"All Eyes Centered"
Off-season Position Battle Preview: Center
In parts one and two of our offseason position battle breakdown we took a look at the kickoff return and outside linebacker positions, respectively. Today, we turn our attention to the offensive side of the ball, where questions abound for a unit which only returns four starters from a season ago, three of which come from an offensive line unit which helped the Mids lead the nation in rushing for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year. Yet while early speculation reigns on the questions of who will replace Eric Kettani at fullback or who will step in to backup presumed starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs, even Navy's seemingly veteran offensive line is far from complete, with the most pressing question dealing with who will be able to step in and replace outgoing center Ricky Moore. Will spring practice provide the answer to keep Navy's well-oiled rushing attack going for another season, or will the thawing of ice only bring about more questions than answers for Coach Niumatalolo's inexperienced offense?
The Midshipmen have been fortunate enough to have a long list of effective centers in the triple option era, and despite having to replace a starting center each of the past two seasons the triple option has still managed to lead the nation in rushing over a four year stretch. Last year at this time coach Niumatalolo moved guard Ricky Moore over to center in a move reminiscent of guard Antron Harper's move to the position after the 2006 season, with Moore finding similar success at center just as Harper did in his transition.
Moore started all thirteen games for the Midshipmen at center in 2008, and gave Navy's option offense a strong force inside against opponents. This was especially important against 3-4 base defenses which typically lined the defensive tackle right up in front of the center (like Air Force or Wake Forest) in an effort to blowup the fullback dive. Yet not every defense played the Midshipmen with an odd-man front, meaning, among other things, that Navy needed a center who still had enough quickness and technique to get to the second level and seal off the backside linebacker. Moore was just that player, which is why he played all but a handful of snaps in 2008. Good for the 2008 team, but a potential problem for an already youthful 2009 offense waiting in the wings.
Potential 2009 Candidates
These players almost certainly figure to be in the mix for the job going into the spring. They are listed by likelihood of starting.
Patrick Snow: Snow is a natural center and likely incumbent, but he's struggled against Navy's 3-4 defensive scheme in the past and has had problems containing Nate Frazier in practice. He looked overwhelmed this time last year, and despite growth through the 2008 off season he saw only spot relief duty in 2008. He has the potential to start at center, but his relatively small size could be an issue going into the spring. Still, he'll be the player who we should learn the most about from the offensive line, and is likely the staff's first choice to replace Moore.
Andy Lark: Hardcore Navy fans found Lark the darling of the 2006 recruiting class, and with good reason. Measuring in at 6'0 and close to 300 pounds, Lark boasted an uncanny quickness for his size which seemed to make him the perfect option at nose guard in Buddy Green's 3-4 defensive front. Yet it was classmate Nate Frazier, not Lark, who would emerge as Navy's dominant nose guard in 2007, prompting coach Niumatalolo to move Lark over to the offensive side of the ball last spring. And while Lark was supposed to be the answer for 3-4 defenses like the one Air Force runs, he struggled adjusting to center during spring ball last year, and was clearly bested by Nate Frazier in the spring game. He'll likely get another crack at center after spending 2008 as a reserve guard, but needs to show better consistency snapping the ball and understanding his blocking assignments.
Osei Asante: An up-and-comer who the coaching staff has long been high on, Asante will go into spring ball as a likely favorite to win one of the two offensive guard spots. Yet the uncertainty of the center position – not to mention Coach Niumtalolo's precedence of testing out guards at center – make Asante a likely candidate for the transition if Snow or Lark cannot step up.
Curtis Bass: Perhaps Navy's best and most consistent lineman, Bass started every game a season ago at right guard. He'll likely start there again next season - so long as another player steps up at center. If that does not happen expect the coaching staff to at least experiment using Bass at center in the spring, just as coach Niumatalolo did with Ricky Moore last spring.
Others to Watch
Mike McCarthy- Current plebe and former prep wrestling star who brings intriguing athleticism and good size to the position.
Brady DeMell- Former Naps lineman who has played mostly guard. Has good size at 6'3, 295-lbs and possesses good quickness as well.
Torri Preston- Former high school quarterback. Relatively small size may be a concern.
David Hong- Relative unknown at guard who nevertheless has good size and strength.
Ridiculously Early Pre-Spring Verdict:
Predicting Navy's starting lineup at offensive line for 2009 is going to be a lot like one of those cheap high school raffles. You'll likely get most the numbers right, and heck, you'll probably get three or four of them right and in order. But getting them all lined up perfectly is never as easy as it looks.
Ironically enough, the position battle for center could once again hinge on the development of reserve guard Andy Lark. Think about it. In Bass the coaching staff has a player they feel comfortable in at guard, not to mention a player who started every game there last season. Likewise, in Asante the staff has a player who really has been groomed to play the opposite guard position, and even saw meaningful reps there in spot duty for starter Anthony Gaskins a season ago. That would leave Patrick Snow as perhaps the prime candidate for center except that Snow's size (6''1, 250-lbs) could be an issue against 3-4 defenses. Throw in the fact that he struggled working with the first team offense in fall camp prior to the 2008 season, and you get something of an open question on the interior of Navy's line. Lark then - who remains a weight room freak and would on the surface would appear have the mass and leverage ability to thrive at center in Navy's offense - becomes a viable option to start at center, if he can show he's improved from a year ago.
Unfortunately for Navy fans, that's a big "if" going into the spring. Lark was not able to show the consistency the staff needed to see from him at the position a year ago, and eventually had to go with Ricky Moore at center for the 2008 campaign. It all worked out relatively fine in the end, but if we saw one thing from the line last season it was that the interior positions of the unit maybe weren't as developed in terms of depth as coach Niumatalolo would have liked.
While who will start at center remains the question for Navy's offensive line going into the spring, perhaps the bigger picture to keep an eye on is how Navy develops depth at all of the offensive line positions. With an expanded 13-game schedule that features heavyweights such as Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Ohio State, it may be wishful thinking to expect the Midshipmen to keep a consistent five starters up front all year long. And while any combination of Jeff Battipaglia, Osei Asanate, Curtis Bass, Matt Molloy, and [insert center to be named later here] may look good on paper, by the time October rolls around we could be looking at a drastically different story. It is essential then for the coaching staff to not only find a working combination of presumed "starters" up front, but to also develop and assign positions for the relatively unknown players making their way up the roster.
Fortunately for the program, spring ball was invented for things like this.