As for the opposition, the Midshipmen are coming off a 9-4 season in 2006. It could have been a little sweeter but a last second field goal by Boston College spoiled a victory in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Three of the four teams Navy lost to ended up being ranked in the Top 25. Only a disappointing one-point defeat to Tulsa was the exception.
This year, the Midshipmen have some holes to fill as nine starters return. Navy is still led by head coach Paul Johnson, who'll be entering his sixth season in Annapolis. Johnson has turned around a program that was 1-20 the two years before he stepped onto campus. After a 2-10 opening season, Johnson has amassed a 35-15 mark over the past four years, a winning percentage of over .700. This run includes four straight appearances in bowl games. Johnson has the Naval Academy football team on the right track.
"It's safe to say a lot of the success the past five years is attributed to Coach Johnson," writer David Ausiello said of GoMids.com. "I'm not sure where Navy would be without him. It's well known in Annapolis that his scheme fits us perfectly. At a service academy, it's important to do things a little differently because of the players you recruit. His system fits us perfectly. As long as Coach Johnson is around, the Navy football community will be extremely happy."
Johnson's success has led to his name being mentioned with other college football jobs around the nation. There were rumors of his name floated around for the Alabama gig. Navy fans hope that Johnson's stay in Annapolis is a long one but know that his coaching success can't be hidden to other programs.
"We get a little apprehensive in November when Navy has a winning record and you start to hear the rumors," Ausiello said. "Certain schools let their coaches go and his name gets out there left and right. November and December become very worrisome for Navy fans because we start to wonder if this is the year that one of the big schools discovers what we've known all along that we have one of the best coaches in the country. I'll call it cautious happiness because we're happy to have him but worried he could leave. Would that put us back to pre-Johnson days? We don't even want to think about that."
The schedule has it ups and downs. The Army contest, on December 1st in Baltimore, is the biggest of the year for the Midshipmen. Johnson has had no problem navigating the pressure of the contest, racking up a 5-0 record against the Black Knights. Navy has road games at Rutgers on September 7th, at Pittsburgh on October 10th and at Notre Dame on November 3rd . Navy is 14-3 after playing the Irish, a sign that the team can bounce back from a loss. But could this be the year the Midshipmen finally take down Notre Dame and end the long run of defeats in the series?
The spread option offense has been tough for teams to stop. Navy was first in the nation in rushing offense, totaling 327 yards per game on the ground. It led to the Midshipmen being ranked 32nd in scoring offense at 28 points a contest. Navy will always rack up a lot of yards on the ground. It's a matter of opponents stopping the rush attack from running wild and controlling the time of possession category.
Brian Hampton was running the offense smoothly in 2006 from the quarterback position until a knee injury ended his season. Enter Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who started the final six games and went 4-2 in those contests. Kaheaki-Enhada rushed for 507 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. The junior also tossed five scores in Navy's anemic passing offense to only one interception. Kaheaku-Enhada might have some competition for the starting spot. Junior Jarod Bryant was Mr. Football in Alabama after leading Hoover High to a state championship. Bryant is considered to be the better thrower of the two. Depth won't be a problem at this position.
"Competition is healthy," Ausiello said. "There isn't much separation between the two. Kaipo isn't head and shoulders above him. Has he done more on the field? Absolutely. But on the practice fields, there isn't much difference. Kaipo is better running the option while Bryant is a better thrower. I wouldn't rule out seeing both of them play. In the past, Coach Johnson has used the two quarterback system to success. I think it‘s a win-win situation because I think both guys can win."
Johnson has a whole host of running backs to give carries to in the spread option offense. FB Adam Ballard led the team with 792 rushing yards last season and scored three times. The senior will be joined in the backfield by SB Reggie Campbell. The senior gained 706 yards on the ground in 2006 and scored five touchdowns. Campbell averaged seven yards per carry and also averaged 18 yards per catch in the passing game.
"It's no longer a surprise that Campbell is fast and probably the team's best player," Ausiello said. "He scored six touchdowns against Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl two years ago. That was his coming out party. When people plan for Navy, they immediately look for No. 7. With him being 5'7", it's sometime tough to find him and catch him."
Campbell was bested last season by Shun White's 12-yard per carry average in 48 attempts. White scored five times last year. Throw in SB Zerbin Singleton's 6.8 yard per rush average and these Navy backs picked up huge chunks of yard at a time in 2006.
"Zerbin and Shun proved themselves," Ausiello said. "You can ask Boston College about that. In an option offense, you want to be balanced and that has to go beyond the quarterback, fullback and slot back. When you're going against bigger teams, you'll have to rotate those guys in and out. For the first time in a few years, Navy has a good rotation of four or five backs."
The offensive line must replace three starters. The anchor of the line is senior Antron Harper, who will move from right guard to center this season. Harper has started 25 straight games and must provide the leadership up front for an inexperienced bunch. Senior Josh Meek is the other returning starter at left tackle but Meeks doesn't have anywhere near the amount of playing time that Harper has registered. Senior Ben Gabbard (6-4, 297) and junior Anthony Gaskins (6-1, 281) should be in line for the two guard spots while junior Andrew McGinn might be the man at the tackle position opposite Meeks. This group has to perform at a high level for the Navy offense to succeed and control time of possession.
