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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. 60: Navy

Navy is a program that judges its success using three standards: Army, Air Force and bowl eligibility. The Midshipmen are relatively alone in this regard, as the vast majority of the F.B.S. uses more general and wide-ranging criteria – win eight games, for example, or finish above .500 in conference play or play in a January bowl, to name a few. This often plays in Navy’s favor, especially with an often stout schedule of B.C.S. conference opponents lowering the team’s overall won-loss record, but you can also see a drawback: when Navy falters in one or two of its three criteria for success, the year can quickly take a turn for the worse. Navy missed on two of its three guidelines last fall, losing by a single point against Air Force and missing out on the postseason thanks to five close-but-no-cigar defeats. This runs contrary to popular logic: Navy aims small, but when it misses, it misses big.

Conference
Independent

Location
Annapolis, Md.

Nickname
Midshipmen

Returning starters
12 (4 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 54

2011 record
(5-7, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 73

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    vs. Notre Dame (in Dublin, Ireland)
  • Sept. 15
    at Penn St.
  • Sept. 22
    V.M.I.
  • Sept. 29
    San Jose St.
  • Oct. 6
    at Air Force
  • Oct. 12
    at Central Mich.
  • Oct. 20
    Indiana
  • Oct. 27
    at E.C.U.
  • Nov. 3
    F.A.U.
  • Nov. 10
    at Troy
  • Nov. 17
    Texas St.
  • Dec. 8
    vs. Army (in Philadelphia)

Last year’s prediction

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. 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. 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?

2011 recap

In a nutshell Right on one count: Navy continued its run of dominance over Army, winning for the 10th straight time to take a record seven-game lead – record for Navy – in the all-time series. Wrong on one count: Navy didn’t merely fail to win at least eight games for the ninth straight season, but fell below .500 for the first time since Paul Johnson’s first year with the program. What went wrong? Nothing much. Really: not much went wrong. Navy remained one of the nation’s strongest running teams even with a new starter under center; the Mids even averaged more yards per carry and 27.5 more yards per game than in 2010. Yes, the defense took a step back, allowing 5.6 more points per game, but it wasn’t as if Navy was getting blown out of games – in fact, five of the team’s seven losses came by a field goal or less. While the defensive decline was obvious, I can’t find a reasonable answer as to why the Mids lost so many close games. You can blame some kicking woes, but that explanation only goes so far. From my perspective, Navy resembled a once-dominating relief pitcher who suffers through an unforeseeably inconsistent season – the hope is that the team’s inability to close late was simply a one-year aberration.

High point Navy beat Army, 27-21, thanks in part to its ability to grind out tough yards and control the clock. The Mids also beat a pair of strong non-B.C.S. conference teams in Western Kentucky and S.M.U. by a combined score of 64-31.

Low point The five close losses, none more painful than the 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force. Navy has now lost two straight to the Falcons, with last fall’s setback the program’s first in Maryland since 2001 – and first in Annapolis since 1997.

Tidbit One kick can make the difference between five wins and a bowl berth, so it’s always puzzling to me why special teams aren’t valued on an equal plane to offense and defense. For Navy in 2011, one kick meant the difference between 5-7 and 6-6; two kicks meant the difference 5-7 and 7-5; and three kicks meant the difference between 5-7 and a ninth straight eight-win finish. Against Air Force, the Mids missed a field goal in regulation and had a P.A.T. blocked in overtime. Against Rutgers, a 21-20 loss, the Mids had a 34-yard field goal blocked in the fourth quarter. Against E.C.U., the Mids missed a 42-yard field goal as time expired that would have sent the game into overtime.

Tidbit (Army edition) While Navy extended its winning streak over Army, last fall marked the second straight season that it gained less total yardage than the Cadets. In 2010, Army gained 337 yards to Navy’s 325; last fall, Army gained 375 yards to Navy’s 309. What separated the two last December was Navy’s ability to remain penalty-free, limit turnovers and control the time of possession.

