Fresh ingredients adding zing as Navy whips up a winner

Freshmen making impact as Mids' youngest team off to 3-2 start, best since '96

College Football

October 09, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Everything has happened so quickly for Navy freshman safety Kevin Newsome.

One minute, he was winding up his days at Raines High School in Jacksonville, Fla. The next, he was battling the rugged, two-month academy introduction known as plebe summer.

Then, suddenly, Newsome was playing before crowds exceeding 30,000, in games more fast-paced than anything he had ever known.

"It's a process of getting out there, tasting it, seeing how fast everybody was running around," Newsome said. "It seems like a dream, with how fast it's happened."

Newsome is far from alone in Annapolis, where youth is making an unusual play and fueling Navy's resurgence.

Second-year coach Paul Johnson has the Midshipmen (3-2) off to their best start since 1996, which was the last time Navy made it to a bowl game. From the outset of the season, Johnson did not hide the notion that the kids would have a presence on his team, and his plan is on schedule.

This is the youngest team in the history of Navy, where there is no such thing as a redshirt freshman, where first-year players typically spend their inaugural seasons on the junior varsity squad.

The varsity has dressed no fewer than 12 freshmen this fall. The Mids dressed a record 15 first-year players for Saturday's 28-25 upset victory over Air Force, a win that put Navy in position to win its first Commander in Chief's Trophy (awarded to the major service academy team with the best record each season) in 22 years and has it aiming for its first winning season since 1997.

Six freshmen already have made significant contributions, including outside linebacker David Mahoney, cornerback Keenan Little, wide receiver Jason Tomlinson, slot back Trey Hines, kickoff return man Brian Hampton and Newsome, who backs up junior free safety Josh Smith.

"In some positions, we've got young guys who have the ability to play," said Johnson. "We've also got some who probably need more time [on the sideline], but they're playing out of necessity. If the kid can play, I don't care what class he's in. You've got to play the best players, regardless of the class."

The early investments already are producing notable returns. On Saturday, Mahoney became the first freshman starter at Navy in three years. He responded by producing 11 tackles, easily a career high.

"[Mahoney] got every experience you could get," said senior linebacker Eddie Carthan, a co-captain. "He had a pulling guard hitting him, he almost got wiped out on the kickoff team, had to come out for a play or two to get his head right, and got back in there."

During one sequence, while veteran cornerback Vaughn Kelly and Smith were nursing injuries, Navy's 3-4 defense featured Mahoney, Little and Newsome, who appears set to start at Vanderbilt in place of Smith. Although he finished the Air Force game, Smith will miss at least one game with an undisclosed ailment.

Newsome and Little each have recorded six tackles in limited duty. And Little, who earned the nickel back spot coming out of summer camp, represents a recruiting prize at the academy.

He turned down scholarship offers from Wake Forest and Clemson, opting for the chance to pursue an aerospace engineering degree and possible military career.

"It says so much about them when they are able to handle a system that quickly and come in after plebe summer and be able to contribute when a game like Air Force is on the line," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "They have goals set and priorities in order."

Hampton needed just one month to become one of the Midshipmen's kickoff return men.

Tomlinson, who might already be the smoothest and most fundamentally sound receiver on the team, caught Navy's first pass reception of the year, then added a 47-yarder in the season-opening, 37-10 victory over VMI. He also has become the team's prime punt returner.

Then there is Hines, who is quickly gaining a grasp of the spread option offense and is the fastest slot back on the team. He has touched the ball four times and has scored two touchdowns on runs of 17 of 20 yards.

"It's definitely surreal," Hines said.

To senior quarterback Craig Candeto, the emergence of Tomlinson and Hines is quite real.

"If a guy comes out during his plebe summer and playing with us in two-a-days, that shows a lot," Candeto said. "This is a tough offense to learn, and they are putting in the time. As they've gotten their legs back, they're just getting better and better."

Next for Navy

Matchup: Navy (3-2) vs. Vanderbilt (1-5)

Site: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Vanderbilt by 5 1/2

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