Five Spring Position Battles to Watch: Number 5
While the defense returns relatively intact from last season, questions abound on an offense which must find a way to replace seven starters, including leading rusher Shun White, starting fullback Eric Kettani, and three year starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.
Starting this week we'll be beginning a new series of articles on GoMids.com, each week taking a look at a forthcoming position battle which figures to be paramount heading into spring practice. Whether on offense, defense, or special teams, these five position battles figure to not only provide plenty of excitement for the players on the practice field, but also more than their fair share of intrigue for careful watching and hard-core fans alike. So to kick things off, let us begin by taking a look at one of the positions never really adequately filled during the 2008 season, that of kickoff return man.
While Navy's 2007 kickoff return team was arguably the best during the so-called triple option era, the 2008 kickoff return team suffered from a lack of explosiveness which often left the Midshipmen offense in less-than-ideal field position. During the 2007 season Reggie Campbell and Zerbin Singleton teamed up to return all but five kickoffs, with the team averaging 25.3 yards a return (fifth best in the nation.) Campbell proved to be especially dangerous, averaging nearly 28 yards a kickoff return while taking both a kickoff and a free kick back for touchdowns. Last season head coach Ken Niumatalolo used a variety of different players throughout the season to return kicks, yet none had the success or the consistency of the Campbell/Singleton combination in 2007.
Not all of this can be attributed to the singular position of the kickoff returner, as blocking scheme and even opposing kickers had much to do with the looks and opportunities presented to Navy's kickoff returners in 2008. Yet even for these reasons there is no disputing the dropoff in production of the unit from 2007 to 2008, as Navy kickoff returners averaged a paltry 19.2 yards per return, the twelfth worst mark in the country. With such low production perhaps owing to a largely inexperienced group of return men, the 2009 team will at the very least have the benefit of having a much more veteran cast of potential returners (along with blockers) to audition for the duties in 2009.
Potential 2009 Candidates
These players almost certainly figure to be in the mix for the job into the spring. They are listed alphabetically.
DB John Angelo- A reserve cornerback in 2008, Angelo made his debut to a collective "John who?" to much of the Navy fanbase when he was inserted to the position for the Duke game in week three. While many Navy fans saw the 5'9 California native to be hesitant on returns, he actually possesses good quickness (pro agility time of 4.13) and recorded the longest return of last year when he took a kick back for 57 yards against Rutgers. Angelo may have been well on his way to becoming Navy's most stable choice for a return man, but a concussion suffered during a helmet-to-helmet hit on a kickoff return against Wake Forest forced him to sit out a considerable portion of the remaining games in 2008. Angelo figures to be back in the mix for 2009 if he can show the coaching staff that he's over any lingering effects (both physical and mental) of the hit which cost him the second half of his season.
SB Bobby Doyle- The rising senior has never returned a kickoff in his career for the Midshipmen, but is one of the few returning offensive players who has seen significant time handling the ball during his Navy career. While he may not have the straight line speed of Shun White, Doyle is nevertheless one of Navy's quickest players and figures to be a key part of next year's offense. Don't be surprised if that role doesn't translate into the coaching staff experimenting with him at kickoff returner during the spring.
SB Corey James- A 2007 NAPS product, James was first tested as a kickoff returner against Wake Forest after Angelo was injured. He went on to record a total of nine kickoff returns on the year, averaging 19.9 per return with a long of 32 in Navy's only kickoff return against Northern Illinois. Comparable to the likes of Reggie Campbell or Zerbin Singleton is size, he should have a much more expanded role on both special teams and in the offense after a productive plebe campaign.
WR Greg Jones- The sophomore wide receiver returned eleven kicks in 2008, averaging 17.2 yards a return with a long of 25 yards. A solid athlete with good speed, he saw the bulk of his work during the middle of the year in games against Pitt, SMU, and Towson. With Shun White moving on, expect Jones to become a bigger part of the offense and special teams during the spring.
DB Emmett Merchant- After returning two kicks for an average of 43.5 yards (including a 57-yard return against Rutgers) in 2007, Merchant looked like the go-to guy at kickoff returner going into the spring this time last year. However he only saw four returns in 2008 - including three for 59 yards against Ball State - in part because of his expanding role on defense. Likely to start at safety for Navy in 2009, it'll be interesting to see whether or not the speedy Merchant is once again tested as a kickoff returner by the coaching staff.
FB Alex Teich- One of the big surprises of fall camp last season, the 6'0, 200-lb fullback not only put himself in the mix for the backup fullback job last year, but also saw brief exposure as a return man. He returned three kicks for 46 yards last season, but fumbled his only return against Duke in week three. While he has the speed to man the position, his further use as a kickoff return man may be determined by whether or not he sets himself apart as a viable option to start at fullback.
WR Mario Washington- Well known to be one of the best athletes on the team, the explosive Washington served as Navy's primary punt returner for 2008, although his 10 returns (6.2 avg) did little to showcase his talents. While he only returned two kicks for 30 yards in 2008, he will likely get a chance to prove himself in a wide open field this spring.
Others to Watch:
LB/FB Jordan Eddington: Coaching staff's intention to test him at fullback reveals confidence in his ability carrying the ball. Runs a 4.4 40-yard dash.
WR Mike Schupp: Sure handed wide receiver who displays good courage in route running. Better athleticism than given credit for.
SB Cory Finnerty: Carried the ball 13 times last season. Sure handed slotback with good versatility.
The Newcomers: It's been said that spring ball is more about finding out what you've got than actually getting ready for the season. Ringing true one again, this mantra will likely support the cases of several former JV and Scout team members who take to the field this spring with the intention of laying it all on the line to impress the coaching staff. With the staff looking for someone to give the unit a spark, do not be surprised to see a previously unheralded backup turn some heads.
Ridiculously Early Pre-Spring Verdict:
While it's entirely plausible for one of the above candidates or a new face to step in and assert themselves as an off-season favorite for the job, it seems much more likely that this will be an ongoing search that will last through fall camp and perhaps even into next season. The main element to look for during spring practice will be to see which player the coaching staff feels most comfortable in handling the ball. Finding a good kickoff returner is just as much about consistency and dependability as it is game-changing ability though, so also don't be surprised to see a number of new faces getting the opportunity to work with the kickoff team. While predicting a leading candidate for handling kickoff returns in 2009 may be next to impossible at this early date, this is one position battle that should provide the coaching staff - and not to mention GoMids.com members - with plenty to discuss over the coming weeks.