I’m not gonna lie: I don’t always look forward to the start of football season. Football season means, like, writing and stuff. Summer means doing nothing and being lazy, two things that hold tremendous appeal for me. I don’t remember much from physics class, but I do remember that an object at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an external force. You have no idea how well I imitate an object at rest. Wait, you totally know because I go months at a time without writing anything. Never mind.
Anyway, the preseason feeling of dread doesn’t last very long. Once pads start poppin’, it’s hard not to get excited. This year is no exception, and now that practice has been underway for a week, we can see how a few key positions are shaping up. Here’s what I’m watching in fall camp.
Inside Linebacker – This is the obvious one, since it’s the only unit that doesn’t include a returning starter. Things aren’t off to a great start either, with medical issues forcing Maika Polamalu to retire. That hurts, both in terms of the position’s depth– Maika was practicing with the ones– but more importantly on a human level. You hate to see when a guy can’t end his career on his own terms, and I’m sure you all join me in wishing Maika all the best.
Most of the preseason talk has centered around Jordan Drake, probably because he’s the one guy we’ve actually seen play. Well, at another position of course. While Drake played well at OLB, the depth at that position plus the lack of experience inside made Jordan a prime candidate for a switch. He has reportedly played well so far, but there’s a learning curve. Coach Johns had a good interview that was posted to NavySports.com touching on the differences between playing outside vs. inside linebacker. The coaches seem optimistic on Drake’s potential, but emphasize that he’s a work in progress. Also, don’t sleep on sophomore Daniel Gonzales, who was a standout player at NAPS. James Britton is still in the mix as well.
They all need to learn quickly, because they’ll get a baptism by fire in week one.
UPDATE: Apparently Maika Polamalu is back.
Slotback – We know what we have in Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders, and Demond Brown. It’s probably safe to assume that they’re pretty settled in the rotation. The question now is how big the rotation is going to be. The depth chart tends to be sort of meaningless with the A-backs. A guy might not start, but if he’s ready to play, he’s going to get onto the field in some capacity. By the end of last year, once Ryan Williams-Jenkins was healthy, the slots were going 6-deep with those four plus Marcus Thomas and Darius Staten.
There’s lots of potential here. We didn’t see much of Ryan Williams-Jenkins last year because of his ACL injury, but when he finally did play I thought he acquitted himself well in limited opportunities. He had already played himself into the rotation at the time he got hurt, so you’d think that by being healthy through a full fall camp, he’d be able to play his way in again. Toneo Gulley was a highly recruited guy with lots of other FBS offers, especially from MAC schools. It might be exciting to see what he brings to the table. He’s been banged up, but hopefully not too seriously. Dishan Romine is another highly recruited guy that originally committed to Western Kentucky. He was mentioned by almost everyone in those “Meet the Mid” player features on as the fastest player on the team. We’ll see if that translates into playing time.
Slotback is also a position where we’ve seen freshmen able to get some playing time over the years, with guys like Gee Gee Greene, Reggie Campbell, and Karlos Whittaker making an impact as plebes. It’ll probably be difficult for any to break through this year with the depth we have at the position, though. As recruiting has steadily improved over the years, so has the depth. It’s only going to get harder for plebes to break through as time goes on.
Fullback – It might seem a little odd to mention fullback here since this is probably THE most settled position on the team. I think it’s worth mentioning, though, because I feel that this could be a big season for Chris Swain’s development.
Fullback is sort of underrated when we talk about difficult positions to learn in this offense. We talk about the quarterback’s reads all the time, but he isn’t the only one making a read after the snap on an option play. The fullback does too, reading the first down lineman inside the B-gap. If the DL goes left, the FB goes right, and vice versa. It’s a very fast read, and it’s so similar to the quarterback’s first option read that you might recall that QBs and FBs used to share the same position coach. Now that I think about it, they still do at Georgia Tech.
When Coach Judge talks about consistency, this is what he means. He is referring to how well the B-backs make these reads. We know how much of a physical specimen Chris Swain is. We all saw him go bonkers against Arizona State. Over the season, though, he hasn’t been able to run like that consistently. For every long run he had, there would be five more where he hit a pile and ran for 1 yard. Of the three starting fullbacks last season, Swain actually had the lowest average yards per carry. Copeland and Singleton both did a much better job getting regular 4-6-yard runs that kept the chains moving. You can have all the physical talent in the world, but without the ability to make those reads, you’ll never be able to apply that talent. It’s not about “moving the pile,” because at that point the play is more or less done. It’s not about moving a pile 2 yards; it’s about avoiding the pile and running for 5 yards.
Of course, Swain was also the youngest of the three, and as you look to Navy fullbacks of the past, the light went on for many of them in their junior year. Will the same hold true for Swain? If so, then the offense has the potential for fullback production like we’ve never seen.
Secondary – This might be another odd position to mention, but I’m curious to see if we have any position changes. The DBs are another position where the depth chart is pretty meaningless, since the coaches don’t really separate the corners from the safeties. They’re just looking to get the four best players on the field regardless of what position they’re listed at. Three of the four positions are probably settled, but the loss of Wave Ryder to graduation leaves a hole at the rover safety position. If neither Lonnie Richardson or Lorentez Barbour takes charge and claims the spot, I would expect either Kwazel Bertrand or Quincy Adams to have a go at the position. They were listed as co-starters after spring ball, and both have a considerable amount of in-game experience. That would be the most experienced lineup that Coach Green could put on the field.
Quarterback – How will Tago Smith do with a full fall camp running with the twos? He made the move to quarterback in mid-season, but with a full spring and fall at the position, he should come a long way.
I also wonder where John Hendrick fits into the picture once he’s healthy again. He caught a lot of flack after the Western Kentucky game, but as I pointed out back then, I didn’t feel it was deserved. It reminded me of how people reacted after the Rutgers game in 2006. That was the Brian Hampton injury game. Kaipo replaced him, but the offense couldn’t do a thing. People were screaming for Jarod Bryant to take over instead based on that performance. And this was Kaipo! The guy who knew the offense better than anyone!
Hendrick might not be Kaipo, but he probably shouldn’t be judged based on that one game, either. He played very well against Delaware (I know, it’s Delaware, but still). He had risen to #2 on the depth chart for a reason. I think he could get back into the mix, or at least I hope he does. How rusty he is and how well he can perform physically after the injury are yet to be seen, though.
Wide receiver – There has been a lot of talk about all the big wide receivers on the roster, with four guys listed at 6-4. So far, only Jamir Tillman is listed on the depth chart. Will the other guys play their way in?
Kick returner – Finally, we have the special teams, where there are some large shoes to fill after Marcus Thomas’ excellent performance last season. I expect to see the coaches experiment with several players leading up to Ohio State.