"You can Never Get Complacent"
With the veil of cold air finally retreating from the Chesapeake, Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo previewed both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for his team this past Monday, updating reporters on the status of the team for the first time since the 29-19 loss to Wake Forest in the Eagle Bank bowl. While much of the conversation was spent recapping basic information about the team and its personnel questions going into the offseason, there were some more interesting points to take from the 44-year old head coach's briefing. Here are my thoughts and reactions to what coach Niumatalolo had to say regarding his team.
Confirming Ricky Dobbs was the clear cut favorite to start at quarterback in 2009 surprised no one, as Dobbs comes into the spring as the only quarterback on the roster to have taken a meaningful snap in 2008. Likewise, Niumtalolo's apparent vagueness in relation to the backup quarterback situation wasn't unexpected either, as he merely confirmed what most fans expected; namely that several young but talented players would be vying for the position during the spring. What Niumatalolo did reveal was that Mike Stukel and Kriss Proctor are at the head of the group, and that when it comes to past Navy quarterbacks Stukal compares well to Brian Hampton, only faster. I have to say I was a little surprised that Greg Zingler's name didn't pop up in the conversation however. While I've said before that Zingler won't win the backup job for 2009, I did think he'd at least be given a chance to compete for it during the spring considering the relative youth of the competition. Not mentioning Zingler isn't necessarily a bad omen however, as it likely reflects the coaching staff's confidence in the likes of a Mike Stukel or Kriss Proctor. I also liked how Niumatalolo singled out Teich, Proctor, and Stukel as guys who have impressed during the team's morning conditioning workouts. Having younger guys step up and make that kind of statement is huge, not only because it inspires their classmates, but because it pushes the veterans to work harder and not be shown up.
Niumatalolo was more candid when addressing the fullback situation, which he described as wide open. While many fans assumed the competition would play out largely between sophomore Alex Teich and senior Kevin Campbell, Niumatalolo appeared high enough on former linebacker Jordan Eddington to not rule out a very competitive three way competition. That Niumatalolo could rattle off Eddington's litany of physical accomplishments tells you that the staff is VERY high on him, while learning that the former linebacker has been watching tape shows that he is taking this opportunity seriously. Still, Niumatalolo seemed to confirm that Teich is, as of now anyway, the best candidate for the job, a point I know Kevin Campbell won't soon subscribe too. Whether he meant to get Campbell's attention or not, Niumatalolo's use of "three yards and a cloud of dust" to describe Campbell's running style was not the most praiseworthy thing the coach could of said about the rising senior, who showed us during the season that he won't just go away quietly and be replaced by a player who runs a faster 40-yard dash.
As far as the slotbacks are concerned, it was interesting to hear coach Niumatalolo talk about the current group in relation to past Navy slotbacks. Saying the current position was filled with players who ran more akin to Reggie Campbell than Shun White, Niumatalolo spoke very highly of the unit's quickness, describing them as the "most athletic" collective group of slotbacks the team has had in his tenure at Navy. Is it just me, or do we hear the same thing every year? Niumatalolo seemed to confirm the suspicion that Marcus Curry could be the next great Navy slotback, although to be honest I wouldn't sell Bobby Doyle short this season. I wouldn't reduce him to just a "good blocker" either (which I don't think Niumatalolo mean to imply), as the former Ohio prep star actually possesses a good deal of speed and athleticism. The one comment that sort of puzzled me was in relation to Reggie Campbell, who was obviously very quick, but - according to coach Niumatalolo - not as fast as Shun White. Reggie may not have been as fast as White, but I seem to remember the 5'6 slotback "blowing up some angles" during his career on quite a few occasions. The 2006 and 2007 Army-Navy games certainly com to mind.
Mario Washington wants the ball more, which is a good sign. He certainly has the athleticism to make a difference in the passing game, as well as the ability to exploit over-pursuing defenders on reverses. Yet am I the only one a little concerned over the fact that Niumatalolo didn't address the issue of blocking on the perimeter? It would be great if Washington blossomed into the next Tyree Barnes as a receiver, but it would be even better if he blossomed into a faster, more athletic version of O.J. Washington. Don't forget about Mike Schupp either; the rising junior logged some quality snaps a year ago and, in my mind, played more consistently in all facets of the receiving game than Washington did while in game situations. If both can continue to improve this year I see no reason why this unit can't improve from 2008 despite the loss of Barnes and Sharp.
