Candeto is Navy's turnaround artist

College football: Craig Candeto has helped the Midshipmen regain their luster and is the academy's spitting image off the field.

October 25, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

He is the engine driving Navy's dramatic reversal on the football field, a two-sport player who excels with a baseball bat, a devoutly religious man who helps lead a weekly Bible study, a patriot who aims to defend his country from the cockpit of a naval fighter jet. Then there is the neatly cropped blond hair, blue eyes, striking smile, easygoing charm.

No, this is not a script outline of a fictitious golden boy. Senior quarterback Craig Candeto is quite real.

"He's pretty squared away. There are not a lot of negatives with him. Underneath all of that, he's about as competitive as anyone I've ever met," Navy football coach Paul Johnson said of Candeto. "He knows what he wants to do, and he doesn't waste a lot of motion getting it done. If you drew a poster boy for the academy, it's him."

"We're having a Halloween costume contest," added Josh Goodin, Navy's senior offensive tackle, "and one of the prizes is a date with Craig Candeto. It's really corny, but it's not like we're making this stuff up. If I had a sister, I wouldn't mind her being Mrs. Candeto."

Candeto represents perhaps the best feel-good story behind the type of uplifting season the academy has not seen in nearly a decade.

For the first time since 1996, the Midshipmen are 5-2 and are creeping closer to what could be their first bowl-game invitation since that same year. With a much-anticipated homecoming game against Delaware today, Navy is pursuing its first four-game winning streak and first winning season since 1997.

Suddenly, the terrible slide - the 3-30 record over the previous three seasons combined - seems like a distant memory.

And the Mids owe so much of their turnaround to their 5-foot-11, 197-pound co-captain, who does so much with what he has. Candeto is not that big, lacks breakaway speed and does not possess a strong arm or a pretty release. Yet, he orchestrates Navy's run-heavy, spread option offense with the kind of smarts, toughness and consistency that has made the Midshipmen the top rushing team in the nation.

He has been a model of steady play during the past two seasons as a starter, although Candeto is playing at the top of his game right now, from the way he is reading defenses to distributing the ball in the triple option to hurting opponents with the well-timed pass.

Carrying the load

During the past two weeks, in road wins at Vanderbilt and Rice, he has rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns and thrown for 236 yards and three scores without committing a turnover.

Candeto now ranks third in school history with 25 rushing touchdowns, second all time with 234 points, and has thrown only nine interceptions in 243 passes, the second-best percentage (.037) in academy history. In last year's 58-12 victory over Army, he rushed for 103 yards and six scores and threw for an additional touchdown in what probably is the top individual showing in the history of the rivalry dating to 1890.

All that matters to Candeto at this moment is keeping Navy's momentum going. The sting of last year's 2-10 finish lingers.

"You never know how good the good times are until you go through the bad times, and we went through three years of them," Candeto said. "To see it blossom has been exciting. It's nice to know we broke the chain. This is how I thought it would be when I came here."

While starring in football and baseball at DeLand (Fla.) High School, where he was named first-team all-state in each sport as a senior, Candeto dreamed of playing football at the University of Florida and did not envision himself in the military. Among the schools that recruited him to play football was Division I-AA power Georgia Southern, which at the time was coached by Paul Johnson.

The son of two teachers, Larry and Rosie, Candeto decided to pursue the Naval Academy for several reasons. The thought of serving his country appealed to him, even after his aunt's husband, a Marine lieutenant colonel named Russell Sanborn, spent 26 days as a prisoner of war after being shot down while flying a mission during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

"I remember running down an alley just screaming [with joy] when we saw him on TV and he was OK," said Candeto, who hopes to be serving his five-year commission in naval flight school in Pensacola, Fla., by late next year. "I know that could be me someday. But I figure someone has to do it. Why not me?"

The thought of playing two sports at the Division I-A level also was irresistible to Candeto, who has made the best of both worlds despite a hectic schedule. For a six-week period each spring, the economics major juggles baseball games and practice, spring football work and a full course load while maintaining a 3.0 grade point average.

"It's definitely an ongoing struggle, but it was too hard to give up one [sport] when I knew I was going to be able to do both," said Candeto, who cites the demands on his time as the main reason he has no steady woman in his life.

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