Navy finished the 2007 season 8-5 and went to its fifth straight bowl game, but three of those wins were by a combined eight points and a pair of them, including the win at South Bend, took a combined five overtimes.
The biggest difference in the 2008 Navy team from last year's squad is at the top where head coach Paul Johnson left Annapolis to take the Georgia Tech job. Assistant head coach and offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo replaced Johnson. Under Niumatalolo, Navy will continue to run the triple-option that has allowed the Midshipmen to lead the nation in rushing in four of the last five years, including the last three.
Last year, Navy averaged 348.8 rushing yards per game and even though the offense ranked dead last in passing offense (95.3 yards), the Midshipmen averaged a school-record 444.1 total yards (22nd in the country). The ball control offense put up plenty of points, averaging 39.3 per game (10th nationally).
Navy returns a number of key cogs from that offense, led by 5-11, 194-pound senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheauku-Enhada. Kaheauku-Enhada led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns and was second with 834 rushing yards on 180 carries. The 2008 Davey O'Brien Award Watch List member only attempted 98 passes in 2007, completing 55 (56.1%) for 952 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
Kaheauku-Enhada will be backed up by senior quarterback Jarod Bryant (5-10, 189). Bryant played in nine games last year, rushing for 512 yards and five touchdowns while completing 17 of his 31 passes (54.8%) for 252 yards. As a senior at Hoover High School, Bryant played quarterback, running back and wide receiver and was named Alabama's Mr. Football in 2004. Bryant could be playing a similar role in his senior year at the Academy. He is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart at quarterback, but is also listed as a back up at slot back as the staff is committed to getting him on the field.
Navy did lose one of its playmakers with the graduation of slot back Reggie Campbell. Campbell had 2,031 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in 2007 as a runner, receiver and returner. Navy also graduated fullback Adam Ballard and slot back Zerbin Singleton. Ballard and Singleton combined for 1,171 rushing yards last year while Singleton led the team with 263 receiving yards on 12 catches.
Navy does bring back senior fullback Eric Kettani (6-1, 233) who had 880 yards and 10 touchdowns on 152 carries and has the potential to be better than Ballard. Junior Kevin Campbell (5-11, 193) and sophomore Vince Murray (6-1, 217) will battle to be the back up behind Kettani.
Senior Shun White (5-9, 190) and sophomore Andre Byrd (5-7, 157) are listed as the starting slot backs. White has been a solid runner throughout his career and has a school-record 9.4 yards per carry average through three years. In 2007, he rushed for 620 yards and seven touchdowns on 78 carries, while Byrd could be a more dynamic threat. Along with Bryant, senior Greg Shinego (5-9, 185) is the other reserve slot back.
The Midshipmen don't ask their wide receivers to do much in the passing game and with a pair of slot backs, the offense does not feature a tight end. The receivers do need to be able to block on the outside though and senior Tyree Barnes (6-2, 197) will lead the group. Barnes has also shown the ability to catch the football when called upon, grabbing 10 passes for 168 yards and a score last year. Seniors Curtis Sharp (6-4, 247) and T.J. Thiel (6-0, 192) will compete for the other receiver position, but both are expected to see time.
If Campbell won't be the most missed player from last season, than center Antron Harper will be. Harper was the anchor of that offensive line last year and will be difficult to replace. The Midshipmen have shifted senior Ricky Moore (6-4, 295) from tackle to center to succeed Harper. Moore was in the mix for the starting right tackle position last year, but has not played in more than 11 plays in any game in his career.
Senior Andrew McGinn (6-1, 255) beat out Moore at right tackle last year and is one of two full-time starters back along with senior left guard Anthony Gaskins (6-1, 284). Rounding out the offensive line is junior Austin Milke (6-3, 265) at left tackle and junior right guard Curtis Bass (6-1, 266). As with the new starters, the backups are largely untested, but if Milke and Moore have good seasons, Navy could lead the country in rushing again. As always, the Midshipmen will try to make up for their lack of size with quickness and efficiency.
Quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper was promoted to offensive coordinator and Niumatalolo has said that Jasper will be the one calling the plays from the booth. If the offensive line comes along, Kaheauku-Enhada stays healthy and Bryant can help replace some of what Campbell brought, Navy could be just as good on offense as it was last year.
Defensively, the strength of the team could be the secondary, which should come as a surprise since Navy ranked 106th against the pass (263.4 yards) in 2007. Senior cornerbacks Rashawn King (6-0, 180) and Ketric Buffin (5-7, 168) have starting experience along with sophomore free safety Wyatt Middleton (6-0, 192) and senior rover Jeff Deliz (5-11, 210).
King had 53 tackles in 10 games last year and despite his size, Buffin is one of the hardest hitters on the team. Middleton was second on the team in tackles last year with 88 and Deliz was named as team captain before going down with an injury in the second game of the season. Sophomore Emmett Merchant (5-9, 186) and juniors Blake Carter (5-11, 185), Jesse Iwuji (6-1, 182) and Darius Terry (5-7, 168) give Navy the depth that has been missing in past years.
Navy, which employs a 3-4 scheme, returns two of its three defenders up front, led by senior defensive end Michael Walsh (6-2, 257). Walsh led Navy with 10.5 tackles for a loss, including three sacks, last year. Junior Nate Frazier (6-3, 287) is the returning starter at the nose. Frazier had 42 tackles, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage, last year. The other end, junior Matt Nechak (6-4, 249), played in all 13 games last year and is solid. Junior Kyle Bookhout (6-2, 247) and sophomore Maurice Cumberland (6-4, 25) will rotate at end with junior Jordan Stephens (6-4, 263) spelling Frazier.
Linebacker Clint Sovie (5-11, 210) may have been the Midshipmen's most talented defender last year, but like Deliz, he went down with an injury in the loss to Rutgers. Sovie is back for his junior season and will hold down the interior linebacker spots with classmate Ross Pospisil (6-0, 223). Pospisil had 67 tackles as a sophomore and will be backed up junior Tony Haberer (6-1, 225).
Junior Craig Schaefer (6-2, 222) has a lock on one of the starting outside linebacker positions with sophomore Corey Johnson (6-2, 205) and junior Ram Vela (5-9, 193) competing for the other. Vela had 57 tackles last year, while Johnson recorded 20. Like most positions, Navy is a bit undersized at linebacker.
Navy's defense will need to get in a groove early as they open with games against Towson, Ball State and Duke. If the defense hasn't settled in by then, it could be in for long days against Rutgers, Wake Forest and Pitt before facing the Irish.
The biggest issue on special teams is the loss of Campbell in the return game. Merchant and White are listed as kickoff returners with Bryant and sophomore receiver Mario Washington (5-9, 184) in line to catch punts.
Navy lost its punter, Greg Veteto to graduation, but that should not be a big deal as the Midshipmen punted fewer times (1.6 per game) than any other team in the country last year. Sophomore Kyle Delahooke will replace Veteto.
The triple-option and ball control offense that the Midshipmen run frustrates all of their opponents, but if the Irish can remain patient and not try to press too early, they should be able start building up another win streak.