The longest Navy rush by a slot, or A-back, last season came when Marcus Curry sprinted for a 45-yard pickup against Western Kentucky in week four. Aside from another 32-yard Curry scamper against Southern Methodist, no other Navy slotback broke the 30+ yard rush plateau on a single carry, with departing senior Bobby Doyle's 24-yard gain against WKU coming a distant third.
Compare this to 2007 and 2008, when speedsters Reggie Campbell and Shun White would routinely gallop for long touchdown runs. That White had more carries for greater than 30 yards through the first game of 2008 (4) than all of 2009's slotback carries combined speaks volumes to just how much of a drop-off there was in big-play production. According to Midshipmen offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, finding a player to replicate the production of a Campbell or a White will be among the main questions the offensive staff looks to address as Navy enters its first full week of practice.
"Last year was probably the one year we were really down at A-back as far as having guys who could really take it to the house," said Jasper. "The main thing is we want to find a back who when we pitch him the football he can do something with it. That has always been the one thing – to try to find a guy who when we pitch him the football he can take it to the house."
Jasper and his staff have their work cut out for them. Not only did the Mids lack explosive production from the slotback position last year, but the unit's leading rusher and receiver – Curry – was dismissed from the Academy this past spring. His departure leaves the Mids with only five players at the A-back spot who've ever registered a carry, with sophomore Gee Gee Greene's 41 attempts for 253 yards giving him the distinction of being the unit's top player. While Greene figures to start in 2010, the other slotback position will remain an open competition throughout August.
"I'm pretty sure Gee Gee is going to be a starter," Jasper said. "He played a lot for us last year."
Both Jasper and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo referenced a number of players who will compete for the other slotback position, with the latter saying that he has "no clue" as to which player or combination of players will start against the Maryland Terrapins in the season opener on September 6th.
"We really have no clue who is going to play A-back," Niumatalolo said. The third year headman went on to joke that the majority of the candidates might be diminutive in size, but what they lack in physical height, they more than make up for in athleticism and work ethic.
"All I know is that they're pretty short. I saw them coming out of the meetings today and said, ‘man, you guys are short.' But I tell you what, they can play. We're really excited about the guys we've got coming at the A-back position."
One of those "short" Navy A-backs who will be in the mix is Andre Byrd, a 5-foot-7, 153-pound senior who owns the top 10-yard sprint time on the team (1.44 seconds) as well as the top vertical leap (38-inches). Prior to his junior season, many expected great things from Byrd, who fell off the depth chart last year because of injuries and personal issues. He's refocused this summer, however, and is currently second on the depth chart at one of two slotback positions.
"Andre Byrd is a kid who going into his junior year had a great camp and was actually going to be a starter," Jasper said. "Then he got hurt then just got into a funk. He had a great spring and hopefully he can come out this fall and start."
Other Navy slotbacks who will be in the mix include sophomore Bo Snelson (5-7, 180), junior Aaron Santiago (5-8, 167), and last year's junior varsity MVP, John Howell (5-8, 180). All three our known for their exceptional quickness, but have only registered two career carries between themselves.
While many of Navy's backs are short, one intriguing option the Mids have is junior Michael Stukel. A 5-foot-11, 195-pound former quarterback, Stukel is one of the quickest players on Navy's roster, and is known for his open field vision and cutback ability. Nevertheless, his time spent at quarterback last year may have hindered his progress, and he'll have to show better hands and an ability to block effectively to win the starting role.
"With Mike Stukel, that was my fault," Jasper said. "He was playing A-back last fall camp -- had a great camp -- then Proctor gets hurt. So we had to bring him back (to quarterback) and he got behind the eight ball again."
Despite his setback in adjusting to the position, Stukel is expected to contribute as an A-back this fall. "This is his year," Jasper said, adding that Stukel "needs to step up because he has all the tools."
"He can run. He is a strong kid, a real physical kid," said the Navy offensive coordinator.
The Mids have plenty of sophomores and juniors who will audition for the role vacated by Curry, but the ultimate answer to Jasper's question of finding a playmaker might come from the freshmen ranks.
"We've got some young guys from our prep school who can really roll, so we're going to try to find spots for those guys," Jasper said.
The Navy offensive coordinator also said that several direct-entry recruits could earn their way into the rotation. Navy recruited several highly touted prospects this offseason, including 3-star and former Tennessee high school 200 meter champion Keith McBride. McBride chose Navy over offers from Army, Arkansas State and Tulane, among others. Jasper isn't sure what to expect from McBride or any of the "true" plebes this early into camp, but he is hopeful someone will step up.
"We're really, really hoping that one of these plebes comes (and contributes)," Jasper said. "We have some really good players and hope one of them can step in. We're going to kind of force-feed some of them to get them up to speed. Whether it's situational type things like going in and catching the pitch or something like that, we're going to find a way to get those kids on the football field."
Above all, Navy has choices when it comes to replacing Curry. Short or not, the unit is deep, and as the Mids roll through August the team is hopeful that a previously unheralded performer will prove to be the next big-play star.
Adam Nettina is a senior at Utah State University majoring in History, and the Sports Editor of the Utah Statesman. You can follow him online at twitter.com/AdamNettina
Navy Backs Short on Height, Not on Talent
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