Football teams are built up the middle. That maxim is more commonly mentioned in baseball, but it’s as true on the gridiron as the diamond.
That’s our starting point in an attempt to determine the non-quarterback keystone for Navy, which is trying to replenish an offense that lost quarterback Keenan Reynolds — among 10 starters — to graduation.
The only returning starter is senior wide receiver Jamir Tillman, but his experience comes with conditions. In the passing game, offensive linemen must provide the quarterback time to get him the ball, and the QB has to be accurate. In the triple-option, the running backs have to be shifty and read his blocks to gain added downfield yards.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo named Tago Smith as Reynolds’ successor as early as spring football in 2015, so the Midshipmen’s confidence in the senior is obvious. Yet, it doesn’t take Vince Lombardi to identify quarterback as the most important position on a football field.
Let’s look elsewhere to single out the spot most crucial to Navy continuing its run of 12 bowl trips in the past 13 seasons. Navy is coming off an 11-2 season, a tie for the AAC West title, a win over Pitt in the Military Bowl, and a No. 18 national ranking in the AP and USA Today polls.
That takes us to fullback.
Shawn White, a 6-foot-1, 255-pound senior from Palm Coast (Florida) Mantanzas, emerged from spring drills as the starting fullback. He heard high praise from Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper.
That was last spring. The latest depth chart released on Aug. 21 lists junior Chris High (6-0, 224) as No. 1. White is listed with senior Myles Swain (5-11, 223) as “or” for No. 2 on the depth chart.
Whoever starts the season opener on Sept. 3 against Fordham at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, he must prove he’s a threat up the middle as well as a blocker. It’s vital to the deception-based element of the triple-option offense.
The quarterback takes the snap and reads if the defense is playing outside or inside. If it’s outside he feeds the fullback to pound the ball up the middle. In the triple-option, that can lead to the fullback breaking off long runs more commonly than in a traditional offense.
If the fullback is pounding the defensive line effectively, the quarterback has options of keeping the ball or pitching to a slot back for yardage running wide. In either case, the fullback is counted on to pick off a defender pursuing the ball.
The three main fullback candidates for Navy have limited experience, but White has the most of the trio. He has rushed 28 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns in three seasons. Most of his experience has been on special teams, but that has more to do with who he was stuck behind on the depth chart than his talent.
Last season Chris Swain (Myles Swain’s older brother) parlayed 1,023 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns into a free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers. The 6-1, 245-pounder averaged 4.8 yards per carry with a long run of 52 yards.
In White’s limited snaps last year, he carried 19 times for 84 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 4.4 yards a carry with a long run of 17. High carried five times for 31 yards. Myles Swain hasn’t played in a game yet.
Although there are five new offensive linemen, whoever the starting fullback turns out to be can benefit from older players in the middle on the latest depth chart: junior center Parker Wade (6-2, 271), senior left guard Adam West (6-3, 297), and junior right guard Evan Martin (6-3, 294).
Football is never as simple as being strong up the middle, but fullback is Navy’s non-quarterback keystone to replacing 10 starters in 2016.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055