The biggest surprise on the depth chart this spring has been Brady DeMell coming in as the number one center. I think most well-read fans saw this as a move to counter odd man defensive fronts, which coach Niumatalolo confirmed in the transcript. Once more, Niumatalolo made it clear when addressing the position that the team's "long-term" focus was on rival Air Force (and Army), and that he felt DeMell would give the Midshipmen the best combination along the offensive line to counter the Falcon defense. You've really got to love the passion Niumatalolo shows for winning inter-Service Academy games, especially when viewed against the more conference-minded attitude of the Air Force staff. What bothered me about Niumtalolo's discussion of the line was the lack of mention in regards to Andy Lark. It really seemed the staff was trying to push him by being vocal about his potential this time last year. Are they trying to do the same by playing up other guys this year, or has Lark's chance come and gone? One thing that was good to hear was coach Niumatalolo speak highly of backup Patrick Snow, who Niumatalolo said would be fine playing against even fronts. My first reaction to this was to think that maybe we'd see the offensive line adopt "package" specific combinations for different defenses, but that concept is probably a little too far fetched. Still, the confidence from which Niumatalolo spoke of the offensive line as a whole (including tackles Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Malloy) was certainly welcomed, although I'm not sure if the depth of the line is where it needs to be. Learning Battipaglia is "almost obsessive compulsive" was an interesting tidbit.
Learning that Michael Walsh is "ahead of schedule" may have been the best news of the press conference, although learning that Matt Nechak would be out for spring ball was an unfortunate surprise. On the plus side the fact that both will be out during the spring gives Navy's backup defensive ends some much needed reps. I really felt like Navy got some quality minutes last year out of guys like Billy Yarborough and Jordan Stephens, and having either one of them get the chance to play with first teamers Nate Frazier and Jabari Tuani is only going to help this spring. College football as a whole demands just so much more from defensive linemen now that the spread offense has taken over, so much so that a good defense really needs a "second line" to come in and play 10-15 snaps (or more) per game if necessary. Fortunately I think Buddy Green is starting to develop those second and third string guys to that point, and it should pay dividends come September. I also like the fact that coach said that Francis Archibald could be a good player at nose guard. The 6'2, 255-lb New York native may not look like your prototypical nose guard, but he was highly disruptive during camp last summer.
We learned that coach Niumatalolo still plans on using Clint Sovie at outside linebacker, and as expected feels confident in the linebackers as a whole. It was good to learn Sovie played outside linebacker in high school, confirming my earlier suspicion that the speedy but undersized senior-to-be was more natural on the outside. One thing that does have to concern you is that the coaching staff didn't feel it had a player ready to step in a "fill the need" at OLB with the graduations of Corey Johnson and Jeff Deliz. Niumatalolo didn't say a ton about Travis Sudderth despite being questioned over the junior's potential, a sign that the coaching staff likely needs to see more from the Georgia native before throwing him into the fire. I think it's clear from Niumtalolo's statements that outside linebacker is the biggest area of concern for the defense overall.
Perhaps the biggest question mark Niumatalolo addressed was the status of rising junior Emmett Merchant, who is expected to be the team's starting rover coming into spring practice. Merchant, while not a full time starter in 2007, nevertheless showed promise in Navy's "nickel" defensive packages last season, recording two interceptions to go along with two pass breakups. Saying that Merchant was going through a "yearly" decision during the offensive briefing of the transcript made the situation sound almost routine, but coming back and saying that the team was "planning for the worst" was a bit of an eye-opener. Having Merchant in the lineup for 2009 is important for the continued improvement of Buddy Green's defense, but to be perfectly honest the team has options should Merchant not return. Darius Terry and Ram Vela have both been cross-trained and have made plays in the secondary in the past, and if either would be required to make the switch Navy should still have enough depth at the corners with Edwards and Carter to not have to go to a completely unproven player in the secondary.
Speaking of unproven players coach Niumatalolo singled out one rising defender to keep an eye out for in sophomore safety Jarrod Shannon, who Niumatalolo compared to current safety Wyatt Middleton. We'll have to wait until summer to see if the comparison holds true however, as Shannon will miss spring drills for an undisclosed reason.
So what did you think of coach Niumtalolo's press briefing? Tell us in the GoMids.com forum.
Be sure to check back all next week and throughout April, as Adam Nettina brings you the latest news, interviews, and practice reports from Annapolis. He can be reached via email at AdamNettina@gmail.com.