Navy coach Paul Johnson promised his first-year players would have plenty to say about the Midshipmen's fate this fall, and the newcomers quickly have begun to pay dividends.
Although Saturday's 37-10, season-opening rout of Virginia Military Institute at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium belonged largely to veterans such as senior quarterback Craig Candeto, senior slot backs Tony Lane and Eric Roberts, junior fullback Kyle Eckel and junior defensive end Jeff Vanak, the plebes asserted themselves.
Navy kicked off with the youngest team in academy history by dressing 14 freshmen. They were more than just padded bodies.
There was freshman wide receiver Jason Tomlinson, catching three passes for 65 yards. His first reception marked the first pass completion of the game. His 47-yard catch on a third-and-five play set up the Midshipmen's fourth touchdown late in the first half.
There was return man Brian Hampton, who brought back two kickoffs for 60 yards. Outside linebacker David Mahoney had two tackles. Slot back Trey Hines carried twice for 7 yards. Keenan Little took over at No. 3 cornerback, after injuries sidelined veteran backups Hunter Reddick and Marcus Sanders, each of whom has been ruled out for Saturday's game at 25th-ranked Texas Christian.
"Normally, you'd feel awkward being out there for the first time. It felt like everything came together like it's supposed to. I was just playing," said Tomlinson, who could end up in the starting lineup before long. "It feels good to know [Johnson] has confidence in me. I have to keep in trust in me."
Hampton, who shares kickoff return time with Eckel - he rushed for a career-high 129 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday - might unseat junior Lionel Wesley as the Midshipmen's No. 1 punt returner. Wesley's lost fumble early in the second half sparked VMI's first scoring drive and allowed the Keydets to cut the lead to 28-7.
"It doesn't matter what you do or how you return [the ball] if you don't hold on to it," Johnson said. "We have to evaluate that position really hard."
Big challenge on the way
Navy's margin for error shrinks dramatically this week with its visit to TCU. The Horned Frogs, who defeated Tulane last night, 38-35, had the nation's top-ranked defense last year, are favored to win a Conference USA title and are one of only 18 schools to play in a bowl game in each of the past five seasons.
"They might be the best football team we've played since I've been here. They've got some guys that can really motor," said Johnson, who is in his second year in Annapolis. "I'd put them on par with N.C. State [a 65-19 winner over Navy a year ago]. It will be a challenge all the way around. We'll have to play better than we did last week just to give ourselves a chance."
When asked if coming back to play another game just five days after opening their season could hurt the Horned Frogs, Johnson said, "Clearly, they weren't too worried about it, or else they wouldn't have scheduled it."
Eckel grabs starting spot
With his performance on Saturday, Eckel has moved ahead of the pack in the battle for playing time at fullback.
Junior Michael Brimage has nearly recovered from a foot injury. Senior Bronston Carroll started against VMI and gained 28 yards on eight carries. Eckel put his stamp on the competition with a 42-yard, fourth-quarter run to set up Navy's fifth touchdown. He finished by averaging 7.6 yards on 17 carries.
"Kyle will probably start [at TCU]. He's earned it," Johnson said. "One game does not make a season, but I was encouraged."