And while the coaching staff feels confident in the ability of soon-to-be-junior Ricky Dobbs to direct the team's option attack, the situation at backup quarterback remains intriguing to say the least, with sophomores Mike Stukel, Kriss Proctor, and Kameron Smith competing for the number two spot on the depth chart.
Forget taking a meaningful snap from under center, these young quarterbacks did not even see the field as members of the varsity team a year ago. In fact, of all the potential backup quarterbacks on the Navy roster only senior Greg Zingler has stepped foot into a Football Bowl Subdivision game, briefly clocking in at the end of Navy's blowout win over Southern Methodist a year ago. Yet most observers agree that Zingler is not likely to win the backup job going into this summer, leaving the coaching staff with a talented – but obviously inexperienced – group of underclassman to evaluate over the course of the spring. Knowing the physical wear and tear that a season of running the triple option can take on a quarterback, finding an effective backup becomes all the more important for Niumatalolo and his staff before breaking camp on April 17th.
While Navy's backup quarterbacks may be young, they aren't exactly green when it comes to running the triple option offense. Both Mike Stukel and Kriss Proctor ran the offense while playing with the junior varsity team a year ago, with Stukel also having a year to adjust to the system at the Naval Academy Preparatory school in Newport, Rhode Island. That experience, says Stukel, has proven to be invaluable, and helped to ease his transition from a shotgun oriented offense that he ran in high school to the one he now runs at Navy.
"We ran out of the gun [in high school]. It's not as sophisticated as this offense. It was zone read, but kinda like what West Virginia runs," explained Stukel. "[NAPS] helped tremendously. Just getting a true base for the option…You've got another year where you're doing pretty much the same stuff here. I felt like I was definitely a step ahead coming in."
That confidence was apparent on Monday, as the chiseled 5'11 quarterback looked effective going through his reads while also displaying the athleticism which helped to make him an All-City selection at quarterback during his prep career in Florida. Yet Stukel isn't banking solely on his NAPS experience to win him the backup position coming out of the spring, and acknowledges that to win the job he has to continue to improve "every single day" in competition with classmates Kameron Smith and Kriss Proctor.
Proctor may not have had the benefit of the NAPS experience like Stukel, but the former three-sport prep athlete credits a similar style offense at Big Bear High School in California with preparing him to make the triple option reads at Navy.
"I ran pretty much the exact same offense" said Proctor, who led Big Bear to two De Anza league titles while in high school. "We called plays differently but all the reads were the exact same, so it definitely helped out a lot…I feel real comfortable with the reads and I've just got to make them faster and pick them up better."
While Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has stressed that the competition remains open for all of Navy's backup quarterbacks, he has also singled out Stukel and Proctor as being slightly ahead of fellow sophomores Kameron Smith and Brian Blick, as well as senior Greg Zingler. During a pre-spring media session last week Niumatalolo had some lofty praise for Stukel in particular, whom the second year head coach compared to former Navy quarterback Brian Hampton. Stukel said after practice on Monday that he felt honored by the comparison.
"I only got to watch Brian a couple of times before he got hurt against Rutgers, but I would say that I'm very proud to have [coach Niumatalolo] compare me to him. [Brian] was a great athlete."
Despite the promise that they have shown over the course of their short Navy careers, neither Stukel nor Proctor are letting the comparisons to past triple option quarterbacks go to their heads, with both pointing out a need to improve their respective games not from not only a physical standpoint, but from a mental perspective as well. When asked what part of his game he needed to improve most on during the spring, Stukel said without hesitation that making the right option reads was his first priority. Kriss Proctor echoed Stukel, and said that getting a better grasp on Navy's system was his number one goal, and commented that improving his decision making has been an ongoing progress throughout the offseason.
"I've been going upstairs, watching a whole bunch of film. Going through defenses, learning all the checks, all the plays…I'm just trying to get the system down and make it flow a little better."
The two quarterbacks also agreed that they need to improve on their throwing mechanics, with Proctor admitting that his arm strength and accuracy were "one of the weaker parts of my game." Both Proctor and Stukel appeared to struggle in hitting their passes amidst a steady Chesapeake Bay breeze during Monday's session, clearly looking outclassed by classmate Kameron Smith, who threw several perfectly placed balls despite the challenging conditions.
Proctor and Stukel also credit the staff and their fellow Navy quarterbacks with helping them improve, and say that the examples set by rising senior Greg Zingler and rising junior Ricky Dobbs have helped them better absorb the triple option. Dobbs, who all but cemented himself atop the preseason depth chart by leading the Mids to victories over SMU, Temple, and Northern Illinois during the 2008 season, says that he especially wants to lead by example when it comes to bringing Navy's young quarterbacks along this spring.
"I've got to make sure I'm pushing myself so I can be the physical example" commented Dobbs, who also said that the first day of practice was "a little slow because some of the players' bodies haven't caught up with their minds."
The Georgia native went on to joke that the cold temperatures during the winter had kept him from running as hard as he should have, but said that he was going to start to run more with the arrival of the spring while also vowing to be in the best shape of his life by next season. As far as continuing to help his potential backups improve, Dobbs said he is always looking for the opportunity to teach, and considered his own tutelage under former Navy quarterbacks Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada and Jarod Bryant when giving out advice.
"Every chance I get I'm going to try to make sure I can tell [the younger quarterbacks] different stuff. Just everything that Kaipo and Jarod gave me I'm trying to give back…speaking to them and doing it through my actions."
Adam Nettina welcomes all questions and comments regarding Navy's spring practice sessions. He can be reached at AdamNettina@gmail.com.