Navy system powers onward

Despite injury-filled season, Mids are headed to 4th straight bowl game

November 18, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

The obvious signs have been there throughout the football program's turnaround under fifth-year coach Paul Johnson. During the past four seasons, Navy has won 33 of 47 games, played in three straight postseason games and won the past two.

Yet the 2006 season has revealed in more detail how strong the foundation has become, and how well Navy has cultivated depth, speed and quality with a combination of good recruiting and the development of its improved talent.

Take last week's 49-21 rout against Eastern Michigan. Starting fullback Adam Ballard went down early with a sprained ankle and was replaced by sophomore Eric Kettani, who began the preseason at No. 3 on the depth chart. All Kettani did was burst through holes and bowl over defenders en route to a game-high 91 yards rushing and his first career touchdown.

That was just the latest example of the Midshipmen plugging in a new part and getting good results during the most injury-riddled season of the Johnson era.

Last month, senior quarterback Brian Hampton went down with a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has guided the offense to a combined 87 points and 941 yards in back-to-back routs over Duke and Eastern Michigan. Starting right tackle Josh Meek was lost for the year with a knee injury in the 38-14 loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 28. Sophomore Andrew McGinn has stepped in, and the offense has rolled on.

On the defensive side, there is freshman safety Jeromy Miles, who was called on to replace injured senior DuJuan Price (quadriceps) after the season's second game. Miles ranks fourth on the team with 49 tackles and leads Navy with two fumble recoveries. Sophomore Clint Sovie (44 tackles) won a starting job at inside linebacker by showing striking quickness and command of the scheme in August. Only a broken hand has slowed him.

"It speaks a lot about where we've come as a program," senior linebacker Tyler Tidwell said. "We're still a smaller team [than most] across the board and probably always will be. But me and [senior linebacker David] Mahoney joke around about how in the last couple of years, the freshmen they've recruited have been bigger than us."

"I'm glad I'm not getting recruited right now, because I probably wouldn't be too high on their list," added senior defensive end John Chan, who is tied for the team lead with five sacks.

Chan, 6 feet 1, 249 pounds, looks down the depth chart at a guy like freshman backup nose guard Nate Frazier, 6-3, 295, a four-year letter winner out of Riverwood High School in Atlanta.

Chan sees a player who could have started a few years ago at Navy, where about a dozen plebes played starting or otherwise significant roles in 2003. That year, the Mids reversed a 3-30 slide by finishing 8-5 and going to the Houston Bowl.

Johnson said his recruiting strategy boils down to basics. Concentrate on quality over quantity. Find athletes with good speed, regardless of size. And build around "tweeners," players who, for example, might look like conventional defensive backs but work well at Navy as outside linebackers or slotbacks.

"Everybody gets graded [as recruits] by four sets of eyes, and on our staff, pretty much everybody recruits," Johnson said. "It's all about evaluation, not recruiting lists."

Eight assistants cover mainly the East Coast, the south and Texas. Navy also is active in the Midwest, on the West Coast and in Hawaii.

"We're not just taking a guy because his dad's an admiral and he played on his high school football team and always wanted to be a Naval Academy guy," said assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo, a Hawaii native who recruits the West.

"We might get a four-star recruit once in a while, but we have to recruit to the system and the types of kids that are here. They've got the grades, they're hard-nosed and they respond to hard coaching," Niumatalolo added.

As Navy prepares for its stretch run, which also will include its fourth straight postseason appearance in next month's Meineke Car Care Bowl, Johnson said he is satisfied by how his program has evolved. This year, it has withstood the test created by numerous injuries.

And this past week, it has absorbed a controversy generated by the revelation that two players were suspended for the 2005 season after testing positive for banned, performance-enhancing drugs. Five others were identified as having possibly taken the same substance.

"Two freshmen made a mistake and the others guys tested negative. As far as we're concerned, that case was closed two years ago. Everything was done aboveboard, and it's over with," Johnson said. "We haven't mentioned it, the team hasn't mentioned it, nobody here is sweating it. It's a non-issue, and we're moving on."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Today's game

Matchup -- Temple (1-10) at Navy (7-3)

Time -- 12:30 p.m.

TV -- CSTV

Radio -- 1090 AM, 1500 AM, 107.7 FM, 1430 AM, Sirius 107

Line -- Navy by 31 1/2

Series -- Temple leads 4-2

Last meeting -- Navy won, 38-17, on Nov. 19, 2005, in Annapolis

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