"I think the offensive line is going to surprise some people," Ausiello said. "Josh Meek was hurt half the year. I consider him a starter. Harper might be the best lineman since Coach Johnson has been here. He's so talented and he'll anchor the line at center. There's a lot of depth. It seems like in the system Navy runs, it's relatively easy to pick up and there's always bodies moving in and out."
The success of the rushing game has led to the Midshipmen rarely relying on the air attack. Navy threw it 112 times all season for an average of eight a contest. With this, the Midshipmen were dead last nationally in passing offense. Gone is Jason Tomlinson, who led the team with 16 receptions for 195 yards and two touchdowns in 2006. If Navy does have to throw the ball, passes will be directed towards Campbell (13-244-2 TD's) and senior O.J. Washington (3-50-TD).
Last year, the Midshipmen were 61st in total defense, 38th against the run, 85th against the pass and 41st in scoring defense, allowing 20 points a game. The numbers might not get any better for Navy in 2007. The Midshipmen return only two starters on defense and coordinator Buddy Green will have his hands full coming up with a lineup to stop opposing offenses.
In the front seven, only ILB Clint Sovie returns to the 3-4 scheme. Sovie was the team's fifth leading tackler in 2006 with 61 tackles and the junior also recorded a pair of interceptions. The problem is that Sovie is the only player returning from the linebacker core. Gone are Rob Caldwell and David Mahoney, who were the team's top two tacklers last season in addition to a combined 17.5 TFL. ILB Irv Spencer, a 6-0, 238-pound senior, totaled 27 tackles last year and does have more experience than the two players who'll man the outside positions. Senior Matt Humiston registered 10 tackles in 2006 and should be in contention for one of those starting spots. The other is up in the air as Sovie will have to lead the charge in this group.
There are three holes to fill on the defensive line. All the starters up front are gone and it'll be a green group early in the season for Navy. NG Nate Frazier is a sophomore who stands at 6-3, 285 pounds but did not see any significant action last season. Junior Michael Walsh (6-2, 239) and senior Chris Kuhar-Pitters totaled just two tackles between themselves last year but will be counted on this season for heavy minutes. Navy's front seven usually is undersized. In 2007, they'll also be inexperienced.
"If you were to ask me four years ago that Navy only has two starters back on defense, I would say it's going to be a long year," Ausiello said. "I wouldn't hesitate to say the offense would have to score 50 points a game to win. I don't think that's the case anymore. The talent we've been able to recruit is better. They may not have experience but they're probably more talented than the guy there before. I think what you're going to see in the first few games is deer in the headlights on the big stage. Once they get past that, they'll be fine. In the early going, it might be rough and the team might have to rely a bit more on the offense."
Pass defense was a problem last year for the Midshipmen. Navy was 85th against the pass in 2006 and Brady Quinn and company had no problem dissecting the secondary last season in Baltimore. The stud of the group will be CB Rashawn King, a 6-0, 190-pound junior. King is back after amassing 50 tackles but did not intercept a pass in nine starts. At the other corner spot, senior Greg Thrasher will get the chance to start after sitting out the entire 2006 season. Junior CB Ketric Buffin will also get some looks after totaling 11 tackles in eight appearances last year.
"I think the secondary is improving," Ausiello said. "We're a bend but don't break defense. A lot of it relies on the secondary because they'll be matched up against wide receivers two or three inches taller than them and faster. If they can keep the ball in front of them, we'll be fine. If they can't, we're really going to need the offense."
The Midshipmen have to replace both starting safeties. Jeromy Miles, who registered 61 tackles and two pickoffs in 2006, transferred to Massachusetts in the off-season. Sophomore Blake Carter and senior Jeff Deliz will look to fill the gap. Deliz amassed 25 tackles and 3.5 TFL last season while Carter saw action in nine contests.
This unit should be a strength for Navy as the kicker, punter and best return guy are back in the rotation. K Matt Harmon was 8-for-11 in field goals last season but the junior's long was only 39 yards. P Greg Veteto will have to up his average after racking up 38 yards per boot, including 10 of 41 inside the 20-yard line. Campbell will be the main force in the return game after totaling 21 yards per kickoff return last year.
Navy hasn't beaten Notre Dame in 43 tries. The Midshipmen have to replace nine starters on defense but the Irish contest is the team's eighth of the season. The inexperience on the Navy roster shouldn't be a problem at that point of the season. Throw in tough road trips at Rutgers and Pittsburgh and the Midshipmen will already have faced an unfriendly environment away from Annapolis. Can Navy play keep away from the Notre Dame offense? How will the Irish team react to their first and only bye of the year? Notre Dame will likely be a double digit favorite in South Bend and should win this game. But there's no doubt the Midshipmen will bring it each and every play to end the infamous losing streak.
"If you polled Navy fans, beating Notre Dame would surpass beating Army," Ausiello said. "If we beat Army, Air Force and Notre Dame in the same year, the Notre Dame one would be the biggest by far just because it hasn't happened. Winning against Notre Dame would set off a celebration in Annapolis and fans believe there's a chance of this with Coach Johnson. How do you put into words something that hasn't happened in over 40 years? That would be the problem if the day happens."