It’s time for the first annual Birddog Navy Football Awards. They won’t get you a sword or a watch at the football banquet, but they’re easily the most prestigious Navy football awards to come out of Jacksonville. The players got digital camcorders from the Meineke Car Care Bowl and PSPs from the Poinsettia Bowl, but from The Birddog they get praise from an internet fan. And we all know that’s what really matters. I don’t have a name for these awards yet like the “Birdies” or the “Doggies” because I figure that having a blog already makes me enough of a nerd. If you can come up with a name that doesn’t suck, please don’t hesitate to suggest it. I won’t hold my breath. Anyway, on with the superlatives.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada
This one is a no-brainer. When the offense has to be perfect in order for the team to have a chance to win, it puts tremendous pressure on the quarterback. Kaipo didn’t just get by in these conditions; he thrived. He had long touchdown runs against Temple, Ball State, and Air Force. He threw the ball all over the place against Duke. He was unflappable against Notre Dame. His game against Pittsburgh might have been the most complete performance by a Navy quarterback in a generation, with 122 yards and a touchdown rushing on top of 9-12 passing for 166 yards and two more touchdowns. For the season, Kaipo ran for 834 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding another 952 yards through the air and 8 touchdowns.
But it isn’t individual statistical dominance that sets Kaipo apart. What makes Kaipo special is his mastery of the finer points of Paul Johnson’s offense. Kaipo might be one of the most underappreciated players in Navy history. He does all the little things that you can’t really see. Things like reading the body positioning of the pitch key to tell if it would be better to fake the pitch than give it to the slotback. Things like understanding the big picture of the offense. Things like staying in Annapolis all summer to run pass skeleton drills, which led to a 154.46 pass efficiency rating. Under Kaipo’s direction, the Navy offense broke a 90-year old school record by scoring 497 points. Good thing too, because anything less would’ve resulted in a very different season for the Mids.
Kaipo is Navy’s best option quarterback since Chris McCoy. If the offensive line can pick up next year where they’ve left off, then one day we’ll be talking about someone being the best Navy quarterback since Kaipo.
Defensive Player of the Year
LB Irv Spencer
Before the start of the 2003 season, Paul Johnson talked a little about his decision to switch to a 3-4 defense:
I think it fits our personnel better. I think the one thing about recruiting here, we seem to be able to find a lot of guys that are 210-235 that are better athletes. It’s hard for us to find guys that weigh 275 and above that are good athletes here. It’s just not conducive to big guys. If you have three down linemen and four linebackers, it gives you more of a chance to put some of our better athletes on the field. It will give us more team speed. I think it just fits what we have personnel wise better.
Athletic defensive linemen are tough to find at any school, never mind at a service academy. It made sense to switch to a defensive alignment that emphasized linebacker play more than that of the defensive line. The result has been a long line of excellent linebackers in Annapolis; players like David Mahoney, Eddie Carthan, Lane Jackson, Rob Caldwell, Tyler Tidwell, and Bobby McClarin. It isn’t surprising, then, that the top defensive player in 2007 is one more link in the linebacker chain.
Irv Spencer was the lone bright spot of consistency on the Mids’ defensive unit in a season where consistency, to put it mildly, was hard to come by. Irv led the team with 95 tackles, including 4 games with 10 or more. No trait is more desirable in a defender than running to the ball, and Irv did it better than anyone; he showed tremendous ability in both attacking the line of scrimmage and dropping into pass coverage. Not only was he second on the team in tackles for loss (8.5), but he had more than twice as many pass breakups as anyone else on the team (7). Irv hit like a ton of bricks and stepped into a leadership position when team captain Jeff Deliz was lost for the season.
With the substandard performance of the defense as a whole, Irv might not get the credit that he deserves for the way he played this year. That would be a shame. When Navy fans talk about Buddy Green’s best linebackers, Irv Spencer’s name should be on everyone’s list.
Special Teams Player of the Year
PR/KR Reggie Campbell
For three years, Reggie Campbell has been Navy’s big-play man. Whether it was scoring 5 touchdowns in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl, ripping off long runs against Army or Air Force, or streaking past the UConn secondary on a long TD catch, Reggie Campbell was a one-man momentum changer for the Mids. It wasn’t just the big plays that made Reggie special, either. Walk past football practice on any given afternoon and you’d probably hear coaches saying, “Slots, watch how Reggie does this.” Reggie got playing time for four years not just because of what he did with the ball, but also for what he did without it. Reggie was an excellent blocker, and never gave up on a play. How often did we see someone else break off a long run with a Reggie Campbell escort down the field? Number 7 did everything on offense.
