor was, but also because Niumatalolo knows he needs to control the clock. Is the offense talented enough to do so? Oh, without question: the offense might be even better, with all due respect to the great Ricky Dobbs. Can Navy win eight games? Better yet, can Navy reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy? At this point, it’s hard to pick against Air Force. But Navy is right there, and it’s going to be a toss-up; the Mids do get the Falcons at home, remember. Even if Navy takes a step back, this is still a bowl team and more. Seven wins in the regular season is a safe bet, but you can’t count out a program that has done almost nothing wrong for eight years running. And what about the season finale? I’m going to go out on a limb and say the winning streak continues. Gutsy pick, right?

Dream season Navy beats Army, Air Force and Notre Dame en route to a 10-2 regular season.

Nightmare season The eight-win streak ends, as does the eight-year streak of winning seasons: 5-7, with a loss to Army.

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.

Word Count

Through 67 teams 196,549.

Up Next

Who is No. 53? The strength and conditioning coach at tomorrow’s program shares his last name with a 16th century theologian who tried, and failed, to dispute Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

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

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    So, the last name is Eck and that should mean that Nevada is next!

  2. Navy 86 says:

    The WR is Brandon Turner, not Doug. Other than that, fantastic write-up.

    Paul: Damn. Had Furman on the brain. Thanks for the fix. Made it above.

  3. Jim Dotter says:

    Paul:

    Navy won a National Championship in:

    FOOTBALL IN 1926!

    BEAT ARMY!

  4. Alex Payne says:

    That game between Manchester United and Barcelona has to rank up pretty darn close with the Navy-Army game.

    But either way, Beat Army indeed.

    Paul: How dare you, sir. I can’t believe you are going to come into this space and say that a soccer match stands alongside Army-Navy. How dare you, sir.

  5. Alex Payne says:

    BYU, Utah, Boise State, TCU, Notre Dame, Fresno State, Air Force, East Carolina.

    If correct, I’ll take Nebraska

    Paul: Yep. You’ve got the Cornhuskers. I didn’t include Notre Dame on the list, though I should have.

  6. Charlie says:

    Notre Dame, ECU, Fresno St., TCU, Boise, Houston, Hawaii, BYU.

    I’ll take the UNC Tarheels.

  7. John Lawrence says:

    Granted, Navy is a good team, but if they beat the Irish again…I will cry uncontrollably, weep openly.

  8. JimBob says:

    Go Navy! Beat Army!

  9. Joel says:

    Houston (Miss. St 03, Miss. St 05, Ok. St 06, Ok. St 09, Texas Tech 09, Miss. St 09)
    TCU (Vandy 03, Arizona 03, Northwestern 04, Okla. 05, Iowa St 05, Baylor 06, Texas Tech 06, Baylor 07, Stanford 07, Stanford 08, Virginia 09, Clemson 09, Oregon St 10, Baylor 10, Wisconsin 10)
    East Carolina (Duke 04, Virginia 06, NC State 06, UNC 07, VT 08, WVU 08, NC State 10)
    BYU (Georgia Tech 03, Notre Dame 04, Oregon 06, Arizona 07, UCLA 07, Washington 08, UCLA 08, Oklahoma 09, Oregon State 09, Washington 10)
    Utah (Cal 03, Oregon 03, Texas A&M 04, Arizona 04, UNC 04, Pitt 04, Arizona 05, GT 05, UCLA 07, Louisville 07, Michigan 08, Oregon State 08, Alabama 08, Louisville 09, Cal 09, Pitt 10, Iowa State 10)
    Hawaii (Bama 03, Northwestern 04, Mich. St 04, Purdue 06, ASU 06, Wash. 07, Wash. St 08, Wash. St. 09)
    Fresno State (Oregon St 03, UCLA 03, Wash. 04, Kans. St 04, Virginia 04, Kans. St 07, GT 07, Rutgers 08, UCLA 08, Illinois 09, Cincy 10, Illinois 10)
    Boise State (Oregon St 04, Oregon St 06, Oklahoma 06, Oregon 08, Oregon 09, VT 10, Oregon St 10)
    Toledo (Pitt 03, Kansas 06, Iowa St 07, Michigan 08, Colorado 09, Purdue 10)
    If correct, I’ll take Clemson.

  10. Nick Coston says:

    Navy will win the National Championship. Guaransheed

  11. Nabber says:

    Navy’s 80 wins over the last 8 years were over some of the worst teams in college football history. Whoopee.

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