Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Navy
As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and some potential breakout players.
This installment features the Navy Midshipmen, who will meet the Irish in the season opener in Ireland on Sept. 1. The Mids are coming off of their first losing season since 2002, finishing 5-7 despite a 10th consecutive win over Army. They take the field for the first time on March 19, with their spring game coming on April 14.
Next week, we’ll conclude our pre-spring previews with Michigan State and Stanford.
Date: Sept. 1
Location: Aviva Stadium (Dublin, Ireland)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14 (2011)
Last Meeting in Ireland: Notre Dame 54, Navy 27 (1996)
Current Streak: Notre Dame: 1
Leading Passer: Kriss Proctor (Sr.): 52-for-103, 787 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT
Leading Rusher: Kriss Proctor (Sr.): 211 rushes, 914 yards, 14 TD
Leading Receiver: Brandon Turner (Jr.): 14 catches, 300 yards, 3 TD
Kriss Proctor had the unenviable task of taking over for Ricky Dobbs last season, but he finished the season with a better yards per carry average and as many touchdowns as Dobbs had in 2010 despite missing time with a shoulder injury, including the loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.
Proctor departs, and the Irish will see a familiar face under center for the Midshipmen in September. Trey Miller made his second career start against Notre Dame last season, being held to only 88 yards of total offense. Navy went 1-2 in Miller’s three starts.
The rising junior completed only 12 of his 29 passes last season and only averaged three yards per carry. The game experience he received should be a significant help going into the season, but Miller is not the game-changer that Dobbs was in consecutive victories over the Irish in 2009 in 2010.
Spread offenses have made fullbacks a dying breed in college football, but Navy still relies on a bruising running back. Kyle Eckel, Eric Kettani and Alexander Teich have all had plenty of success over the past decade, including Teich’s 210-yard performance against Notre Dame two years ago.
The competition to replace Teich will likely come down to sophomore Noah Copeland and junior Mike Patrick, who combined for only 17 carries last season. Slot back Aaron Santiago also departs, but senior John Howell returns after registering 35 carries and five touchdowns a year ago.
Senior Gee Gee Greene has ideal slot back size, at 5’10” and 180 pounds. Greene led all Navy slot backs last season with 501 yards, averaging almost eight yards per carry. The fullback position has major question marks, but the two slot back positions are in good hands with Greene and Howell.
The Midshipmen pass because they need to, not because they want to. Navy quarterbacks threw only 12 passes last season, an average of 11 per game. The good news is that when they do have to throw this season, they’ll have an experienced receiving corps with which to work.
Brandon Turner led all receivers with 14 catches and 300 yards last season. There’s not elite speed anywhere in this unit, but Turner has great size at 6’4” and matches up well against smaller cornerbacks. Notre Dame held Turner in check last season, as Gary Gray and Robert Blanton held him without a catch.
Matt Aiken is a smaller possession receiver who caught passes in 10 of 12 games in 2011, including a pair of grabs in South Bend. Fellow junior Casey Bolena will again back up both Aiken and Turner and will see the field in rare three wide-receiver sets.
In a triple-option offense, linemen must be flexible, agile and quick. With the departure of center Brady DeMell, the entire Midshipmen starting line will likely all be under 300 pounds, a rarity in major college football these days.
In addition to DeMell, Navy must replace the entire right sides of its line, with tackle Ryan Basford and guard John Dowd moving on. Either Andrew Barker or Graham Vickers is likely to move over from the left side to fill the void.
Vickers is the incumbent at left tackle, but may be better suited than Barker on the right side. Left guard Josh Cabral also returns. DeMell’s void is likely to be filled by Kahikolu Pescaia, a senior who hails from Hawaii, as does head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Buddy Green enters his second decade in charge of the Navy defense. Navy’s run defense dipped from 75th in the nation to 92nd last season. While he’ll welcome back eight starters to his 3-4 defense, only one starter returns up front. Fortunately, seven of the top nine return.
The loss of end Jabaree Tunai is significant, as Tunai led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. Wes Henderson saw time at both nose guard and end last year in a reserve role and could step in to Tunai’s role. Joshua Jones returns at the other end position.
Jared Marks has great size at the nose guard, coming in at 6’5” and just under 300 pounds. Overall, this is an undersized unit, like most Navy defensive lines. Despite the size difference, Notre Dame has struggled to run the ball in recent years against Green’s defense.
You can always count on intelligence and toughness from Navy’s linebackers. With four seniors returning this year, it should be far and away the strength of the defense. The linebacker situation is almost a reverse of the defensive line, with all the starters back but all four primary backups departing.
A pair of Matts, Brewer and Warrick, control the middle of the field. Warrick led the team with 103 tackles, while Brewer was fourth with 61. Neither of the Missouri natives top 230 pounds, but both must hold up physically with depth concerns behind them.
On the outside, Tra’ves Bush and Bryce French both return for a final season in Annapolis. French is more of a pass-rusher, while Bush is a better tackler and better in coverage. Bush was the only player not in the secondary to have multiple interceptions last season.
Losing big-hitting rover Wyatt Middleton after the 2010 season left a major hole in the Midshipmen secondary. Despite the absence of Middleton and starting two freshman, the pass defense numbers dipped only slightly from 2010.
Middleton’s replacement at rover, Kwesi Mitchell departs after just one year as a starter. Bush saw time at rover as well early in his career, but the lack of depth at linebacker will likely keep him closer to the line of scrimmage. Free safety Chris Ferguson is back after an impressive freshman season.
Both cornerbacks return as well. Field cornerback David Sperry tied for the team lead with a pair of interceptions. Freshman Parrish Gaines emerged as the Mids’ best option at boundary corner late in the season. At 6’2”, Gaines matches up well with taller receivers.
Senior Jon Teague missed four of 46 extra points last season, including a crucial miss in overtime against Air Force after a penalty made it a 35-yard attempt. He kicked only 15 field goals, making 10 of them. Junior Stephen Picchini is first in line to replace Teague.
Pablo Beltran was a pleasant surprise at punter last season. The true freshman averaged around 38 yards per punt in his first season. His five punts against Notre Dame tied a season high for Beltran.
The sure-handed Aiken will again be the primary punt returner, but only averaged five yards per return last season. Junior Marcus Thomas returns to handle kick returns. He’s returned 59 kickoffs over the past two seasons, including a touchdown against East Carolina last season.
Navy was expected to regress in 2011 without Dobbs, but missing a bowl game was a major disappointment after reaching the postseason for eight consecutive years. Being blown out by Notre Dame was also a bit of a surprise after three wins in four years.
Finding an adequate replacement for Teich is an absolute must. Miller will be fine under center, and the slot backs are the best they’ve had since Shaun White left after the 2009 season.
The Midshipmen experienced some heartbreaking losses last year, which made the difference in them staying home for the bowl season. Notre Dame appeared to turn the corner both against Green’s defense and the triple option a year ago. At this point, there is little chance of a major upset in Ireland.