With big shoes filled, Polanco running well

4-0 Navy sparked by QB, who has ably succeeded last year's leader Candeto

College Football

September 28, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The jury has reached a verdict in the case of Aaron Polanco. And the verdict is not guilty.

One of the most pressing questions for Navy entering the season was whether Polanco would be a worthy successor to quarterback Craig Candeto, whose leadership and grit had played a major role in the team's 2003 resurgence.

As a starter, would Polanco take firm control? Would he make wise decisions? Would he make the proper reads while running the intricate option offense?

After four games, all victories by the Midshipmen, the answers are yes, yes and yes.

Coach Paul Johnson was effusive in his praise of the senior after Saturday's 29-26 win over Vanderbilt, citing Polanco's "great individual plays" and his ability to remain upright until he spotted an opening in the defense. "I can't tell you how proud I am of him."

"It's not a surprise to us," said fullback Kyle Eckel. "We've seen it in practice. He can throw, he's fast and he's productive. Aaron hasn't played a whole lot of time, but he's gotten it down. He gets us out of a lot of jams."

Polanco's numbers are certainly impressive enough. He has rushed for 393 yards and five touchdowns, twice exceeding 100 in a game, and completed 25 of 37 passes (67.6 percent) for 458 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. But the statistics tell only part of the story.

He has been cool under pressure. Against Vanderbilt, he was under a heavy rush before launching a perfect pass that resulted in Marco Nelson's first career touchdown on a 45-yard play.

His strength and size (Polanco is 6 feet, 208 pounds) have enabled him to fend off would-be tacklers and be patient until a gap appears. And his good speed has allowed him to burst through the daylight.

"The thing that excites me is the way he has kept his head in games and then made plays," said Johnson. "And he's tough. He breaks tackles and takes some shots."

Quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said he sometimes thinks Polanco can be a little too tough, a concern illustrated in a Sept. 18 win at Tulsa.

"The game was almost over and long decided," said Jasper. "And he took a big hit. The scary thing is I think he likes that. Hopefully, he can be smart in those situations."

Said Polanco: "[The coaches] would rather just have me run out of bounds. I've got to get that into my head."

Polanco's self-evaluation is mixed as he strives for the perfect or near-perfect performance.

"I've done some good things, some bad," he said. "I'm happy we've won, but I can play better and so can we on both sides of the ball. There's not too much pressure, because there's always pressure to be the quarterback. The checks and reads are solely on you. For the most part, I think I've made good reads, but I can improve."

The knowledge that he is relatively secure as a starter sits well with Polanco.

"That helps a little bit," he said. "When you start, you get a better feeling of the highs and lows of the game. But the coaches never made it seem like I have nothing to worry about with my spot."

The senior is a superior passer to Candeto, and the air game was needed Saturday when Vanderbilt stacked against the run and held Navy to 190 rushing yards. Polanco's 176 passing yards were a career high.

"Aaron understands that if he doesn't play smart football, we're going to lose a game," said Jasper. "That's something I preach to him over and over. You're going to miss some reads here and there. Craig did. But Aaron has kept the same demeanor no matter what happens. He stays calm and relaxed."

Said Eckel: "Everybody questioned him. That was crazy. We knew. He's done a great job."

Next for Navy

Matchup: Navy (4-0) vs. Air Force (2-2)

Site: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.

When: Thursday, 7:45 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Even

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