Football practice started two weeks ago. Media day is done, the first scrimmage is in the books, and the season is officially underway. Usually around this time I start blathering about how the summer felt so short and that I’m not sure if I’m ready to start again blah blah blah. That mess won’t fly this year, since I basically took the second half of last season off. I might end up doing the same thing this year, but for now I’ll fool myself into thinking that I’m gung-ho. Time to get crackin’. I have a lot of work to catch up on. The next week will be dedicated to clearing out my DVR and putting a bunch of games on DVD. That, and maybe I should actually write a thing or two. LOLLERS LET’S NOT GET TOO FAR AHEAD OF OURSELVES.
Anyway, a new season brings all the usual questions as we try to sift through the unknown. How do the new players look, how are the position battles shaping up, how do you fight complacency… You know the drill. This year it also brings a few not-so-usual questions too, as the Mids come into 2011 with someone else on the top of the service academy heap for the first time in a long time. The last time a Navy team started the season without the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in Bancroft Hall, most of the current plebe class was entering fifth grade. It’s a weird feeling. If you’re in search of silver linings, that probably takes care of the whole “complacency” thing. The other questions are in the process of being sorted out.
Most of those questions come on the defensive side of the ball, where Jabaree Tuani, Max Blue, and Kwesi Mitchell are the only starters returning from a year ago. The last time we saw this kind of turnover was 2007, and those were some dark days. That was a bit of a different situation, though, since a slew of injuries pressed a bunch of freshmen and sophomores into starting roles. That isn’t the case this year. Of course, I said the exact same thing going into last year, and while the 2010 defense wasn’t anywhere near as bad as they were in 2007, they were incredibly erratic. Against Maryland, the run defense let everything through like it would’ve been impolite not to. A week later against Georgia Southern, they were fantastic. If tackling is an art, then the Notre Dame game was the Louvre while the Duke game the following week was more like those galleries that show crucifixes made of poop. Sure, you could say that some of the inconsistency stemmed from who they were playing, but we even saw Jekyll & Hyde performances in the same game like in the first and second halves against SMU. It was crazy, and it’ll be hard to build consistency in 2011 with the unit breaking in 8 new starters.
Hard, but not impossible. When you look at Navy’s recruiting classes over the last 2-3 years, the majority of the players that had other I-A offers were on the defensive side of the ball. Athletically, the defense is as good it’s ever been. And while there aren’t many returning starters, that doesn’t mean these guys are devoid of experience, especially on the defensive line. It’s the linebackers that are the biggest unknown, but the coaches have said a lot of good things about Jarred Shannon and Mason Graham, and the inside linebackers all stood out because of their hard work in the offseason strength and conditioning program. The pieces look like they’re in place, so there’s a reason for a measure of optimism. Anything more than that would just be blind faith.
The offense is a different story, with 4 returning starters on the offensive line, both starting slotbacks, Alex Teich at fullback, and a senior quarterback in Kriss Proctor that has seen plenty of reps and knows the offense cold. Aaron Santiago is finally healthy, and together with Gee Gee Greene they give the Mids a one-two punch at slot that we haven’t seen since Reggie and Zerb. The entire slotback rotation is stacked, for that matter. Even the wide receivers have been making plays in practice, although with Proctor not exactly known as a gunslinger it’s unlikely that they’ll be catching as many passes as they did last year.
The passing game might be the only potential hiccup in this offense. There was a time when Navy fans held their collective breath whenever the Mids dropped back to pass, but that changed a bit with Ricky Dobbs at quarterback. Ricky had a strong and accurate arm that made passing a viable and routine alternative in the Navy arsenal. While that kind of passing ability is more of a luxury than a necessity in this scheme, you do need to be able to connect on play action downfield. Navy’s defensive philosophy revolves around preventing the big play, with the idea that the more snaps you force an offense to take, the more likely they are to make a mistake. The same applies to the Navy offense as well; more snaps, more opportunity for error. That’s why you have to take advantage of big plays in the passing game when that’s what the defense is giving you. Remember the Delaware game in 2003? The Blue Hens completely sold out on the option and ignored pass defense altogether. Early on, the Mids were able to take advantage and shot out to a 14-0 lead after Craig Candeto connected with Eric Roberts on a long TD pass. But Delaware stuck to their game plan, and the Mids weren’t able to make those pass plays consistently. They would end up losing to Delaware 21-17. Last year, when Louisiana Tech tried the same thing, the Mids responded with 219 yards passing and a 37-23 win.
Kriss doesn’t have to throw like Ricky to make this offense go, but he does have to throw well enough to at least give the defense something to think about. He’s been compared to Kaipo more than once due to their mutual grasp of the offense. Something else Kaipo was known for early in his career was having a noodle arm. By the time he graduated, though, Kaipo had developed into a pretty good passer. It rarely looked pretty when he dropped back to throw, but it was effective. If Kriss can even come close to making that kind of progress, this might be the best Navy offense of the last decade. If not, it’ll still be pretty good. It will have to be with the schedule that the Mids will be facing this year.
So that’s how I see things coming into 2011. Thoughts?