Navy aims to stay the course

Mids long to extend bowl streak to four

College football

August 03, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

Navy senior linebacker Rob Caldwell thought back to the days when he and his wide-eyed classmates first arrived in Annapolis in the summer of 2003, determined to help a program in dire need of a culture change.

Those once-green Midshipmen have done their job. Not only has Navy, behind fifth-year coach Paul Johnson, long since shed its reputation for losing, but the 2006 Mids aim to continue an unprecedented winning run, led by a senior class that has been all about success.

If this season follows the expectations accompanying it, Navy will play in its fourth consecutive bowl game. The school already has signed an agreement making it available for selection to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, if it becomes bowl-eligible. Before whipping Colorado State in last year's Poinsettia Bowl, 51-30, to win their second straight postseason game, the Mids had never received three straight bowl bids.

The team's 35 seniors seek to build on their 26-11 record in three years under Johnson. Navy had gone 3-30 during the previous three seasons. Should the Mids sweep Army and Air Force again and earn their fourth consecutive Commander in Chief's trophy, the senior class will achieve another first with an 8-0 mark against its service academy rivals.

As the Mids gathered for yesterday's media day event at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Caldwell wasn't relishing the idea of beginning practice today in 95-degree heat. But he is eager to erase the recent negative attention surrounding ex-quarterback Lamar Owens - charged with rape in February, then acquitted on July 20 - and get back to winning more games.

"Winning keeps fueling the desire to keep playing at a high level," said Caldwell, who led Navy with 140 tackles in 2005 and is the second-leading returning tackler in the country. "We got the sense [as freshmen in 2003] that we could win every game. It's easy to get here, harder to maintain. We don't want to be guys people expect a lot from, and [then] we let them down.

"[The Owens matter] is something we want to put behind us. We supported Lamar fully. That's our brother. It was kind of a distraction hanging over our heads, but we're done with it. We want Navy football back on the field making good headlines."

With 18 starters and 37 letter winners back from an 8-4 team, the Mids have no shortage of experience - except at quarterback. Senior Brian Hampton, who began his Navy career as a kick returner before becoming a backup to Owens in 2005, becomes the fourth projected starter in Johnson's five years.

Johnson expects Hampton to get plenty of competition from junior Troy Goss and sophomore Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, but the job of running the Mids' run-dominated, spread triple-option attack is Hampton's to lose.

"I've learned a lot [about the offense], but I haven't learned it all," said Hampton, who appeared in all 12 games in 2005 and rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns while passing for 99 yards and another score.

"I'm excited about Brian," Johnson said. "If he doesn't try to press and do some crazy things, he'll do pretty good for us. But it's not like Brian is etched in stone. He's clearly the starter going into camp, but I don't think anything here is forever."

The foundation once again is a ground game that has been the most productive in the country for two of the past three years. Four starters return on the offensive line, led by senior center and co-captain James Rossi.

The critical slotback position lost some depth when sophomore Karlos Whittaker (six touchdowns, 7.8-yard rushing average) was dismissed by Johnson for disciplinary reasons last spring, then dismissed from the academy last month. Junior Reggie Campbell (five touchdowns in the Poinsettia Bowl) is back, along with senior Trey Hines, fully recovered from a leg injury last year. Johnson likes the experience and athleticism this team brings, but he shook off any notion that he's comfortable with the way the Mids look on paper.

"The expectations are different. The attitude of the team is far different than when we came in here," Johnson said. "There's no question we're better athletically than we've been. Does that mean we'll be a better football team? Who knows?

"I'm always scared. The difference between winning and losing is very thin. You still have to stay healthy. The biggest thing is to keep them motivated. If you're not hungry here, you're not going to be successful."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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