Seven questions for Navy spring practice

Football coach Ken Niumatalolo must replace almost all of the impact players that have helped him fashion a 27-14 record during his first three seasons as head coach of Navy. In looking at this year's spring practice roster there are the key questions GoMids.com believes Navy must answer.

Who will replace Middleton?

Let's start with the honest truth. It's probably not possible for Navy football to really replace rover, team captain Wyatt Middleton. Middleton started the most games in Navy football history, recorded 317 tackles, broke up 18 passes and had five interceptions. Middleton was a sure tackler with great range who often was the last line of defense. To make matters worse sophomore De'von Richardson, who did a nice job replacing the injured Emmett Merchant was separated from the Academy after the season.

Tra'vres Bush and Jordan Fraser, who backed up both positions, are the leading returning candidates to assume starting roles. The hard hitting Bush saw action as an extra defensive back and often replaced a linebacker against the many wide open spread passing teams the Mids faced. Bush posted 44 tackles, an interception return for 32 yards and a fumble recovery. Bush had two huge games this year with 14 tackles against East Carolina and 9 tackles and an interception against Arkansas State. Fraser recorded 11 tackles in season. Against Army he took a poor angle trying to defend a Trent Steelman pass and instead allowed Malcolm Brown to get behind him for a 45-yard touchdown. Sophomore Wave Ryder (6-2, 205) who starred on the JV team should also push for playing time. Ryder has good speed and is very aggressive in run support. Ryder is similar in style to Wyatt Middleton with his upright running style and closing speed. Ryder had a huge interception and return in leading his high school to the state championship. He has good hands, anticipation and understands zone coverages. Two wide receivers, sophomore Shawn Lynch and senior Gary Myers, have moved to safety to provide depth.

Can the Mids improve their pass defense?

Even with Wyatt Middleton at rover Navy's pass defense was simply awful last year. The Mids consistently seemed to make almost every quarterback seem like the second coming of Joe Montana. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree completed 28-of-30 passes for 314 yards against the Mids. Renfree tied a school record by completing his first 16 passes. Navy's bend but don't break scheme was consistently picked apart. The Mids allowed opponents to complete 68.4% of their passes and surrendered 22 touchdown passes. To make the task more difficult Navy loses their best cover corner in Kevin Edwards. The Mids had trouble generating pressure ranking 98th in the country in sacks. The also lose their sack leader Billy Yarbourgh.

In an effort to improve this glaring weakness coach Ken Niumatalolo has moved longtime assistant Keith Jones from outside linebacker coach to secondary coach. Besides the open competition at safety discussed previously look for last year's backup cornerbacks senior David Wright and junior David Sperry to battle this spring to replace Edwards. Senior cornerback Kwesi Mitchell struggled down the stretch and needs to be more consistent in his technique.

Navy will be looking for new starters to emerge at defensive end and outside linebacker who put pressure on the quarterback. Juniors Joshua Jones, Ryan Paulsen, John Dowling-Fitzpatrick and Wes Henderson appeared on last year's depth chart and will compete for the open right end position. Fellow junior Collin Sturdivant has been moved back to defensive end from outside linebacker. I'll be interested to see if sophomore Jamel Dobbs is ready to make a push for a starting spot. Dobbs is 6-1, 255 and has 4.65 speed in the forty-yard dash. Navy needs to create more pressure on its opponent's passers this year.

Can Proctor pass effectively?

Anyone who has watched Kriss Proctor in action the last two seasons as a starter, either off the bench or in the spring Blue-Gold game, knows he is an efficient and effective option quarterback. In his only start in 2010 Proctor ran 20 times for 201 yards in a win over Central Michigan. In his six appearances at quarterback the last two years he has carried the ball 85 times for 527 yards, a 6.2 yard average per carry, and scored nine touchdowns. An option quarterback since high school Proctor understands and is comfortable with his pitch keys. While not as physical as former quarterback Ricky Dobbs, Proctor runs hard and is faster than Dobbs.

