Navy Spring Preview: Backup Quarterback
While often an afterthought to fans of the other 119 institutions playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the position of backup quarterback remains an important element for the continued success of Navy's triple option offense, where one play can literally make or break the starting quarterback's season. Such was the case in 2006 when starter Brian Hampton was lost to a knee injury against Rutgers, as well as last season when starter Kaipo-Noa Kakeahu-Enhada was hobbled for much of the year with a hamstring injury. Now, with the graduation of two of the program's three quarterbacks with game experience, a new day dawns on Navy's quarterback situation, with many more questions than answers presenting themselves as to whom will backup presumed starter Ricky Dobbs.
With a two-year starter in Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada returning for 2008, few eyes were focused on the backup quarterback situation heading into last year. Kaipo's maturation through 2006 and 2007 led many fans to believe the Midshipmen offense would rise to heights not seen since the days of Chris McCoy, and by all accounts these fans may have been right had it not been for a preseason hamstring injury which derailed Kaipo's senior campaign. Yet the transition to backup Jarod Bryant - himself an experienced and talented player - was not as seamless as perhaps some Navy fans anticipated, with ball control issues taking center stage for a triple option offense which struggled to find its way through much of the year.
Enter Ricky Dobbs. A confident and talented sophomore, Dobbs' ability to make plays in the clutch and relieve Bryant against the likes of SMU, Notre Dame, and Temple made him a natural fan favorite, and heading out of the 2008 season left him as the only quarterback on the roster with game experience. Yet even despite Dobbs' ability to lead Navy to victory against SMU and Temple (and nearly lead the team to a comeback win over Notre Dame) it was sometimes painfully obvious that the coaching staff felt limited in their play-calling with him in the game, leading to a high degree of mid-line option plays which exposed the budding quarterback to an unnecessary amount of hits and abuse from opposing defenses. While Dobbs himself will have to show better ability and decision making in running the option this spring, his physical style of play make finding a viable option at backup quarterback all the more important for offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who could very well be forced to call on an unproven backup should Dobbs succumb to the wear-and-tear of playing in the triple option system.
Potential 2009 Candidates
These players almost certainly figure to be in the mix for the job going into the spring. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Brian Blick: The 2006-2007 Offensive Player of the Year in Greenville, North Carolina, Blick is something of a high school legend who never lost a game as his team's starting quarterback. He's a bit smaller than the other candidates for backup quarterback, yet has shown no shortage of playmaking ability with his feet as a member of the JV and Scout team a season ago. He is well schooled in the triple option too, having had a year at NAPS and a year on the JV to refine his decision making.
Sy Gaines: The biggest of the plebe quarterbacks who came in as a direct entry recruit last season, the 6'2, 210-pound Gaines reminds some watchful Navy fans of starter Ricky Dobbs. He has been somewhat overshadowed by Stukel and Blick even by the standards of hardcore observers, but has just as good of a chance as either of his classmates to make an impression of the staff this spring.
Kriss Proctor: A direct-entry plebe last season who saw action for the JV team, Proctor is a bigger option for the Mids at quarterback with his 6'1 frame. He was an all-everything selection in three sports at Big Bear high school in California prior to his 2008 graduation, and was recruited by several BCS schools as a safety prior to committing to Navy. Proctor's size and speed combination makes him an intriguing option as a backup quarterback, but it remains to be seen how he'll operate with the second or third team team offense once spring ball begins.
Kavon Seaton: Many hardcore Navy fans were noticeably down when it was reported earlier this off-season that NAPS quarterback Kavon Seaton had signed with James Madison for the 2009 season, and with good reason. The former Southern California prep standout was a consistent standout in Newport this past fall, displaying tremendous athleticism and a surprisingly strong arm despite his relatively short stature. A true dual-threat quarterback, Seaton showed a great deal of maturity and precision in running the triple option at NAPS, and was subsequently named the team's Most Valuable Player for the 2008 season.