Tidbit (fast start edition) Perhaps no team in college football needs to start strong more so than Navy. In last year’s five wins, the Mids outscored their opposition 105-31 in the first half and 43-0 in the first quarter. In their seven losses, the Mids were outscored in the first half by 152-66 and by 59-10 in the first quarter. This is a theme under Niumatalolo: since 2008, Navy is 27-4 when scoring first and 5-17 when allowing its opponent to score first.

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 RB Eric Kettani (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Neutral sites for Navy’s historic opponents
1. U.S.S. Enterprise (Navy-Air Force).
2. Times Square during Fleet Week (Navy-Rutgers).
3. U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (Navy-Maryland).
4. Submarine Base New London (Navy-Boston College).
5. Fort Sumter (Navy-Virginia).

Coaching

Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii ‘89), 32-21 after four 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 in 2010 indicated that Niumatalolo was winning on his own terms, not thanks to the system Johnson had left in place. 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 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). Even if the program suffered a losing season last fall, it’s hard to imagine Navy doing much better than Niumatalolo.

Players to watch

Junior Trey Miller takes over at quarterback after playing in six games last fall, including extensive action in the losses to East Carolina and Notre Dame. Miller replaces Kriss Proctor, who, as always, played very well when not dinged by injuries. What you saw from Miller during his sophomore game action – and he started the game against the Irish – was an arm with some life, not to mention the sort of grasp of this offense that will only grow as his gains more game experience. It’s not a position to worry about: Miller, like Proctor before him, has played enough in a reserve role to slide into the starting lineup.

What Miller can bring to the table is an added touch of the passing game, even if the forward pass will remain secondary in this offense. He threw for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns against E.C.U., nearly rallying the Mids to victory, and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt even with a spotty showing against Notre Dame – which was to be expected. The question for Miller is whether he can give Navy the sort of running dimension this offense needs at quarterback. I think he will, even if Miller is a bit smaller than both Proctor and Ricky Dobbs, who showed an ability to handle the down-to-down pounding in this system.

But Miller is shifty, meaning he could be a greater threat in the open field. He’ll be one of three quicker options in the running game, joining senior slotbacks John Howell (340 yards, 9.7 yards per carry) and Gee Gee Greene (501 yards, 7.8 yards per carry). While Howell steps in for Aaron Santiago – something he did for six games midway through last season – Greene has been at the forefront of Navy’s offense in each of the last two years; with some new faces breaking into the offense, the Mids will need Greene to shoulder even more of a load on the ground. Depth at slotback comes from senior Bo Snelson (91 yards) and junior Darius Staten (74 yards) – though a sophomore or two always steps up with 100 or so yards of production.

The key for Navy will be finding a fullback. This offense works inside out: the fullback is the first option in the triple option, after all. A fullback has finished no worse than second on the team in rushing in each of the last five years, with former starter Alex Teich finishing second in both 2010 and 2011. Graduation cost Navy both Teich and his backup, Delvin Diggs, so the new starter – and his reserve – won’t bring extensive experience into the season.

For example: Noah Copeland, a sophomore, had two carries last fall. Senior Prentice Christian has yet to earn one carry over his career. Likewise with sophomore Quinton Singleton, who is running third on the depth chart. In all, Navy’s entire crop of fullbacks have two career carries – yes, both by Copeland, and traveling a total of four yards.

This isn’t Alabama, however, and a lack of game experience means almost nothing at Navy. It’s merely beneficial; that Copeland hasn’t seen the field won’t be crippling for this offense. For example: Eric Kettani, one of Navy’s many wonderful fullbacks in this offense, played in only three games as a freshman, earning no carries, before bursting only the scene as a sophomore – and taking his game to the next level as a junior and senior. The Mids hope that Copeland’s career follows the same plan.

That Navy returns a deep and experienced receiver corps lends credence to the idea that this Miller-led offense could feature a heavier focus on the passing game. Greene will continue to serve in a key role at slotback: he made 11 receptions for 165 yards last fall, leading the team with four touchdowns. The Mids also return their two starting receivers in senior Brandon Turner (14 receptions for 300 yards) and junior Matt Aiken (13 for 201). Every receiver on the roster is a big-play threat, thanks to the system, but Turner has shown the greatest ability to make plays down field – he averaged 21.4 yards per reception, with each of his three touchdown grabs traveling at least 27 yards.

