And while we last left the Midshipmen in a state of seemingly perpetual up-downs, Friday's practice saw its fair share of big hits, diving catches, and plenty of competition.
Not only did Navy's players participate in seven on seven passing drills, but the Midshipmen also took part in full contact "scrimmage" situations which saw different combinations of offensive and defensive players squaring off. The first team defense got the better of the first series, with Nate Frazier, Jabari Tuani, and Jordan Stephens disrupting the ability of the first team Navy offensive line in getting anything going. There were several missed exchanges and fumbles by Navy quarterbacks, with Kriss Proctor coughing it up on one of his first snaps from under center. He redeemed himself against the "B" defense however, as only a few plays later he managed to take an impressive option run the distance. Likewise, fullback Alex Teich looked very good against the first team defense, with the rising sophomore flashing quick feet and great vision in a touchdown scamper which saw him break several tackles. Not to be outdone, quarterback Mike Stukel showed off his athleticism as well, putting together several nice option runs in which he out-maneuvered defenders in the open field.
After switching through several different series' of unit specific drills, Navy's offense and defense reconvened at the end of practice to once again face off. "Big Play" Bobby Doyle scored a touchdown on an option pitch, while Ricky Dobbs showed off surprising speed to reach the corner on a long run to the weak side of the field. The practice ended on a bit of a sour note however, as both the offensive and defensive lines of the field goal unit saw players jump offsides. The infractions underscored the prevailing theme for the day, which could best be described as a "work in progress" for Navy's younger, more inexperienced players. Still, coach Niumatalolo made it clear that he was seeing progress, especially from players he expected to be in starting contention.
"A lot of guys don't understand the speed of the game, which is what we thought would happen," said coach Niumatalolo after practice. "We have a long ways to go. It was good to see guys compete today and for the most part I thought the competition was good until the end where we had some mental lapses on the field goal…For the most part I thought it was OK."
Despite the miscues, the players (and their coaches) weren't short on intensity during Friday's practice, with the prospect of full pads bringing out a chorus of hollers anytime the offense and defense squared off. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who is especially known for his "colorful" motivational approach, was at one point heard screaming at several of his defensive backs to "actually hit somebody."
Hit they did, as the practice concluded with a back forth, full-contact session that pitted offense against defense. And while the first team offense received some big plays from slotbacks Bobby Doyle and Marcus Curry, the defense responded, overwhelming the offensive line on several occasions while breaking up several pass plays with aggressive force. It was just the kind of inconclusive result one would expect from the first spring practice in full pads, and a possible precursor to next Saturday's scrimmage.
After a practice session on Saturday morning the Midshipmen will take to the field once again on Monday, March 30th at 4 PM.
- First team backfield was Dobbs, Teich, Doyle, and Curry. Corey Finnerty and Andre Byrd also worked with the first team at slotback in certain situations, while Santiago, Rivers, and James all shuffled in with a very loose second and third team grouping as needed.
- Eric Kettani was busy playing middle linebacker early on in position drills, helping coach Jasper evaluate the quarterbacks on their reads. The former fullback boasted that he "made at least one tackle" when Kameron Smith tripped while running towards him. I asked Kettani what his most recent 40-yard dash time was, and he told me "4.5 flat."
- Kameron Smith continues to impress throwing the football. While the sophomore quarterback continues to run with the second and third group offense he nevertheless has shown the most consistent arm of the backup quarterbacks, and proved it by throwing a beautiful touch pass on a wheel route to Aaron Santiago during seven on sevens. As a whole however the quarterbacks threw the ball much better than they did on Monday, although none were especially efficient when passing in full contact eleven on eleven situations.
- Speaking of quarterbacks, senior Greg Zingler did not work with the other quarterbacks today, and instead worked with the special teamers. The quarterbacks were Dobbs, Stukel, Proctor, Smith, and Blick. While the middle three are all still listed with "OR" between them in the battle for backup on the depth chart, the early consensus is that Stukel and Proctor have a leg up in running the option.
- I've really been impressed with what I've seen out of cornerback Blake Carter this spring. Not only is he the most vocal member of the secondary, but he's really matured in terms of understanding overages. He made a great interception of a Ricky Dobbs pass in seven on sevens, while also recorded a touchdown saving tackle on Michael Stukel during the "scrimmage" portion of practice towards the end of the afternoon.
- ILB Trey Grissom flashed the playmaking ability which made him a spring fixture a year ago, tracking down the shifty Chris Rivers on an option pitch and stopping the 5'8 slotback dead in his tracks. Other defenders who stood out were reserve linebacker Aaron McCauley and defensive back Jesse Iwuji.
- In the "it was bound to happen eventually" category, both Mario Washington and Mike Schupp dropped passes on Friday, with Washington trying to snare a one-handed pass that he could have caught two handed and Schupp having the ball knocked free by Jesse Iwuji late in the day. Schupp did however make a nice diving catch early in seven on sevens however, while Washington snared an underthrown ball over a defender early during the session.
- Punt returners were Angelo, Washington, and Chris Rivers. I did not see Gary Myers (who is listed as a Punt Returner on the depth chart) take any returns.
- Emmett Merchant was once again a no-show at practice, and despite the "official" word that the door is still open for his return things are not looking good. Junior-to-be Wyatt Middleton was filling in at rover on Friday, while former utility defensive back Jesse Iwuji was in with the first team at free safety. Darius Terry was back working at cornerback with the second team defense, although that may have had to do with reserve cornerback John Angelo sitting out the second half of practice with what may have been strep throat. Coach Niumatalolo said the team was "a little short" due to injuries in the secondary, but also hinted that one of the backup quarterbacks may soon be moved to the defense.
- Final Four predictions you ask? Coach Niumatalolo has Pittsburgh winning it all. So does Annapolis Capital beat writer Bill Wagner. Like the "football only" obsessed mind I am, I picked Duke to win the National Championship. Go figure.
Adam Nettina can be reached at AdamNettina@gmail.com.