Kickoff is less than 48 hours away.
To gain some perspective and insight, I talked to the good folks at The Birddog about the Navy squad appearing in Ohio Stadium on Saturday. They let us know the players we need to watch and gave us some additional information on the Commander-in-Chief Trophy holder for the last six years.
Where does this year’s Navy team rank in the last five years?
Defensively, it’s probably going to be the best. A few of these guys will be starting for their third straight year. They came on strong in 2008, with back-to-back shutouts to end the regular season. Offensively, nobody knows. On one hand, not having to juggle three quarterbacks like last season is a plus. On the other hand, they lost a lot of proven performers to graduation. I think most people are confident in the offense’s ability, but it’s one of those things you don’t really know until they play actual games.
Give us the positions of strength/weakness?
Strength—Linebacker, without a doubt. They’re all seniors, they’ve all played a ton, and they all have ability. Ross Pospisil was the team’s leading tackler a year ago. Clint Sovie was moved from inside to outside LB to take advantage of his speed; he’ll be the team’s main pass rusher.
Weakness—I don’t know if I’d call it a weakness quite yet, but some last-minute shuffling on the offensive line depth chart isn’t exactly good for the nerves.
Best/worst-case scenario for this season?
The goal of every Navy football team is to 1) win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, and 2) get to a bowl game. Anything above and beyond that is gravy; anything less is a disappointment. With Navy’s schedule and a lot of unproven talent on offense, it’s going to be a challenge.
Who is Navy’s best player?
DE Jabaree Tuani. He was the ECAC Rookie of the Year last year, and led the team in tackles for loss as a freshman. It’s very unusual for any lineman to play much as a freshman at the Naval Academy; the first year at the school tends to lead to tired legs and weight loss. As good as Tuani was last year, it’s exciting to think of how good he can be without plebe burdens weighing him down.
Nate Frazier’s loss is huge for the Midshipmen but Navy still returns the other key defensive lineman, including Jabaree Tuani. Can the line, and defense overall, absorb the loss of Frazier?
I think so. Chase Burge, the nose guard stepping in for Frazier, had played well enough in practice that the coaches had already planned on giving him more playing time anyway. That doesn’t mean that losing Nate doesn’t hurt; Nate is a special kind of player that we don’t usually see at the Naval Academy. But it probably means the defensive line just goes from being elite (by Navy standards) to really, really good.
Navy played three quarterbacks last season, but two have now departed leaving junior Ricky Dobbs to run the show. At times last season, he looked like Navy’s best QB. Is the position in better hands now that he is not sharing the job?
The best quarterback that Navy has ever had when it comes to mastery of this offense was Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada…When he was healthy. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for most of last year. Ricky Dobbs isn’t at that level yet, and probably never will be. But he has improved, and is probably the best passer Navy has had in at least 15 years. There’s plenty to work with there. Having some stability at the position for a change can only help matters.
The hiring of Coach Niumatalolo seemed to provide continuity for one of the hottest programs in the country. Does the Navy fan base feel confident Niumatalolo can maintain the momentum the program was experiencing under Paul Johnson?
I can’t speak for Navy fans in general, but if they aren’t confident in Coach Niumat, then they aren’t paying attention. He seemed to be a little uncomfortable being the face of the program at first, but man has that changed. I’m not sure you’ll find a more open and candid coach in the country, including Paul Johnson. I think he’s comfortable with being so open because he’s just that confident in what he’s doing. He has every reason to be; he was here for the last seven years. He knows what it took to build this program, as do his assistants, many of whom raised a few eyebrows by choosing to stay in Annapolis rather than follow Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech.
The straw that stirs the service academy football drink is recruiting. Service academies have such a limited pool of players to recruit from that it’s crucial to consistently beat out your two biggest rivals if you want to be competitive. Coach Niumatalolo and the Navy staff were able to win most of the head-to-head recruiting battles with Air Force and Army last year, which bodes well for a first-year coach.
Ohio State does not play the return game in this series until 2014. Are Navy fans disappointed with the delay?
Again, I can’t really speak for all Navy fans, but I haven’t given it a second thought.
Navy has 51 wins over the last six seasons, the fourth most of any non-BCS conference program. Are the last six years the best extended run for Navy since the late 50's and early 60's?
George Welsh had a particularly good stretch from 1978-1981, but the longer Navy maintains their current run of success, the harder it gets to disagree with that opinion.
Finally, the schedule is front loaded for Navy with road trips to Ohio State and Pittsburgh sandwiching a home game versus Louisiana Tech. How will Navy’s start affect the team and will they make another bowl game this season?
Don’t sleep on Louisiana Tech, either. They were a bowl team last season, one of eight on Navy’s schedule. It might not be a schedule that will make anyone in the Big Ten sit up and take notice, but for a service academy it’s extremely challenging. The Mids started 1-2 last year before rebounding with back-to-back wins over Rutgers and #16 Wake Forest. It’s going to be a tall order not to have to repeat that scenario. The back half of the schedule really isn’t any easier, with Wake Forest, Notre Dame, and a trip out to Hawaii, which is always difficult.
Navy is playing 13 games this season, which means they’ll need seven wins to qualify for the Texas Bowl. They can do it, but there really isn’t any margin for error. The Mids will probably have to win a few games they won’t be favored in.