This offense needs only to get solid production at fullback to be equally strong as last year’s version. That’s a concern, but as noted, I don’t think that inexperience translates to lessened production – perhaps that’s the case elsewhere, but not at Navy. One thing I’m most excited to see is the potential for a bit more out of the passing game; if Miller can keep defenses a bit more honest, it’ll only make this ground game all the more productive.

Any improvement from Navy’s defense depends on the play it gets from a defensive front that moves forward without a good portion of last year’s two-deep – all three starters, led by the terrific Jabaree Tuani, and a projected starting end in would-be junior Jamel Dobbs. Navy might not be starting from scratch, as the returning linemen do carry a combined seven career starts into 2012, but this is still one of the nation’s most rawest defensive lines.

Perhaps in acknowledgment of his team’s lack of depth, Niumatalolo, defensive coordinator Buddy Green and defensive line coach Dale Pehrson moved junior Travis Bridges from the offensive line to nose guard prior to spring ball. Bridges took to the position well, which bodes well for the middle of Navy’s 3-4 system. In Bridges, Alex Doolittle and Barry Dabney – the latter the projected starter – Navy does have three stout interior linemen capable of anchoring its run defense.

The Mids’ bigger issue is at end. Replacing Tuani will be tough enough; in addition to his departure, however, Navy was stung by two early departures – Dobbs was a junior-to-be, and would-be senior Joshua Jones left a year ahead of schedule. The top three at end are seniors: Wes Henderson (26 tackles), Collin Sturdivant and Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (10 tackles, 2.5 for loss). Henderson is a clear starter, not to mention a central figure on the entire defense – he’ll need to have a Tuani-like impact on passing downs – while Sturdivant and Dowling-Fitzpatrick will jostle for the starting role on the right side during fall camp.

There’s greater certainty at linebacker, even if the Mids lost a valuable contributor in senior Matt Brewer, who won’t play in 2012 due to a violation of team rules. With Brewer no longer in the mix, Navy can turn inside linebacker duties over to seniors Matt Warrick (103 tackles) and Brye French (55 tackles, 6.0 for loss); one of the three might have been pushed out of the starting lineup, though Navy could have started Brewer and Warrick in the middle and kept French outside, where he made nine starts last fall.

Losing Brewer isn’t a crippling blow, even if it does limit Navy’s options for a starting four. With French now locked in at inside linebacker, the Mids will turn to senior Keegan Wetzel and sophomore Josh Tate on the outside. While he played well enough during the spring to grab a starting role, Tate will need to continue impressing the staff to hold off fellow sophomores Jordan Drake, Chris Johnson and Obi Uzoma.

Senior Tra’ves Bush (93 tackles, 2 interceptions) was moved from rover to outside linebacker last fall due to injuries, eventually starting eight games on the second level, but he was transitioned back to rover in the spring. You can’t place a value on Bush’s flexibility: while Navy was a little too small with Bush on the outside, he did lend this defense some speed and explosiveness while showing a willingness to stick his nose in against the run. However, Bush is certainly a better fit at rover – the star position on this defense – and will put together a strong senior season.

Navy would have returned four starters in the secondary, counting Bush, but cornerback David Sperry left the program in May. This robs Navy of its most experienced cornerback, albeit one who seemed to drift into the background at times – though it should be said that cornerbacks, like referees, are at their best when not considered to be at the center of the action. Why Sperry’s departure isn’t debilitating is that Navy landed very promising play last fall from younger cornerbacks like sophomore Parrish Gaines (30 tackles) and junior Jonathan Wev, the two projected starters heading into fall camp. Gaines is now the team’s stopper on the outside, so he needs to play beyond his youth.

