Opinion: Bring Back the 12th Mid

It's time for Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo to bring back the 12th Mid. Sure with SMU coming to town this week and then the tilt against Notre Dame to follow, I realize there are bigger fish to fry on-the-field, but after three seasons without the Brigade bonding program, the timing off-the-field has never been better to reinstitute it.

For those who don't know about the 12th Mid program, here is the background. In the beginning of the 2004 season, a midshipman approached former Navy coach Paul Johnson with the idea of a member of the Brigade practicing with the football team for a week and then playing in a game. Johnson immediately embraced the concept because he thought it would be a good way to bridge what he called "a real void between the Brigade and the team."

However, as Johnson told me a few years ago, the 2004 squad did not initially embrace the idea when he brought it to them.

"When I first went to the team with it, quite honestly, they were skeptical until we explained it to them…because there again you're bringing somebody out, letting them play, and you have guys who've practiced everyday and they never get to play.  But, once we explained it to them, and what we were doing, they embraced it and it became a fun deal." 

 

And with that, on October 22, 2004, the 12th Mid program took flight with not one but two members of the Brigade being selected to cover kicks in two separate games that season.

 

Navy Midshipman First Class John McLaughlin was the first member of the Brigade to take the field as the 12th Mid against Delaware on October 30, 2004. In addition to the distinction of being a part of the team for that game, McLaughlin, as well as every other 12th Mid participant to follow, was given permission by Roger Staubach to wear the #12 jersey for the occasion.


After the Delaware game in 2004, Johnson was asked about the debut performance of the 12th Mid.

 

"It was fun. I watched him run down and he came off the first block and he actually had a chance to make a play. He got in the pile and the guy squirted away from him, but hopefully it was fun for him and it is something that he will remember and hopefully the fans will have some fun with it. We enjoyed having John out there this week and we look forward to the game against Rutgers and doing it again."    

Since McLaughlin, four other Midshipmen (1 other in 2004, 1 in 2005, and 2 in 2006) have taken part in the 12th Mid program. CBS College Sports even profiled the program in this broadcast.

2006 was the last time a 12th Mid took the field for Navy. In 2007, Johnson decided to put the initiative on hiatus. When asked about his reasoning, Johnson said the following:

"The last few games, we've had a hard time covering [kick-offs] so the last thing we need to do is take somebody and put them out there - who hasn't covered a kick in their lifetime. I'm not going to do that and risk a chance to maybe lose a game for the guys who practice everyday," said Johnson.

 

The team's performance wasn't the only factor that led to Johnson's decision.  In 2007, the NCAA moved the kick-off back five yards to the 30 yard line, and according to Johnson that had made a difference.

 

"They're harder to cover."

 

Johnson did make a point to say that he would "revisit the [12th Mid program] (in 2008)," but that for right now the team's "got enough issues going on" and "other things [they] need to focus on."

 

Of course Johnson moved on and in 2008 first-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo declined to continue the program, saying back then:

"Not this year. It's my first year as head coach and we have a lot of new members of the staff.  I decided at the beginning of the season that we needed to get our arms around a lot this season. However, it is something that we have not ruled out for next season," said Niumatalolo.

I might be wrong but I think that was the last time Niumatalolo was asked about restarting the 12th Mid program.

Before I get to the reasons why I think this is the right time to get it going again, let me address the best arguments against it.

First and foremost, Navy's kick-off coverage is not good. Actually let me correct that, Navy's kick-off coverage is dreadful – 116th out of 120 FBS teams to be exact. And during a season when every game has seemed to come down to a play or two in the fourth quarter, I agree with Johnson's sentiments in 2007 that it is never worth the risk of losing a game for the sake of the 12th Mid program.

The second most popular argument against the initiative is that if a member of the Brigade gets to play, even for a down, an actual football player, who practices every day, has to watch on the sideline. I also agree with this argument because if I was a player and the only opportunity I had to get on the field was on special teams, I'd want to be out there looking to level someone - not only to make a play, but also to hopefully catch a coach's attention. It's no secret that the quickest way onto the depth chart can be through stellar special teams play.

No doubt, these are two very good reasons against reinstituting the 12th Mid. However, I think the pros far outweigh the cons.

For starters, let me just throw out a name that no Navy fan would really care to hear about anymore: Marcus Curry. I won't revisit the entire ordeal surrounding the former Navy slot back, but I think it is important for this argument to put the fallout from it into the proper perspective. Due to how Curry's situation was handled there was and probably still is a significant perception amongst the Brigade that football players are held to a different standard at the Naval Academy. Whether that is true or not does not matter. It's not like Paul Johnson had access to a poll back in 2004 that told him there was a void between the team and the Brigade – it was obvious. I think it is safe to assume that Niumatalolo doesn't need a poll now either. However, if he wants to be reminded of the backlash from the Brigade after the Curry debacle, he can still see that almost 1,000 people joined a Facebook page to voice their outrage. Sure, not all of them were current Mids, but who knows how many would have joined if the Brigade wasn't told to stop joining the group.

Regardless of who is responsible for the current void between the Brigade and the team, there is most likely one, and there is a good chance that it's even bigger than it was in 2004.

Will the 12th Mid immediately bring harmony back within Bancroft Hall? Probably not, but it's definitely a good start that will benefit both sides. To explain, there are always plenty of midshipmen who have no idea how difficult it is to be a varsity athlete, never mind a football player, at the Academy. From the time commitment to the physical pounding that football players expose their bodies to, life is probably a lot easier in Annapolis if you play intramural racquetball. At the very least, the 12th Mid initiative will remind a member of at least 18 companies (depending on how they do tryouts, it could be more or less) about how difficult it is to even get on the field and compete at the Division I level. And this message will resonate throughout Bancroft Hall.

On the other hand, I think it also never hurts to remind members of the Navy football team how lucky they are to be representing the Academy when they put on their uniform. A good way to do that is show them how far 18 regular Mids would go to have that opportunity for just one game...for just one play. I have seen the tryouts firsthand and they are pretty intense. I have also talked to 12th Mids after the experience and each time they have described it as the highlight of their time at the Academy. One even said it was the highlight of his life. If I'm a Navy football player, that would be very refreshing to hear.

The 12th Mid program won't completely fill the off-the-field void that exists but it is a good start. Meanwhile, on-the-field, there is a whole different set of issues to consider. As previously stated, the Mids are horrible at covering kicks, but to me (sorry Paul Johnson), that's just a convenient excuse not to do it. I'm not sure if this was mentioned in any briefing to former 12th Mids but it would be something that I would make known going forward. Quite simply, there should be no guarantee made to a 12th Mid that he would ever get into a game. There are just too many factors to consider, including the possibility of the outcome of a game changing on a kick-return (which almost happened against Wake Forest). If it's a one-point game in the fourth quarter and I'm the coach, there is no way the 12th Mid is covering a kick late in the game.

But who is to say that a bowl eligible Navy team couldn't be beating an Arkansas State team that is 117th in the country in kick-off returns, by four touchdowns in the third quarter this November? Wouldn't that be the perfect situation to insert the 12th Mid into the game just for a play? You bet.

Is it possible that this scenario may not come to fruition? Sure, but that's why you make no guarantees about actually seeing the football field to the midshipmen who try out to be the 12th Mid. Niumatalolo will still get throngs of interested midshipmen to volunteer and both the team and the Brigade will once again benefit from the experience.

There are probably very few easy decisions that the Navy head coach has to make during a season. However, this is one of them. It's time to bring back the 12th Mid.

 


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