Full Steam Ahead for Navy

Ken Niumatalolo's message was clear: Not one step back. "Our goal is always to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and that goal will never change," explained the second year head coach, who led the Navy Midshipmen to an 8-5 record and sixth consecutive C-I-C Trophy in 2008.

Navy kicked off the 2009 preseason this past Monday, with Niumatalolo addressing members of the media at the team's annual Media Day and Fan Fest held in Annapolis. While much of the afternoon's discussion revolved around Navy's highly anticipated opener with Ohio State, the 44-year old headman said that victories over rivals Army and Air Force will still take precedence when it comes to evaluating the team's success in 2009.

"The bar has always been high," said Niumatalolo, who declined to say if he thought this year's schedule – which features eight teams that went to Bowl games a season ago – presented the opportunity for the program to take the proverbial ‘next step.'

Adding; "I don't know if the bar has ever been lowered," Niumatalolo grinned and said that when it comes to high profile games against teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame, his Midshipmen will "just have to go out on the field and see what happens."

Protecting Dobbs

While most of the media could be heard buzzing over the revelation that Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs will wear a green jersey in practice this summer -- designating that the junior signal caller will be "off limits" to the hits of defenders – the question of protecting Dobbs when it comes to the season itself was forefront in my mind. After all, coach Niumatalolo had said that the team would "probably" throw the ball more in 2009 than they did in 2008, and said that Dobbs' "skillset" would give coordinator Ivin Jasper more options for calling plays this year. Yet with an undersized offensive line which was recruited to execute a primarily run-based system -- coupled with playing a schedule Niumatalolo described as the "most challenging" in his twelve years at Navy – can the Midshipmen really afford to take so many chances in the passing game in 2009?

According to senior guard and Defensive Captain Osei Asante, they can. Asante, who stands only 6-foot-1 and weighs just 265-pounds, said that the offensive linemen in Navy's scheme have been well coached by Niumatalolo, and feels confident that they can protect Dobbs in both the running and passing games.

"We have full faith in coach Niumatalolo -- as well as coach [Ashley] Ingram and coach [Chris] Culton – to teach us the fundamentals to keeping Ricky upright as best as possible when we do pass the ball," said Asante. "When [Ricky Dobbs] runs the ball and he has it in those situations, we're going to do our best to protect him in whatever way we can, too."

When pressed about the possibility of having to protect his junior quarterback against the likes of potential future NFL pass rushers from schools like Ohio State and Notre Dame, Asante reiterated that he and his teammates remain undeterred, saying that the Navy system and coaches have given them all they need to be successful.

"We're not going to be cocky, but we're confident in what we do. The system that we have will provide us with the proper tools to be successful in the passing game this year, and we're going to do all we can to keep Ricky upright at all times."

Mike Stukel: The Next Great Slotback?

Perhaps no up-and-coming Midshipmen player has attracted as much attention as sophomore Michael Stukel, who moved to slotback from quarterback at the tail-end of spring practice. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound athlete from Felming Island, Florida is currently listed as third on the depth chart at one of two slotback positions, and possesses outstanding field vision and speed. While Navy has two experienced slotbacks returning this year in seniors Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty, the lack of a "home run" threat on the roster prompted head coach Niumatalolo to move the athletic Stukel to the position in April.

Joe DuPaix, who enters his second year as Navy's slotbacks coach, said that while Stukel has much to learn about the position (particularly in the blocking game) the sophomore nevertheless has the athleticism to contribute immediately.

"The one thing that I do know is that in terms of raw talent, [Mike Stukel] has great speed," DuPaix said. "He is a good, physical football player. My biggest job – along with getting all the ‘A' backs up and ready to play – is to get Stukel up to speed and see how he can contribute to our football team…I'm really excited about Stukel, and I think he's going to be a great asset for us."

While some Navy fans have speculated -- and worried -- that using Stukel at slotback may prompt a continuous back-and-forth position move between ‘A-back" and quarterback should anything happen to starter Ricky Dobbs, DuPaix said that Stukel will be staying at slotback for the entire summer. Noting that he has learned "a lot" from the case of former Navy backup quarterback Jarod Bryant in 2008, DuPaix feels confident that Stukel's best chance to contribute for the team will come at the slotback position.

"We learned a lot with Jarod [in 2008]. That was a very unique situation…I think with Stukel it is a little different. He is a slotback -- that is what he is. We never say ‘never,' but he is a slotback. That's our mindset, and that's coach [Ivin] Jasper's mindset and that's coach Niumatalolo's mindset. We feel real good [about Mike at slotback]…Not that he couldn't be at another position, but he is a slot and we need him up to speed there so he can help us win football games."

Plebes to Step Up?

While Navy's secondary returns four players with starting experience (including two-year starter Wyatt Middleton), the unit's lack of established depth continues to be a concern, especially with the dismissal of senior-to-be cornerback Darius Terry at the beginning of the summer. During the press conference, coach Niumatalolo reiterated earlier statements made by defensive coordinator Buddy Green, and said that he and his staff would be looking to bolster the two and three-deep positions charts in the secondary with incoming freshmen, or plebes as they are called at Navy.

"We're excited about some of the young plebes," said Niumatalolo. "I don't want to mention names of plebes because you've always got in your mind who might help you but you never really know until they put on the pads…but there are some young plebes who we are counting on to make a buzz."

Even though Niumatalolo hinted that several plebes may be expected to contribute right away on special teams, he reiterated that he and his staff have confidence in Navy's returning (but inexperienced) backups in the secondary.

"We feel good about who we have coming back with our two-deep, and we'll see who contributes from the plebes."

AdamNettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be reached at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.

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