Plenty of room overhead

Midshipmen: The new hands on deck won't measure up physically with the stars of the past few seasons, but it's hard not to fathom continued growth for the academy.

College Football '05

Navy

September 01, 2005|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

If good things do, indeed, come in small packages, Navy should be destined for another bountiful football season.

Fresh from a 10-2 record and an Emerald Bowl victory over New Mexico, the Midshipmen will play a more demanding schedule with the shortest starting unit in the nation. Six players projected for the No. 1 unit stand 5 feet 9 or less, including the entire offensive backfield.

Gone are the horses, pile-driving fullback Kyle Eckel and solid quarterback Aaron Polanco. Gone, too, are sizable slotbacks, Frank Divis and Eric Roberts. In their stead will be a pony brigade that will depend on its speed, quickness and elusive qualities -- and perhaps, occasionally, on the ability to disappear from defenders' view behind their own offensive linemen.

The discrepancy between 2004's ball carriers and the current crop doesn't fluster either the Navy coaches or the players because in Paul Johnson's highly successful offensive approach, technique, proper reads, rapid cuts and deception are more crucial than bulk.

"Our offense isn't about size," said fullback Matt Hall. "It's about positioning and doing things the right way. At every position this year we're picking up speed."

"If people look at just our size, it's up to them," added quarterback Lamar Owens. "We don't care how big guys are but how big their hearts are. Everybody on this team has heart, and we're going to come to play every week."

The major question involves the pair of mighty mites at slotback, Marco Nelson and Reggie Campbell. In Navy's system, they are often required to block defensive ends or linebackers, who will outweigh them by -- seemingly -- a ton.

"I think some of the best guys I've ever had in this offense are little guys like Reggie," Johnson said. "Reggie is a good blocker. The best [blocker] I probably ever had was a kid named Jeff Sydner in Hawaii who was about 5-7 and 170 pounds. He had good feet and could change directions."

Sophomore Campbell, who played fullback in high school in a wing-T offense at 150 pounds, said: "I'm used to cut-blocking [taking out legs]. I think quickness is much more important than size the way the option is set up."

Nelson said: "If you have to block a defensive end, you don't have to knock out the guy. You just have to tie him up for a second to get the ball carrier by."

Slotbacks coach Jeff Monken said his charges must be multi-talented (able to block, run, catch) if they are to play a significant number of snaps.

"I'm very comfortable with the starters having the ball in their hands," Monken said. "And they both have done a good job of blocking an end or a linebacker when they come out of the box. Both of them are real fast. Everybody in the country recruits guys who are both big and fast, but we like smaller guys who can really scoot.

"I'll take these two. They play with great effort, they care about the team and they're not selfish. That's what our team is about."

In certain situations, Johnson has the option of using 240-pound Adam Ballard or 200-pound Trey Hines at slotback. Both have been practicing there this fall and will be available if more bulk is mandated.

The emphasis on brotherhood that is so typical of academy teams must be heightened more than ever this season at Navy, which was ravaged by the graduation of 36 seniors, including 17 starters, and lost starting cornerback Hunter Reddick, who transferred to Maryland.

This band of Midshipmen will be quicker and more athletic, but -- along with Northern Illinois -- has the fewest returning starters in the country and will require time to jell. And the early schedule doesn't offer any breathers with Maryland and Stanford up first.

"They just need some experience," said Polanco, who is assisting the coaching staff. "This is a team that is going to get better as time goes on."

Last season, Navy was one of the feel-good teams in America, capturing the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the second straight time, tying the school record for victories in a season, winning a bowl game and finishing No. 24 in the rankings.

To be sure, the little guys have a very tough act to follow.

Season opener

Matchup: Navy vs. Maryland

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Saturday, 6 p.m.

Radio: 1090 AM (will break away for 7:05 p.m. Orioles-Red Sox game), 1300 AM, 97.9 FM, 105.7 FM

Downsizing

Comparative sizes of the past two Navy backfields:

Quarterback

Year Name ............... Ht. ..... Wt.

2004 Aaron Polanco ... 6-0 .... 208

2005 Lamar Owens .... 5-9 .... 185

Fullback

2004 Kyle Eckel ........ 5-11 .... 240

2005 Matt Hall ......... 5-9 ....... 216

Slotback

2004 Frank Divis ........ 6-0 ...... 225

2005 Marco Nelson .... 5-7 ......178

Slotback

2004 Eric Roberts ....... 5-10 .....194

2005 Reggie Campbell .. 5-6 ..... 164

In with the new

Division I-A schools with the fewest returning starters:

School ............... No.

Navy .................. 6

Northern Illinois .. 6

Marshall .............. 7

Florida Atlantic .... 8

Cincinnati ............. 8

Temple ................ 8

Troy ..................... 9

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