On the first day of spring football practice, Navy senior quarterback Lamar Owens said he looked around the field and felt strange. So many familiar faces were absent.
Starting yesterday, the Midshipmen, who three months ago won the Emerald Bowl to cap the second 10-win season in academy history, officially began a huge transition year. Thirty-six letter winners, including 18 starters, have departed from the 10-2 squad that concluded its run by whipping New Mexico, 34-19.
The question marks are everywhere, beginning with the quarterback position, where Owens is the leading candidate to replace Aaron Polanco.
The only starters back on offense are senior center James Rossi and senior wide receiver Mick Yokitis. On defense, four starters are back: senior end Jeremy Chase, junior outside linebacker David Mahoney, junior cornerback Hunter Reddick and junior Jeremy McGown, who has moved from safety to cornerback.
"For Aaron not to be out here with me, it feels different. I almost went to the [second-team] huddle. It felt so strange coming out here," said Owens, who appeared in six games in 2004 and will oppose junior Brian Hampton for the job of leading coach Paul Johnson's spread triple option offense.
"Nobody wants to go backwards. Nobody wants to go back to 0-10 or 2-10. We're not going to lay down for anybody. Today, we started from the beginning."
For Johnson, a different sort of rebuilding project lies ahead. When he arrived as head coach at Navy, the Mids were headed for a bottoming-out in 2002, when they finished 2-10, capping a 3-30 tumble over three seasons. Since then, Navy has gone 18-7 and been to consecutive bowl games.
In five months, the Mids begin a ramped-up schedule with their first game against Maryland in 40 years at M&T Bank Stadium, followed by a home game against Stanford.
"Every football team is different, even when you have a lot of guys back. Certainly, we're going to have a lot of different faces," said Johnson, whose entire staff remained intact. "Each team has to create their own identity. The whole depth chart going into the spring could be upside down in a week and a half, and I think that makes it fun."
Junior Matt Hall is the leading candidate to replace fullback Kyle Eckel, who was a force in a Navy offense that led the nation in rushing in 2003 and was third last year. At the slot back positions, junior Trey Hines and senior Marco Nelson are favored to replace Eric Roberts and Frank Divis. Hines will sit out the spring with a pulled quadriceps.
Defensively, the biggest losses were at inside linebacker (Lane Jackson and Bobby McClarin) and in the secondary, where safety Josh Smith led the team in tackles for three years. Junior linebackers Rob Caldwell and Jacob Biles and junior safety DuJuan Price should step in.
Chase is recovering from shoulder surgery and will miss the spring season, which will feature a scrimmage on April 9 and the annual Blue-Gold game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on April 23.
"I think the team has a chance to be talented, but you're never going to win here on talent alone," Johnson said. "You have to have work ethic and chemistry and all of that. It's what's fun about coaching, watching it develop. Hopefully, it develops. If it doesn't, it's going to be a long year."
Key spring practice dates for state Division I football teams:
School practice game
Navy Yesterday April 23,
Morgan Yesterday April 22,
State 6 p.m.
Maryland Saturday, April 30,
10 a.m. 4 p.m.
Towson April 8, May 7,
3:30 p.m. noon
Note: Practices and spring games are open to the public.