Things were a little different this year, though. Reggie led the team in receptions and still ran for 522 yards and 5 TDs, but he didn’t seem to have the same kind of offensive impact that he did in ’05 and ’06. That’s kind of the way things go in this offense; when people key in on one guy, it opens up the door for everyone else. Even though the ball didn’t find its way to Reggie as often on offense this year, he still had a huge impact on the team. With the offense needing to score points in bunches, field position was crucial. That’s where Reggie made his greatest contribution this season. He averaged 27.45 yards per kickoff return, good enough to rank in the top 20 nationally. Before this season, Navy hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996; in 2007, Reggie had two. And they came at very opportune moments. His first TD return sealed the victory against North Texas. His second crushed Army’s momentum after their only scoring drive of the game. That wasn’t Reggie’s only impressive return against Army; his sideline balancing act on a punt return at the end of the first half set up a Joey Bullen field goal that might have been the knockout punch in the game. Reggie was so effective that he gave Navy good field position even when he didn’t return the ball. Attempts to kick away from Reggie led to several kickoffs going out of bounds. For the first time in years, Navy had a return man that opposing coaches feared.
Reggie Campbell leaves Navy second on the school’s career all-purpose yardage list, behind only Napoleon McCallum. Considering that McCallum was the NCAA leader in career all-purpose yards by the time he graduated, that’s a pretty incredible accomplishment.
Most Improved Player
DE Michael Walsh
The ideal 3-4 defensive lineman is big. Really big. The main idea behind a 3-4 defense is for your linemen to absorb blocks so that linebackers are free to make plays. Bigger players tend to be better block sponges. In fact, many NFL 3-4 defensive ends, such as the Chargers’ Luis Castillo, played defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment in college. So when Michael Walsh tips the scales at 6-2, 239, it’s safe to say that he isn’t exactly the prototypical 3-4 defensive end.
Even though he’s the size of the average I-A linebacker, Michael Walsh has become Navy’s best defensive lineman. He got better as the season progressed, and played his best in Navy’s biggest games. It started with a 10-tackle performance against Air Force, including three for a loss. He had a tackle for a loss against Pitt. He had two sacks against Notre Dame, including a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Chris Kuhar-Pitters. He had 9 tackles and a sack against Northern Illinois, and 8 tackles against Army. In the end, Michael led Navy’s defensive line with 57 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (tied Matt Wimsatt with 3). Walsh’s performance was reminiscent of another undersized lineman at Navy, Jeff Vanak. Walsh is only a junior, so the improvement he showed over the course of this season is very encouraging for 2008.
Rookie of the Year
DB Wyatt Middleton
Wyatt sort of wins this award by default. Honestly, he had as many bad games as good games. But in a year where the defensive lineup was different every week, Wyatt Middleton was a constant. He registered 88 tackles, good for 2nd on the team. No freshman contributed as much as Wyatt this year.
The Jason Van Matre Award
QB Troy Goss
Troy Goss was a star quarterback in high school. As a junior, he threw for 2,405 yards and 27 touchdowns. In his senior year, he exploded. Troy led Burns High school to a 12-2 record with 2,326 yards passing and 28 TDs while throwing only four interceptions. On the ground, he averaged more than 9 yards per carry, running for 1,668 yards and 25 more touchdowns. He was unstoppable, or as one writer put it, “the best quarterback in North Carolina not named Chris Leak.” The North Carolina High School Athletic Association agreed, naming Troy their 3-A Mr. Football award winner (Leak won 4-A that year). So it was with high hopes that he came to the Naval Academy.
Things didn’t really work out as planned, though. Following Troy through Gate 1 was another Mr. Football, Jarod Bryant, and Kaipo, whose ascension to the starting quarterback role almost seemed to be the product of destiny. With those two ahead of him, Troy remained buried on the depth chart.
Every once in a while, you’ll find a player that is determined to contribute. A guy who doesn’t care what he does as long as it helps the team. Troy became that guy. Last year, when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to factor into the quarterback depth chart, Troy switched to wide receiver. After Brian Hampton was lost for the season, he switched back to quarterback to be #3 behind Kaipo and Jarod. He did so well that when 2007 came around, Coach Johnson decided to keep him at QB rather than switch him back to receiver. But Troy was still intent on finding a way to get on the field. He found his niche on special teams. Troy was on the punt team, recorded a tackle, and even ran a fake. He was also Joey Bullen’s holder on extra points & field goals– and with the skin-of-our-teeth kind of games that Navy was involved in this year, that was a very important job. The icing on the cake was the final posession of the Army game, when Troy led the offense on a nice drive that ran out the clock.
It was a fitting way for a player like Troy Goss to go out. Troy Goss is the personification of turning lemons into lemonade. His devotion to the team is exactly what the Navy football brotherhood is all about.