Kameron Smith: A direct entry recruit last season, Smith might be the least known in a veritable "who's that?" of young Navy quarterbacks. Like many of the other candidates, he'll need a solid spring showing to distinguish himself and earn a place on the preseason depth chart.
Michael Stukel: A tremendous athlete out of the Jacksonville area, Stukel has seen extensive time at quarterback both at the Naval Academy Prep School in 2007 and as a member of the JV and Scout team this past season. At 5'11 and close to 200 pounds he has ideal size for a triple option quarterback, and has shown flashes of athleticism and escapability which could make him a serious contender for the job this spring. An underrated passer, many hardcore observers are already predicting he will win the backup job for 2009.
Greg Zingler: A rising senior and hometown favorite, Zingler enters the spring as the only other Navy quarterback aside from Ricky Dobbs who has taken a snap from under center in a varsity intercollegiate game. While he lacks the athleticism of many of the younger quarterbacks, Zingler's experience could be a major factor heading into the spring, especially if none of the younger quarterbacks can show the consistency in decision making and ball security that the coaching staff will be looking for.
Ridiculously Early Pre-Spring Verdict:
Experimentation. That's the name of the game for Navy's offensive coaching staff this spring, as a wide open field of applicants competes for the right to be the proverbial "next man up" if presumed starter Ricky Dobbs goes down to injury. While many of Navy's incoming and rising plebe quarterbacks bring an extensive resume of high school accolades, prep school success, and even JV experience to the table, none outside of Zingler have had experience running with the second team offense in a scrimmage situation. That is what makes this particular position battle so intriguing. Often confined to running the triple option against the third team defense or in not running the triple option at all (in the case of those with Scout team experience), Navy's talented but inexperienced group of backups have really yet to be tested in their ability to showcase the proper decision making in not only running the option, but running it successfully against an FBS caliber defense.
It's a huge jump to make for any candidate, but luckily coaches Niumtalolo and Jasper will have plenty of options when narrowing down the field. For instance, even though rising sophomores like Michael Stukel and Brian Blick may lack meaningful game experience for the Midshipmen, both have been well immersed in the triple option through a year at the Preparatory School as well as a year on the JV squad. This experience makes them natural candidates to step in and assume the backup position, especially considering their noticeable athletic ability. Yet don't count out the other candidates, as even Greg Zingler could make a convincing case to come out of spring as the number two quarterback on the depth chart. While Zingler won't "wow" anyone with his physical ability as a runner or a passer, he gives the coaching staff at least a "safe" option somewhat reminiscent of what Troy Goss gave the offense two seasons ago. Furthermore, by naming Zingler the backup coming out of spring, the coaching staff could send a message to the younger quarterbacks that they need to step up their development for the summer, likely signaling a continued commitment to keeping the competition open throughout the offseason.
Finally, the two wildcards in the discussion remain Kavon Seaton as well as any of the other NAPS and direct entry newcomers. Seaton has shown a consistent ability to run the triple option despite playing with what was often an overmatched offense line at NAPS, while flashing an ability to make plays in the open field with his legs. However, his faux signing with James Madison leaves some Navy fans skeptical that he'll even make it to Annapolis this summer. Also, despite the relatively unprecedented nature of a direct entry recruit to come in an learn the system while going through plebe summer, the recent (on field) success of Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson should remind Navy fans that stranger things have happened than a plebe coming in and asserting himself onto the depth chart, especially under conditions which do not point to a clear favorite coming out of spring practice.
Whatever the case, this should be one of the most intriguing Navy quarterback situations in recent memory. While the graduation of Kaipo-Noa and Jarod Bryant may leave Navy thin on experience at quarterback heading into 2009, it does not by any means leave the Midshipmen thin on talented candidates. If anything, Navy fans are by and large taking an enthusiastic attitude into the spring, hopeful that the warm Chesapeake Bay breeze will uncover the next talented Navy signal caller who until now has been waiting patiently in the wings.
That, and praying that the growing legend of Ricky Dobbs continues uninterrupted for the next two seasons.
Adam Nettina also writes for the website Inthebleachers.net. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.