He was one of two freshmen to start at least five games last fall, joining free safety Chris Ferguson (43 tackles, 2 interceptions). Both will continue to improve with each passing week – though both, particularly Ferguson, hit the ground running right from the start. The Mids also have a competent backup to Ferguson in junior Wave Ryder. The secondary would be a bit of a concern if not for two reasons: one, Bush is going to lend this group a dose of the big play while supplying steady production and experience; and two, Ferguson and the young cornerbacks are going to improve throughout the season. Navy’s back seven is pretty good – it’s the line that should keep you up at night.

Last fall, kicker Jon Teague made 10 of 15 field goal attempts and 42 of 46 extra points. All you remember are those he missed, or those that were blocked at the line of scrimmage. If Navy is going to again dance with the devil in 2012, junior Stephen Picchini will need to be more consistent late in games. He’s one of three options at kicker, so the Mids could turn elsewhere if he struggles, but Picchini will get first crack at handling kickoffs and field goals in September. Overall, Navy is very mediocre on special teams – in kicking, punting, coverage and the return game.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Navy is seeing a mirror image of its situation up front heading into last season: instead of rebuilding the left side of the line, the Mids need to rebuild on the right, not to mention find a new starting center. While Navy struggled finding an answer on the blind side, center Brady DeMell, right guard John Dowd – one of the finest student-athletes in all of college sports during his career – and right tackle Ryan Basford started every game a season ago. While I don’t weigh experience as heavily with Navy as with other teams, that no returning linemen earned extensive snaps in those spots last fall does make the line as a whole a bit of a concern heading into September.

Not surprisingly, the line’s strength is on the left side. Junior Graham Vickers returns at tackle after starting the final three games of last season. He’ll be joined at left guard by senior Josh Cabral, the most proven lineman on the roster – Cabral is the leader up front. When Vickers moved into the starting lineup in November, he pushed senior Andrew Barker into a reserve role; after starting six games on the blind side in 2011, Barker will take over for Basford at right tackle. That gives Navy three linemen with solid starting experience. But you’ll see two new faces up front: sophomores Bradyn Heap and Jake Zuzek are the favorites to start at center and right guard, respectively.

I understand that the line stands as the offense’s biggest question mark, but I don’t think that it’s a tremendous issue. Cabral will help ease the two new starters into the rotation – and Heap likely learned a thing or two playing the three seniors last fall. What’s one thing to like? I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a bigger Navy offensive line. Zuzek, at 318 pounds, is as big as you’ll get while serving at the Naval Academy. The projected starting five averages 290.0 pounds; last fall’s group averaged 276.0 pounds.

Game(s) to watch

Army, followed by Air Force, followed by a date with Notre Dame in Dublin to open the season. The schedule starts with a bang: Navy plays the Irish, at Penn State, San Jose State and at Air Force over its first five games. In all likelihood, the Mids are going to stumble out of the gate. But the schedule grows progressively easier as the year wears on, with tough but winnable games in October – Central Michigan, Indiana and East Carolina – and four games the Mids shouldn’t lose in November. That’s a positive, but it’s also a bit of a negative, in a way. While Navy will close strong, a sour start will be all most remember – outside of how it plays against the Falcons and Cadets – once the regular season comes to a close.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The schedule gives Navy the opportunity to make a run towards an eight-win season, but it also puts the Mids in a position where they’ll need to close strong to offset what should be a slow start. Unfortunately, getting four very tough games early – Notre Dame, Penn State, San Jose State and Air Force – won’t be good for a team still searching for answers on both sides of the ball. You’d almost want to see this reversed, with teams like Troy and Texas State early, as that might allow Miller, Copeland and both lines to round into form in September; unfortunately, these players – especially the offensive and defensive lines – will struggle against the top-tier athletes at Notre Dame and Penn State. But with those struggles come a silver lining: Navy will be much better for these growing pains by the time the calendar hits mid-October. I don’t think that Navy should lose a game from Air Force on – the Mids shouldn’t, though they’ll probably drop one game over the second half. Navy will be playing its best football by November, which will help lead this team to seven wins during the regular season. Now, can the Mids reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy? Absolutely – though I think that Air Force holds onto the hardware for another year. When it comes to Army, I see absolutely no reason why Navy shouldn’t push the winning streak to 11 years. So if we return to those three standards for success: I think that Navy will beat Army and return to bowl play, perhaps making some national noise if the question marks are answered during fall camp. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.

