Polanco, Navy aim to build

Replacing Candeto, QB hopes to sustain Mids' rise

College Football

August 06, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Navy senior quarterback Aaron Polanco feels the weight of recent history. Over two years, while playing understudy to Craig Candeto, Polanco watched the Midshipmen repeat the past, then break drastically from it.

And one year after transforming themselves from doormats to winners, after erasing the worst three-year stretch in the program's history by making a bowl-game trip and grabbing the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy by beating their two service academy rivals, the Mids are of a new mindset as they prepare to begin fall practice today.

In Polanco's eyes, the 2004 season is not about Navy convincing itself and others that it can be successful again. It's about refusing to allow any steps backward.

"There's definitely something to uphold after what we did last year," said Polanco, reflecting on Navy's best finish (8-5) and first postseason berth since 1996 and its first CIC trophy in 22 years.

"Nobody wants to go back to the old ways."

Under the guidance of third-year coach Paul Johnson, Navy is an experienced team that hardly resembles the squad that produced a 3-30 record from 2000 through 2002.

The Mids think they are a faster, more skilled, fundamentally sharp squad that can cope with an upgraded schedule. Gone are whipping boys Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. Added to this year's slate are Tulsa - which also reversed years of futility with an 8-5 finish a year ago - and Duke, which is showing signs of vacating the Atlantic Coast Conference cellar.

"I know what my expectations are, and I think [the players] raised the expectations of themselves," Johnson said. "I hope they're not satisfied."

Unlike last year's team that ranked among the more youthful in the school's history, this year's edition features 15 returning starters.

Offensively, the Mids will roll out Johnson's triple-option attack, rely on a revamped line and a tested backfield duo in senior fullback Kyle Eckel and senior slotback Eric Roberts, and once again try to impose their will by pounding the ball on the ground. Navy's run-dominated unit led the nation in rushing by averaging 323 rushing yards.

But so much of Navy's fortunes will boil down to Polanco, a co-captain. Although he is bigger and faster and has a better arm than Candeto, the 6-foot, 208-pound Polanco has never thrown a touchdown pass in 67 career attempts and has yet to match Candeto's decision-making and mastery of Johnson's intricate, multiple-read offense.

"He's different than Craig [2,252 combined yards in 2003], but it's unfair to lay it all on him, Johnson said. "He's only going to be as good as the guys around him."

That includes a defense that returns eight starters, led by senior free safety Josh Smith, the team's leading tackler the past two seasons. Navy ranked 14th in the nation in pass defense and 25th in turnover margin last year.

The biggest losses were outside linebacker Eddie Carthan and cornerback Shalimar Brazier, but Smith sees the defense forcing more turnovers and making opponents earn their points with more sustained drives.

"We've laid a foundation," said Smith, a co-captain. "Now we've got to build from it."

NOTES: Johnson said one of the Mids' most glaring question marks is at punter, where John Skaggs graduated with a 41-yard career average. Juniors Mick Yokitis and Eric Shuey are the leading replacement candidates.

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