(Jason Van Matre, for those who might be new to Navy football, was one of the players I grew up idolizing. An option quarterback
under recruited by Elliot Uzelac, he didn’t really fit in George Chaump’s pass-oriented offense. He changed positions and became a pretty good tailback. This award is about swallowing your pride and putting the team first.)
Play of the Year
Like there’s any doubt:
There were actually a lot of huge plays this year if you think about it. Hell, there were a lot of huge plays in the Notre Dame game alone. But there’s one play that Navy fans will still be talking about 30 years from now. I suppose an argument could be made for the 2-point conversion stop, but the sheer badassness of Ram’s leap wins out. Here’s what I said about it at the time:
The way the Naval Academy motivates you to train is through fear. That sounds bad, but it isn’t. The very first thing that you’re taught as you walk through the gates on I-Day is that you, as an individual, no longer matter. You are simply a part of a team, and your own successes and failures are irrelevant next to those of the team. Ship, shipmate, self, as the saying goes. You train not to better yourself, but to better the team. And that’s where the fear comes in; you train because you are scared to death of letting down your teammates.
Enter Ram Vela. The Navy defense, leading Notre Dame 28-21 late in the 4th quarter, had forced the Irish to a 4th & 14 on their own 32 yard line. Ram came in untouched on a blitz. Just when it looked like he was going to get a sack that would have probably sealed a Navy victory, quarterback Evan Sharpley sidestepped the rush and delivered the ball to tight end John Carlson for a 1st down. Ram missed the tackle, and it gave Notre Dame new life. It could have been a catastrophic mistake. But on yet another 4th down play, Ram Vela was sent in on a blitz once again. This time, Vela had a blocker in his path. As the tailback went to block low, Vela would not be denied. The result was the above play, which will live forever as part of Navy football legend. Vela would not let down his teammates. He would not be stopped by any blocker. He would not be stopped by gravity. He would do his job. In the end, it was actually Chris Kuhar-Pitters who would get credit for the sack, which was a tremendous play of his own. But Vela taking flight will be the lasting image of the “not this time” attitude that defined the Navy team in this game.
This play is a symbol of the attitude of the Navy team, and is the easy choice for play of the year.
Game of the Year
9/22– Navy 46, Duke 43
I know, I know… How is this not Notre Dame? Especially since I just talked about Ram Vela’s play as the one that Navy fans will be talking about for years to come. Obviously, the same can be said about the Notre Dame game as a whole. Yet I chose the Duke game because, in my opinion, there might not have been a win over Notre Dame if Navy didn’t pull this one out. There might not have been another Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy or a trip to San Diego, either. Let’s set the stage.
Navy had lost two in a row coming into the Duke game. The second of those two losses was at home to Ball State, a game that Navy should have won in regulation but fumbled away in overtime. Again, what I said at the time:
The importance of this game can’t be overstated. The confidence gained or lost from winning or losing will have a huge impact in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy battle next week. Win, and Navy is back on track. Lose, and you’re 1-3 with doubt creeping in and a likely 3-1 Air Force team coming to town. We hear Paul Johnson say all the time that the most important game of the season is the next one. This week, that couldn’t be more true.
(I apologize for recycling so much of my old stuff… I look at this postseason awards thing as sort of like a flashback episode on a sitcom. I’m definitely mailing it in on this one.)
How different would the season have been if Navy started 1-3 with losses to Ball State and Duke at home? Maybe you believe in momentum, maybe you don’t. But I think that a big reason why we didn’t see any offense vs. defense divisiveness in the locker room was because the team was winning. Winning keeps everyone in a good mood. Or, to paraphase something that Paul Johnson said, it’s easier to fix problems when you win. Not only that, but it was one hell of a game! Kaipo was slinging the ball all over the place. Unfortunately, so was his Duke counterpart, as Thaddeus Lewis threw for a career-high 428 yards and 4 touchdowns. Navy was down 11 in the 4th quarter, but a Ketric Buffin interception gave the Mids the opportunity they needed to get back on the pace.
If things had turned out differently against Notre Dame, then there were plays in this game that could easily have been called “play of the year.” Kaipo to OJ for 44 yards and Navy’s first touchdown. Bobby Doyle’s pass back to Jarod Bryant for a touchdown that tied the game after a 2-point conversion. Bryant’s incredible, winding QB draw after Ketric’s interception that went for 35 yards and set up Joey Bullen’s game-winning field goal. And then there was the field goal itself.
It was a huge game defined by huge plays and a spirited comeback that set the tone for the rest of the year. It didn’t end a multi-decade streak, but the Duke game gets my nod for Game of the Year.
OK, so that’s everything. Feel free to name your own, as well as give me some more categories for next year. I feel like I should be giving the offensive line an award because they were un-friggin-believable this year, but I don’t know how to categorize it. Suggestions for how I can remedy this oversight are more than welcome.