It is one of the more remarkable statistics in all of college football. In 12 of the past 13 college football seasons, the Naval Academy has won at least eight games. The success over the previous four seasons had a lot to do with a quarterback who was a four-year starter in head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option offense.
The 2016 Navy football season begins without Keenan Reynolds who rushed for 4,559 yards in his career and established a NCAA record for career rushing touchdowns with 88. It is not just Reynolds who will be missed though. Niumatalolo must replace 10 of 11 offensive starters, including the entire offensive line.
The lone returning Navy starter, Jamir Tillman, is a very good one. Tillman, who played at one of the most high-profile high school programs in the nation at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a big (6-foot-4, 212-pound) receiver who has the potential to make big plays. He is to the Navy offense what Demaryious Thomas and Stephen Hill were to the option offense at Georgia Tech. Tillman led the Midshipmen with 597 receiving yards last year.
Finding a quarterback to replace Reynolds and get the ball to guys like Tillman is the first order of business for Niumatalolo. Senior Tago Smith looks to inherit the position after spending the past three seasons waiting his turn. Smith has started two games in his career and carried nine times for 47 yards in last year’s Notre Dame game. He led Navy to two scoring drives in the first half which resulted in a 21-21 tie at halftime.
While Smith will be the trigger to the triple option, it is widely known that for the Navy offense to succeed it must have a great fullback. The Middies lose 1,000-yard rusher Chris Swain but replace him with 6-1, 255-pound Shawn White, the biggest fullback of the triple option era. White is extremely agile and athletic for his size and, hopefully, he can take the kind of punishment that Navy fullbacks take during a season.
All five offensive linemen will be new, but two do have some starting experience. Robert Lindsey will start at right tackle and Adam West plugs in at left guard. Lindsey started four games last season and West one. Andrew Wood (LT), Maurice Morris (C), and Evan Martin (RG) will join Lindsey and West on an offensive that perennially helps pave the way for one of the top rushing programs in the country. Navy was second in the nation last year averaging 326.7 yards on the ground per game.
With the challenge to replace the offense of epic proportions, Niumatalolo can feel good about the six returning starters on the Navy defense. Under first-year defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson, the Middies finished 26th nationally in scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and 40th in total defense (364.9 yards per game). It was Navy’s best performance of the triple option era.
Pehrson will welcome back all four starting linebackers including leading tackler Micah Thomas (73 tackles). Co-captain Daniel Gonzalez is a smart, tough, leader who had 65 tackles last season despite missing two games due to injury. An area where Navy has some concerns are on the defensive line. In the 3-4 defense, the nose guard is a key position. With the graduation of Bernie Sarra, the load falls on Patrick Forrestal who certainly has the size needed at the position. Forrestal, a senior, is 6-4 and weighs 305 pounds. If he can prove to be an every-down player, Navy could be very good defensively.
The Midshipmen will need to be good on defense, especially early in the season while the offense comes together. Consider that Navy lost just two games in 2015 – to Notre Dame and Houston. The Midshipmen gave up 41 points to the Irish and 52 to Houston. Navy will open the season with FCS Fordham and then play UConn and Tulane, two very winnable games, before traveling to Air Force. The game with the Falcons will go a long way to determining whether or not Navy captures the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the fourth time in the past five years.
Navy will face Notre Dame again, this year in Jacksonville, Florida The Middies do get the benefit of facing Houston, the favorite to win the West Division and the AAC titles, at home. While no one is expecting a miracle on offense, if Niumatalolo can get his unit to mesh early in the season another eight-win season is definitely possible.