The concern with Proctor revolves around his ability to throw the ball effectively. No one expects him to match Ricky Dobbs arm strength, accuracy or challenge the Navy single season passing touchdown record Dobbs set last year. However, Proctor needs to throw well enough to keep opponents honest. Last year Proctor's mechanics looked better in the spring but in his limited appearances he completed just 2-of-5 throws. In his start against Central Michigan he misfired when he badly overthrew a wide open Gee Gee Greene on a fourth and five out pattern that ended a drive.

Ricky Dobbs passing ability made opponents pay for selling out on the option and led to a number of memorable comebacks. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper stated that Dobbs success has changed the staff's recruiting model in that they now consider recruiting a passing quarterback and teach him the option rather than the other way around. Proctor is the older option first prototype. No one questions Proctor's ability to run and operate the option. The jury is still out if he can make enough throws in the passing game.

Who will play Nose Guard?

Chase Burge and Shane Bothel both split time at nose guard last year and except for the bowl game against San Diego State they played well. Next year's starter at nose guard will probably be senior Jared Marks. Marks (6-5, 297) played in all 13 games last year as third string nose guard and recorded three tackles.

The competition behind Marks is between three sophomores: Chris Mayes, Barry Dabney and Alex Doolittle. Mayes was a 6-3, 298 pound finalists for the Mr. Football Lineman award in Tennessee as a high school senior. Mayes has terrific size, speed, strength and overall athletic ability. Barry Dabney played last year on the JV team. Dabney is a 6-foot-1, 281 pound lineman from Nashville Tennessee. For a nose guard Dabney is a good athlete who can move well. He is a physical player who is strong at the point of attack. Alex Doolittle is a 6-2, 299 pound nose guard who offers above average quickness, athletic ability and can rush the passer.

Who will kick and Punt?

With the graduation of seniors place kicker Joe Buckley and punter Kyle Delahooke both jobs need to be filled. Senior kicker Jon Teague has handled kickoffs the past few years and enters spring practice with the most experience. Teague has filled in for Joe Buckley the last two years. Last season Teague hit both field goals he attempted.

The chief competition for Teague should come from sophomore Stephen Picchini. A 2010 direct admit, Picchini as a high school senior in 2009 was selected as all-Southern California. During that season he hit 7-of-9 field goal attempts, converted on 57 PATs and finished with 78 points. Picchini. proved to be clutch as he connected on field goals from 48, 46 and 45 yards in his team's playoffs. During his junior year Picchini hit 11-of-15 field goal attempts.

The battle to replace the punter Delahooke, who struggled with consistency last year, is wide open. Junior Justin Haan, who was the backup last year, enters spring practice as the favorite. The other contender is Brynmor Hughes who kicked and at times punted in 2009 for the Naval Academy Prep team. Hughes was named to the California All state team as a high school junior.

How will linebacker play improve?

As a base 3-4 defense Navy is heavily reliant on solid play by its linebackers. There were way too many instances of missed tackles, poor maintaining of gap responsibilities and getting stuck on blocks last season.

To make matters more challenging, the Mids lose their tackling machine linebacker Tyler Simmons who recorded 131 stops last year. The good news is that the Mids have talent that did get experience last year. Junior Matt Warrick played well last spring and started late in the year. Warrick moves well and has a nose for the ball. Senior Max Blue played fairly well last year and is the likely other inside linebacker. Senior Caleb King lost his job last year but has ability.

The Raider position is open with senior Jerry Hauburger graduating. At the striker outside linebacker senior Aaron McCauley returns. Seniors Jared Shannon and Mason Graham were on the three deep depth chart last year and could compete for the starting raider spot. Navy has plenty of talented depth at linebacker with sophomores Shawn Reed, the highly recruited Vinnie Mauro, Colin Renton, Mike Huf and Evan Palelei. Look for them to battle for a position on the depth chart this spring.

Who will replace Jeff Battipaglia at Left tackle?

After starting 40 consecutive games at left tackle Jeff Battipaglia seemed as much a fixture at Navy as Chief Tecumseh. As they say all good things must come to an end and it does with Battipaglia graduating. Unlike past years when Navy's offensive line was dominated by seniors the coaching staff needs to find a replacement only at Battipaglia's left tackle position. Entering the spring Battipaglia backup senior John Dowd seems to be the most likely candidate to fill his shoes.

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