It may not have felt like spring during a windy afternoon practice session in Annapolis on Monday, but the Midshipmen took the field nonetheless to kick off one of 15 spring practices that will eventually culminate in the Blue and Gold Game on April 17th. As can be expected from the first full team practice in nearly three months there was quite a bit of rust to shake off, but second year head coach Ken Niumatalolo said he was not dissatisfied with Monday's performance.
"We have a lot of young guys and new faces out there. It was a good first day, but we have a long ways to go but fortunately we have fourteen more of them."
Niumatalolo went on to say that the afternoon's "helmets only" practice was meant to teach the players "the tempo of what we're trying to do" and well as to "build the foundation" for future practices, including a full pads practice scheduled for Friday. That mistakes and miscues were apparent wasn't so much of a concern for Niumatalolo, who said the effort and intensity level was "ok" considering the team wasn't in full pads.
Among the topics which Niumatalolo addressed after practice was the progress of Navy's backup quarterbacks. Telling media members last week that Kriss Proctor and Michael Stukel were slightly ahead of Kameron Smith, Greg Zingler and Brian Blick for the second spot of Navy's depth chart opened some eyes, but Niumatalolo once again reiterated that nothing was set in stone for deciding who would be behind junior Ricky Dobbs going into next season. When asked if any of the young quarterbacks distinguished themselves in practice on Monday, Niumatalolo said it was too early to tell.
"They are learning. There is always good and bad, but we like what they've shown us in preseason. Today it was kind of hard to tell. We had dropped snaps and stuff…The normal first day stuff…We have a long ways to evaluate those guys, so one day is hard to tell with them, good or bad."
Niumatalolo also addressed the status of defensive back Emmett Merchant, who was noticeably absent from practice. Merchant, who intercepted two passes last season and was expected to start at the rover position in the defensive secondary in 2009, is apparently mulling over his commitment to the Naval Academy. Niumatalolo told reporters last week that Merchant was considering leaving the Academy, and said on Monday the situation remained unchanged.
"Right now he's still out. Right now he's deciding if he wants to stay at the Academy or not, and we're just taking it day by day with him."
While losing Merchant for the 2009 season would be a hit for the Midshipmen defense, Navy isn't exactly scrapping the barrel for bodies in the secondary. Senior defensive back Darius Terry, who at 5'7 holds the highest vertical leap on the team, worked with the first team at rover on Monday, and from all indications was performing well in unit specific drills. Senior Ram Vela, who Niumatalolo had said could also fill in at rover if Merchant decided to leave the Academy, spent Monday's practice session with the outside linebacker unit. Vela was one of four outside linebackers expected to compete for two starting positions on the Navy defense, with Clint Sovie, Travis Sudderth, and Craig Schaefer all rotating in and out with the tentative first and second team units.
Despite the continued uncertainty regarding Merchant, coach Niumatalolo had no other personnel changes to report on Monday, and says he looks forward to the week of practice ahead.
Random Observations from Monday's Session
- My personal opinion of the backup quarterbacks? Michael Stukel appeared to be the fastest running the option, although Kriss Proctor probably has the shiftiest feet of the sophomores. Stukel definitely comes out of his initial read with a full head of steam however, and shows good acceleration past the line of scrimmage. And while all were somewhat inconsistent throwing the ball on a fairly windy afternoon, Kameron Smith displayed the strongest arm of any of the backup quarterbacks for the day. Smith is a good deal less put together in terms of muscle than the built-like-a-tank Stukel, but the 6'1 Smith shows off a seemingly effortless touch in his throwing motion which reminds me of a lot of Aaron Polanco. He's also was more accurate on his deep throws than the other backup quarterbacks. Brian Blick struggled with the wind today, and did not work with the same personnel groupings as Stukel, Proctor, and Smith. Based off of one day of spring practice it looks like Stukel, Proctor, and Smith will be most in the mix for competing for the backup job.
- Chris Rivers and Andre Byrd are nearly clones of each other at slotback, although Rivers may be a few inches taller. Both showed off great quickness on the day, with Byrd looking fully recovered from an ankle injury that limited him in 2008. Speaking of slotbacks, Bobby Doyle was mister reliable in terms of his assignments and catching the ball out of the backfield, while the much talked about Marcus Curry clearly looks to be the total package in terms of his athleticism.
- Jordan Stephans was working a lot with Nate Frazier and Jabari Tuani on the defensive line. Without the benefit of pads however the defensive players were hard to evaluate.
- Like coach Niumatalolo referenced, there were several fumbled snaps and fumbled pitches. One thing some of the younger slotbacks struggled with was their spacing with the quarterbacks on option plays. Speedy sophomore Aaron Santiago had some trouble with this, and looked to be too far behind the quarterback during some plays. At one point one of the coaches rhetorically asked him if the quarterback was going to pitch the ball "fifteen yards back" on an option play. Unfortunately for the offense, there were a lot of up-downs during practice because of these miscues, which were fairly evenly committed by the younger slotbacks.
- Alex Teich is by far the most physically impressive fullback on the roster, and looks a good deal more "jacked" than he did last season. He has the quickest feet and runs with the best control. He definitely showed why he's number one on the depth chart coming into the spring.
- Two players that really looked to be in midseason form were wide receivers Mario Washington and Mike Schupp. Both look like they've developed great chemistry with Ricky Dobbs, and both snagged everything that came remotely in their direction. Washington looked especially quick out of his breaks, while he made a tough over-the-shoulder catch later in the session with a tricky wind behind him. Another wide receiver to watch out for is sophomore Doug Furman, who also showed off impressive hands and route running.
- Keep an eye out for Ricky Dobbs' blog, which is set to debut on Navysports.com within the next week or two.
Be sure to tune into GoMids.com later this week as Adam Nettina takes an in-depth look at Navy's backup quarterback battle headed into the spring. And remember that you can always email him your questions and comments at AdamNettina@gmail.com.
Photos copyright 2009 Adam Nettina/GoMids.com