Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Navy
Notre Dame has righted the ship (pardon the pun) in its rivalry with Navy after dropping three of four games between 2007-10. A 56-14 win in 2011 in South Bend and a 50-10 rout last year in Ireland are more reflective of the Irish's 43-game winning streak in the series than their recent struggles with the Midshipmen.
Navy returned to the postseason last year after seeing its eight-year bowl streak end in 2011 and also regained possession of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy with a win over Air Force and its 11th straight victory over Army.
The Mids found their quarterback of the future last season, as true freshman Keenan Reynolds emerged at midseason to lead the team to wins in seven of its final eight games. Can Navy again close the gap in one of the most lopsided rivalries in college football? Let's take an early look at the 2013 Midshipmen, who begin spring practice on Monday.
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Date: Nov. 2
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Indiana.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10 (2012)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame - 2
Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (lost to Arizona State, 62-28)
Leading Passer: Keenan Reynolds (Fr.) - 61-of-108, 898 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs
Leading Rusher: Gee Gee Greene (Sr.) - 120 carries, 877 yards, 3 TDs
Leading Receiver: Brandon Turner (Sr.) - 22 receptions, 321 yards, 4 TDs
Playing quarterback as a true freshman is difficult at any school, but perhaps no more so than at Navy, where freshmen are adjusting to the grind of academy life as well.
Keenan Reynolds stepped in for an injured Trey Miller in early October and led the Midshipmen to a 7-2 finish, including recapturing the prestigious Commander-in-Chief Trophy.
While the Mids will once again run their triple-option attack next season, Reynolds is at least serviceable as a passer. He threw nine touchdowns to just two interceptions in 2012, and completed a 49-yard pass to set up his game-winning touchdown run in the final minutes to defeat Army.
Miller, who played each of the last two games against Notre Dame, returns behind Reynolds.
Navy fullbacks have given Notre Dame plenty of headaches over the years. From Kyle Eckel to Eric Kettani to Alexander Teich, the Midshipmen were successful running up the middle against bigger, stronger Irish defensive lines.
Next in line for Navy is junior Noah Copeland. The Irish have dominated the Mids in the past two meetings after a decade-long struggle, but stopping Copeland is the key to controlling the triple option. Copeland amassed 738 yards on the ground a year ago, including a pair of 100-yard games.
The top two outside backs depart in Gee Gee Greene and John Howell. 5'6" senior Darius Staten is the top returner, but he had only 29 carries over the past two seasons. The outside running back position is the biggest question mark for Navy heading into the spring.
Brandon Turner ensured his place in Navy football history last December with his 49-yard reception from Reynolds to help set up the game-winning touchdown against Army. Turner departs, but that should have little effect on Notre Dame, as Turner failed to catch a pass in his career against the Irish (he missed last year's game).
The leading returner is senior Shawn Lynch, who has had some success against the Irish. He scored Navy's lone touchdown last year at Aviva Stadium in Ireland, his only score of the season. Despite a lack of touchdowns, he did catch 14 passes, which is much more productive than it sounds due to Navy attempting just 172 passes all season.
Behind Lynch are seniors Matt Aiken and Casey Bolena. At 6'2", Bolena is the biggest of the trio. His 61 yards last year in Dublin are a career high. This unit is noticeably weaker without Turner, but with his lack of production against Notre Dame, the Irish likely won't notice much difference from this year to last.
Three starters are back from a unit that was physically manhandled by the Notre Dame defensive front last season. Both losses are on the left side, as tackle Ryan Paulson and guard Josh Cabral depart.
The right side returns intact, led by senior right tackle Graham Vickers, who actually played center against Notre Dame last season. The Midshipmen finishing only No. 57 in sacks allowed last season despite rarely passing shows this unit needs to improve.
Sophomore Joey Gaston and senior Thomas Stone have the inside track to replace Paulson and Cabral. This unit will again pale in comparison to other offensive lines from a size standpoint, but athleticism and technique are much more important in this system than pure mass.
Due to obvious difficulties recruiting defensive linemen, Navy operates out of a 3-4 base under coordinator Buddy Green, who came with former coach Paul Johnson to Annapolis in 2002.
Junior Danny Ring was a pleasant surprise at nose guard last season, earning the starting role for the Army game and the bowl game. He has more of a defensive end's body, and with the loss of three of the top four ends, Ring is likely to see most of his time outside.
Senior Barry Dabney, who started 10 games at the nose, should regain his starting role in the middle. Fellow senior Evan Palelei started every game last season, finishing with 29 tackles. He returns at one of the end positions.
This unit lacks experience behind the starting three, but should be productive if it can stay healthy.
A veteran group of linebackers last season helped spark the Mids' impressive turnaround from 1-3 to 8-5. Now, three of the top five are gone, led by leading tackler Matt Warrick and sack specialist Keegan Wetzel.
Jordan Drake, a long, lean junior, is back at one of the outside spots. His backup from last year, junior Josh Tate, could move to the other outside position to replace Wetzel.
Two-year starter Warrick and part-time starter Brye French both must be replaced at the inside positions. Senior Cody Peterson started the final five games in place of French, and now must be the leader of the unit without Warrick. The other inside spot is very much unsettled heading into the spring.
Notre Dame hasn't needed to throw much the past two years against the Midshipmen. The Irish attempted just 48 passes in their two blowout wins. The ground attack may again be the best bet for Notre Dame this season, as Navy returns three of four starters in the secondary.
Junior Parrish Gaines, at 6'2", is an ideal boundary corner. Tyler Eifert was able to leap over Gaines for a touchdown reception last season, but most receivers can't do what Eifert did against the two-year starting cornerback. Gaines did have an interception of Everett Golson in that game.
Reynolds wasn't the only freshman from Nashville to make an impact for the Mids last season. Kwazel Bertrand earned the starting field cornerback role by midseason, helping Navy finish No. 40 in the nation in pass defense.
Aptly-named free safety Wave Ryder is back after finishing with 53 tackles and an interception last season. The versatile Tra'Ves Bush must be replaced at rover, with junior James Britton likely to slide in after backing up Bush last season.
Freshman Nick Sloan somewhat surprisingly emerged from fall camp as the team's No. 1 kicker. Sloan converted 10-of-15 field goal attempts last season and all 41 extra point tries. He made his only field goal attempt against Notre Dame.
Two-year starter Pablo Beltran returns at punter. Beltran averaged 44 yards per kick last season, a sizable improvement over the 38 yards he averaged as a freshman in 2011.
Lynch should again handle punt returns, but the Mids returned just 12 punts last season (even fewer than Notre Dame did). Senior running back Marcus Thomas and junior Ryan Williams-Jenkins are likely to share kick return duties for a second straight year.
Ken Niumatalolo kept Navy afloat last season after the team scored just 17 points in its first three games against FBS opponents. The gutsy call to hand command of the offense to a true freshman paid huge dividends for the sixth-year head coach, and now the Midshipmen are set for the next few years under center with Reynolds.
Like every other season, Navy's two goals are to reach the postseason (the Mids will play in the Armed Force Bowl in 2013 if eligible) and win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. It accomplished both in 2012.
Finding a top outside running back and stabilizing the front seven on defense are the two keys this offseason. Navy is not a threat to go into South Bend and defeat the Irish, but with Reynolds, should be a bit more competitive than in the prior two years.
Notre Dame should benefit greatly from playing Air Force the week before the Midshipmen come to town, as the Irish will have an additional week of preparation for the triple option.