Dream season Navy opens with a win over Notre Dame, shocking Irish fans – you know, people from Ireland – who are already reeling from the fact that they are watching American football, not soccer. Though the Mids slip up against Penn State and suffer a tough loss to San Jose State, they regain their footing to notch wins over Air Force, Indiana, East Carolina and Army. Navy wins 10 games for the second time under Niumatalolo.

Nightmare season Navy loses to Army, 17-14, snapping the 10-game winning streak.

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 CapitalThe Washington Post and, of course, via Patrick Stevens of The Washington Times.

Navy’s all-name nominee S Wave Ryder.

Word Count

Through 65 teams 250,468.

Up Next

Who is No. 59? Tomorrow’s program has won more games over the last five years than in any five-year stretch in its history.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Louisiana Tech?

  2. David says:

    Ohio is next.

    Unless Paul is being cute and going with a school with only a decade’s worth of football history. :-)

  3. Cutsie says:

    @David:

    Maybe Paul is being cute and it’s Florida International.

    Ohio won 37 games between 2007-2011 but also won 37 between 1928-1932 and between 1929-1933.

    Then again, it could be Houston.

  4. Parker says:

    I believe Houston qualifies with 44 wins over the last 5 years.

  5. Eric says:

    @Eksynyt

    Louisiana Tech won 52 games from 1971-1975.

  6. jjim says:

    I was going to say Northwestern, but I then realised that they won more games between 1901-1905 (40) than over the past five years (36)!

  7. Parker says:

    Cincy also qualifies with 47 wins

  8. GreenLantern411 says:

    Pretty sure Northwestern also qualifies?

  9. Good Catch says:

    @Parker:

    Good catch, it could be Cincy or Houston.

    Northwestern does not meet the description. As posted above, Ohio has matched its current 5-year win total over 2 previous 5-year spans.

  10. DMK says:

    Bama?

    I know they lost some leaders, but #59 is probably too low.

    Challenge: Exactly how many teams fit today’s clue?

  11. JK says:

    Northwestern had 36 wins in past 5 years. From 1901 to 1905 Northwestern had 40 wins. All according to Wikipedia.

  12. Parker says:

    My guess is Cincy, because if you use a 5-year period, you include Houston’s 8-win season in 2007 but miss their 10-win season in 2006. Seems odd.

    Whereas 5-years is an appropriate cut off for Cincy since they won 10+ games in 4 of the last 5 seasons but “only” 8 in 2006.

  13. calmer than you are says:

    1928-1932 Ohio had 37 wins, same as ’07-’11.

  14. Dave says:

    Beat Navy…for God’s sake!

  15. Woodysc says:

    S. Carolina might fit that clue also. 40 wins over the last 5 years. But, of course, most wouldn’t rank them this low.

    For the arbitrary top 5 list, I might have gone with the Citadel vs. Navy at Ft. Sumter. It was cadets at the Citadel who fired on the ship that tried to resupply Ft. Sumter in Charleston, SC.

  16. Quijote says:

    Probably FIU…

    Amazing, only a few years ago FIU was ranked dead last (120) in almost all sporting journals while the Miami Hurricanes was consistently ranked as a TOP ACC and regular preseason favorite. Now FIU is a top 60 team, and scUM hovers near the bottom at number 77.

    PANTHERS.
    ON.
    THE.
    RISE.

  17. BobJ says:

    Oregon? They fit the clue.

  18. Eksynyt says:

    LOL BobJ. Oregon at 60? That’s a good one!

  19. DotBone89 says:

    @Dave

    God is a Fleet Admiral!
    BEAT ARMY!
    ALLELUIA! ALLELUIA!

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