A game has yet to be played in 2015, but Navy has already garnered plenty of respect in the American simply by joining the conference. Well, actually, it probably has something to do with the fact that the Midshipmen have won at least eight games in six of the last seven seasons, and bring a whole new national audience to the league as a federal service academy.
Another large part of the hype is the presence of senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who I’m sure you have read/heard by now holds the all-time rushing touchdown record for quarterbacks with 64, and is chasing down Montee Ball’s overall career rushing touchdown record of 77. Obviously Reynolds is facing some huge expectations heading into this fall, and has already received some buzz as a potential AAC Offensive Player of the Year and/or national award candidate.
But, for Navy to be successful as a team, it’s going to take more than just excellent performances from Reynolds, and luckily for the Middies, they have the other ingredients for a winning recipe.
I found this interesting note on Navy’s head coach, Ken Niumatalolo, when reading Paul Myerberg’s AAC preview for USA Today a couple weeks back:
“Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo is one of nine active coaches in the FBS to lead their current program in career wins. Now 57-35 since the start of the 2008 season, Niumatalolo passed former Navy coach George Welsh last season; fittingly, he did so with a win against Army. The others: Frank Beamer, Pat Fitzgerald, Mike Gundy, Gary Patterson, Gary Pinkel, Bill Snyder, Steve Spurrier and Bob Stoops.”
Talk about good company. Those guys are all pretty much “A-Listers” in the college coaching ranks, and Niumatalolo certainly deserves to be there, especially considering he’s done it in the face of the many challenges associated with coaching at the Naval Academy.
Niumatalolo’s ubiquitous influence penetrates every aspect of Navy’s program, and his intense yet serene presence on the Midshipmen sideline exudes confidence in his and his players’ abilities to succeed. But don’t talk to him about offseason praise.
“I never look at preseason rankings. Ultimately, you have to play the games on the field and that is what counts,” he said of Navy’s votes in the American media days poll. “It’s exciting, but it doesn’t really mean a whole lot. I don’t pay much attention to that stuff.”
Reynolds has more than a supporting cast around him on offense. The guys he lines up with are real players with their minds set on making plays. Familiarity and known roles are the keys to this Navy backfield in the triple option offense, as Reynolds is joined by two other seniors.
Fullback Chris Swain is a hard-nosed bruiser, who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work bludgeoning the middle of opposing defenses. The 245-pound back increased his efficiency last season, as he raised his average per carry to 6.7 from 3.9 in 2013, despite having three less carries. With Noah Copeland’s 129 carries, 952 yards and five touchdowns moving on, I’d expect Swain’s numbers to increase across the board in his final season.
On the flip-side, slot back DeBrandon Sanders is known for his game-breaking speed and agility, making him a threat to take any pitch from Reynolds to the house. Despite only carrying the ball 71 times over the last two seasons, Sanders has racked up 571 yards to average just over eight per carry and scored four touchdowns. He’s also been a threat as a receiver, having caught 15 balls for 290 yards (19.3 per reception) and two touchdowns.
While this offense is naturally run-heavy, don’t discount Navy’s ability to make big plays in the passing game as well, especially with a talent like Jamir Tillman at wide receiver. The 6-foot-4 junior showed his downfield acumen last year, hauling in 20 balls for 386 yards (19.3 per reception) with a long of 67 and three touchdowns.
Defense Hungry for Redemption
Last season, the Midshipmen allowed 4.95 yards per rush (100th in the FBS) and 5.83 yards per play (90th). Both of those numbers could skyrocket in the offensive-minded AAC, especially considering the four departures in their front seven, and specifically the big-time one of Paul Quessenberry.
However, Navy can expect solid play up the middle from junior linebacker Daniel Gonzales (second on the team in tackles with 86 in 2014) and senior nose guard Bernie Sarra. On the outside, 6-foot-1, 254-pound senior Will Anthony is looking to build on a solid junior campaign, during which he amassed 11 tackles for loss.
In the secondary, experience runs deep. Junior cornerback Brendon Clements has started 20 straight games, made 107 career tackles, and broken up eight passes. Quincy Adams was Clements’s running mate last season, as he started every game en route to earning honorable mention All-Independent honors. I would also expect senior safety Kwazel Bertrand to be a factor, as he has started 16 games over the last two seasons and the Midshipmen will need someone to fill the void left by Parrish Gaines.
Sarra is looking forward to the challenge of joining a league and setting a tone for the program going forward.
“I definitely think we’ll be able to compete. We’re really looking forward to the first year and trying to build our identity within the conference,” said the defensive captain during AAC media days.