"Yea, who was that guy?" responded the man next to him, his eyes feverishly scanning the hodgepodge of players in the huddle. Looking back and forth between the field and a copy of the Navy roster, the former identified the player only by jersey number: #28, Marcus Curry.
"Some guy named Curry," the fan responded, only to get the proverbial shrug of the shoulders from his seating partner.
It would not be the last time during spring football in which Navy fans would do a double take when it came to identifying #28 on their rosters, yet when the Mids concluded the spring campaign it was clear that Marcus Curry would be a player to keep an eye on once the summer began. A standout throughout spring practice, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Curry dazzled practice-goers with his combination of size and speed, drawing high praise and causing some onlookers to speculate that the Midshipmen had found their replacement for departed senior Shun White. White led the Midshipmen in rushing a season ago with 1092 yards, but his graduation leaves Navy short of offensive star power going into 2009, with returning senior slotbacks Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty combining for just 240 yards on the ground a season ago.
Finding a replacement for White – or rather a group of players capable of stepping in for him – will be one of the ongoing questions for Ken Niumatalolo's team during preseason camp, which began last Tuesday. In a recent interview, Curry said that he believes he can help provide an answer to that question.
"I believe that every time I get the ball I can make something special happen," Curry said. "We're just going to have to wait and see, but I feel like I can take over where [Shun White] left off."
Not that Curry is embracing a "me only" approach to the slotback rotation, which figures to feature more diversity in the number of carries earned by the unit's players this season. Curry, who is among several former Hebron (TX) High School players at Navy, said that when it comes to his goals entering the season, he puts the unit's overall success ahead of his own.
"One of our goals is to get [the NCAA] rushing title again because a lot of people think we might not get it because of all the new guys," explained Curry, who added that he thought Navy's slotbacks were "all very capable of doing better this season."
Curry continued, saying, "If I can just contribute and make plays, that's really all I want and am looking for…I'm just looking out for the team. I don't have to rush for 1,000 yards as long as I can help out the team."
Fans weren't the only ones who've been impressed by the former high school defensive back. Joe DuPaix, who enters his second year as Navy's slotback coach, said that Curry has the potential to be a playmaker for Navy in 2009, and that Curry's size sets him apart from past Navy slotbacks, who have frequently stood 5-foot-8 or smaller.
"[Marcus] has got some size to him, so he is able to block on some of our leads and loads and plays in which we need to get a guy up on a linebacker. He also has the speed that when he does get on the corner he can get a chunk of yardage for us. This spring he was able to showcase that and break away a couple times and score some touchdowns, and on top of that he has really nice hands."
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said he is hopeful that Curry's size will allow for less ‘package-specific' substitutions during the fall, and allow the offense greater flexibility when it comes to play-calling. Last season, Navy frequently rotated slotbacks in-and-out solely with the intention of creating running situations for Shun White, a strategy which opposing defenses soon caught onto.
"Last year we were obviously trying to get the ball to Shun," Niumatalolo explained. "This year we have some bigger guys so we're not worried about a certain guy blocking or running or catching or pass blocking…they're all pretty equal at that. So hopefully we can be a little more diverse and disguise things a little more this year."
While DuPaix and Niumatalolo have seen potential in Curry, both contend that the sophomore slotback has a long way to go before he can prove that he is the heir-apparent to Shun White.
"[Marcus] is young and talented, but he has his work cut out for him," Niumatalolo said. "He's still learning what we want and expect out of him. He is a talented young man, but the jury is still out on him, and he has to prove himself out on the field."
While a capable runner with exceptional strength and very good speed, Curry has yet to show the coaches that he can be an every-down slotback in Navy's triple option system. In Navy's flexbone offense, slotbacks most show proficiency for reading opposing defenses much like the quarterback has to. DuPaix explained that this is often the toughest task for younger players to learn in the triple option, especially when those players – like Curry -- come to Navy out of a more traditional one-back offense in high school.
"Those guys at ‘A-back' have to have an understanding more like the quarterback as far as seeing what the defense is in. They can't just go out and say ‘I'm going to go block that guy over there' because there is a little more to it. In that sense [Marcus] needs to continuing growing."
DuPaix also said that Curry must continue to progress in the weight room if he is to prove himself a capable replacement for White. Noting that his slotbacks are "always trying to get bigger, faster, and stronger," DuPaix said that White's work ethic set him apart from the other slotbacks last year, and that Curry and this year's group need to show that they've established a routine when it comes to getting themselves into football shape.
"It's one thing as a young football player to think you know how to work, compared to knowing how to work. Shun knew how to work in the weight room, and Marcus is still learning that. He's made some great strides…but that understanding of what real work is in the weight room is still coming along."
In spite of Curry's inexperience, DuPaix and Niumatalolo remain hopeful that the young slotback can continue to improve as the summer progresses. Noting that Curry has all the physical tools to be a great player at Navy, DuPaix said that all that's left for the sophomore is to improve his decision making and show that he has mastered the offense.
"Ultimately you want it all. The fastest guy, the strongest guy, and the guy who has the best hands…. [Marcus] needs to get better with his decision making and be able to understand the game better. That's natural for most young players, so if we can get that part squared away and get him some experience, he will be a very good football player."
Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.
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