And while we've examined the relative importance of a range of positions from backup quarterback to kickoff returner, no single position battle promises to attract more inquiring eyes and minds than the one we examine today.
Not surprisingly, our countdown concludes with the position most closely associated with Navy's unique triple option offense. It's no secret that fullback has been one of the biggest strengths for Navy's nationally recognized running game over the last six seasons, with hard-nosed runners like Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard, and Eric Kettani leading the way for an offense which has now racked up three consecutive rushing titles. Yet with no clear heir apparent at the position for the first time in several seasons, head coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff face the prospect of going into the spring with a vital piece of Navy's offensive puzzle still unsolved. What will April hold for Navy's relatively untested fullbacks? And will the lack of returning star power at the position foreshadow a lack of production in 2009? Find out as we examine the most intriguing offseason position battle for the 2009 Navy Midshipmen.
Of all the Navy fullbacks in the triple option era, no single player may have possessed as much raw talent as Eric Kettani. Coming into last season the 6'1, 243-lb Ohio native was already known to posses freakish physical talent with a sub 4.6 40-yard dash time and an eye-popping 400 pound max bench press mark, while his production on the field in 2007 made many fans speculate on the possibility of a 1000 yard rushing campaign for 2008. That possibility was only furthered when head coach Ken Niumatalolo told reporters in July that Kettani may have to "carry the load" to a greater degree than past Navy fullbacks such as Adam Ballard or Kyle Eckel, both of whom had the benefit of established backups to spell their efforts when called upon.
Niumatalolo proved to be right going into the year, as Kettani accounted for nearly 88% of all carries by Navy fullbacks during 2008. Boasting an impressive 5.2 yard per carry average, Kettani rumbled, sprinted, and in some cases dove to 982 yards and four touchdowns in 2008, amazingly only losing four yards through 13 games. And while he may have been able to will Navy's offense to game-clinching first downs against the likes of Air Force or Rutgers, his backups did not have nearly as much success.
In fact, Navy's backup situation at fullback was never quite resolved in 2008, with plebe Alex Teich and junior Kevin Campbell splitting the duties for a modest 29 carries on the year. Once more, the majority of the carries came in blowout Navy wins over Towson, SMU, and Army; testifying to the obvious fact that when it came to meaningful game situations, the coaching staff felt there was no substitute for Kettani "totting the rock." Yet with the former Lake Catholic star moving on to a naval career and possible NFL future, the time is now for the staff to find the next great Navy fullback, as well as a suitable backup who'll be able to deliver much needed carries if called upon.
Potential 2009 Candidates
These players almost certainly figure to be in the mix for the job going into the spring. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Kevin Campbell: Long thought to be the heir to Eric Kettani and the burgeoning tradition of Navy fullbacks in the triple option era, Campbell returns for his senior season in 2009 after rushing for 84 yards on 22 carries a season ago. He's currently listed as the backup on the pre-spring depth chart, but finished the 2008 season ahead of Alex Teich at the position. A hair shorter than Teich, Campbell is much more of a traditional ‘bruiser' at fullback; lacking no shortage of second effort or the ability to break tackles. Yet he'll likely have to show better ability once he gets to the second level of defenses to beat Teich outright this spring. Regardless of whether or not he wins the job this spring or summer, he'll likely be a part of Navy's offense come September.
Jordan Eddington: A real wildcard, the former backup linebacker is one of the fastest players on the roster, having run a 4.47 40-yard dash during spring practice last season. While he's struggled seeing playing time amidst a crowded outside linebacker unit, he more than impressed Navy fans by running down Army kickoff returner Pat Mealy during the Army-Navy game last December. Because of his clear athleticism the coaching staff has decided to try Eddington at fullback this spring, although there is no guarantee the switch will be permanent.
Vince Murray: A surprisingly fleet-of-foot junior at 6'1, 217 pounds, Murray did not see any carries a season ago but has looked impressive as a backup in both spring practice sessions and summer scrimmages. While not the most athletically gifted or even fundamentally sound fullback on the roster, he runs with a tremendous amount of determination and power, while at the same time showing a good burst to get through arm tackles on the line. He made himself relevant in spring a season ago, and could be the real darkhorse in the position race this spring. While he likely won't win the job, expect Murray to push Teich and Campbell and provide good depth coming out of April.
Alex Teich: A surprise to the coaching staff and fans alike last summer, Teich comes into spring currently listed as the starter on the latest depth chart. While he managed just seven carries for 24 yards in 2008 (second among returning fullbacks) he has nevertheless shown the coveted combination of speed and power that leaves fans drooling. At 6'0, 200-lbs his athleticism is unquestionable, especially considering he saw time as a kickoff returner in 2008. Yet the former high school track athlete is still relatively unproven, and above all will need to show an improved ability to protect the ball while running in-between the tackles. Still, he's a threat to score once he gets to the second level, and should exit the spring no worse than second string on the depth chart.
These players aren't expected to win the job outright, but could move their way up the depth chart with a strong spring showing.
Delvin Diggs- A former standout at NAPS, Diggs has terrific speed and gives the Mids perhaps their biggest "home-run threat" at fullback. Don't be surprised if he earns his way onto the depth chart.
John McCauley- Current plebe with good speed and power. Could move onto the depth chart if the Eddington experiment does not work.
Jack Hatcher- A rising senior who has never worked higher than the third team, Hatcher will provide needed depth to the position.
Torri Preston- Former NAPS player who comes into the year as a relative unknown.
Ridiculously Early Pre-Spring Verdict
Looking back at past Navy fullback position battles, this one strikes me as most akin to the one we saw in early 2005 when Adam Ballard and Matt Hall contended for the spot vacated by Kyle Eckel. In quite the same fashion there are two obvious favorites going into this competition (Teich and Campbell), although neither had distinguished himself completely above the other or even shown noticeable potential in the previous season.
That being the case both have their strengths, with Teich providing a little more of the home run hitting and open field explosiveness that characterized Eric Kettani's game in 2007. That's not to say Campbell is your stereotypical plodding fullback, and it does not suggest that either one is as complete a back as Kettani is. This latter notion leads me to believe that at least coming out of the spring the two will have the proverbial "OR" listed between them on the depth chart, and could even be used interchangeably into next season. I don't think there is any doubt that Teich is being groomed to be a full-time starter at some point in his career, but Campbell has shown enough in two seasons of relief work to warrant playing time in 2009, barring any sort of major injury or fumble-laden implosion.
That all being the case, this is not, by any means, a two Mid party. Had it not been for the ascendance of Teich over the course of last summer we could have very well seen his carries go to Vince Murray, who literally came out of nowhere last spring to overtake all but Kevin Campbell at one point on the spring depth chart. Now, with Kettani gone and the return of spring, I expect Murray to once again come on strong, and if nothing else push Teich and Campbell to elevate their own games. Finally, don't overlook Eddington or Diggs. Both have terrific speed, while Diggs has the benefit of being a former NAPS playmaker who knows the ins and outs of the position. There is no telling whether or not Eddington even manages to stay on the offense after the first week of spring ball, but I'd be willing to wager (hypothetically, of course) that if Eddington can pick up the basics he'll stick with the position at least through the remainder of the offseason.
While Navy may not be in possession of another NFL caliber talent like Kyle Eckel or Eric Kettani at the fullback position for 2009, the cupboard is by no means bare for a triple option offense that looks forward to its fourth consecutive rushing title. And with a host of willing candidates to audition for the position this spring, we may just be weeks away to identifying the next great fullback to pass through Annapolis.
Adam Nettina can be reached at AdamNettina@gmail.com.