While it is still too early to tell whether or not Navy's spring season will pay dividends in leading the Mids to a fifth straight rushing crown, second year head coach Ken Niumatalolo said in a recent interview that he is pleased with the progress his team made this spring, pointing specifically to improvement at the quarterback and fullback positions. Among those players who showed the most improvement during the spring was quarterback Ricky Dobbs, whom Niumatalolo said progressed tremendously in both his understanding of the option as well as his passing.
"I was very encouraged from what I saw. I thought [Ricky] improved with his ball mechanics. Every day I thought he got better and better with reading [the defense]…he also brings a different component with his throwing ability."
While Dobbs only confirmed what most fans and onlookers expected in securing the starting quarterback job, the questioning as to who would back up the Douglasville, Georgia native still lingered heading into the spring. Sophomores Mike Stukel, Kriss Proctor, Brian Blick, and Kameron Smith all appeared even at the start of spring practice, with senior Greg Zingler also figuring to have an opportunity to state his case for one of the three spots on the depth chart.
Yet as March turned to April much of the drama of the question had faded, with California native Kriss Proctor establishing himself as the favorite for the backup job. Brian Blick was moved to safety after only a week of practice while Kameron Smith was sidelined with a shoulder injury, leaving Mike Stukel as the only other quarterback to realistically challenge the six-foot, one-inch Proctor. But Proctor repeatedly showed a better ability in orchestrating the read-based option offense than his classmate could, forcing head coach Ken Niumatalolo to move him behind Dobbs on the depth chart on the final spring release. For Niumatalolo, Proctor's ascendance to the backup role was something of a surprise, as the native Hawaiian admitted he had originally misjudged his reserve quarterback.
"[Kriss Proctor] has hands like Kaipo," said Niumatalolo when asked to compare Proctor to a past Navy quarterback. "He has real quick hands, and he is faster than I realized he was. I knew he was a fast kid off of tape, but you never really know it until a guy like him comes and you see it in person. He's a lot tougher than I thought. I guess I stereotyped him as a "surfer" kind of guy, but he's a tough kid and I was very happy with what I saw from Kriss."
As for Stukel, the Navy coach says the sophomore from Florida still has a bright future on the team, a point which Niumatalolo says influenced his decision in moving the five foot, eleven-inch athlete to slot back.
"[Mike Stukel] is a bigger ‘A-back' than we usually get, he's a guy with some size. He does great things with the ball in his hands and that's what we want to try to do; put him in a position where he has the ball in his hands… Mike is one of our faster kids, and he is a stocky and strong runner who we just feel like is too much of an asset to be on the bench."
Another major question coming out of last season was the question as to which player would succeed fullback Eric Kettani. Kettani, who recently signed a contract with the New England Patriots of the NFL, accounted for some 88% of Navy's carries from the position a year ago. Navy's coaches say they've found their answer in replacing Kettani in sophomore Alex Teich, who asserted himself atop to depth chart and comes out of April as the likely starter for 2009. The six-foot, 215-pound Texan displayed a level of athleticism not seen from prior Navy fullbacks, and was a consistent standout in Navy's three scrimmages during the spring.
"I always thought in my mind that Alex could be the guy, and I was encouraged by what he did this spring," said Niumatalolo, who referenced Teich's fifteen pound weight gain this offseason as a real testament to the sophomore's work ethic.
"I wanted to see if he was strong enough to take the pounding, and I was really excited with what I saw this spring. He took some shots but continued to weather the storm. He is quicker than some of the guys we've had in the past, and I think with his mobility and lateral movement that he is going to present some problems for people because he hits the hole a lot quicker than some of the guys we've had in the past."
The one concern the staff continues to have about Teich is his size. Acknowledging that the lack of a serviceable backup a year ago took its toll on the 243-pound Eric Kettani, Niumatalolo expressed concern over the ability of Teich to bear a similar load at fullback in 2009. Fortunately, said the second year head coach, the emergence of Vince Murray and Kevin Campbell behind Teich on the depth chart should pay dividends for the Mids come September, as the two upperclassman fullbacks showed the ability to come in replace Teich as needed during the spring. Murray in particular caught the eye of Niumatalolo over the course of the spring, and according to his head coach has put himself in contention for earning carries in 2009 despite not registering a single carry last season.
"I thought Vince had a great spring," said Niumatalolo when asked about Murray. "Here was a guy who had kind of been moved down on the depth chart, but he lost some weight and leaned out and it has given him some quickness."
The Midshipmen also addressed questions on the offensive line during the month of NCAA-sanctioned practices, with the staff getting a pleasant surprise in the ability of converted guard Brady DeMell to step in and play center for departed senior Ricky Moore. DeMell, who at 296-pounds gives the Mids a strong interior presence against odd man defensive fronts like the one Air Force runs, especially benefited from competition with Navy senior nose guard Nate Frazier this spring. Noting that the senior has been one of the most physically imposing Navy defensive linemen Navy has seen during the past decade, Niumatalolo praised Frazier's ability to challenge DeMell this spring, as well as DeMell's ability to hold his own in the battle between the trenches.
"The great thing for us is that [Brady] got to go against Nate Frazier every day," said Niumatalolo, who served as offensive line coach during Paul Johnson's tenure as head coach at Navy.
"There is no drill that coach Ingram could have devised that could better prepare somebody than one for someone to go against a 300-pounder who has played a ton of football games….I think [Brady] has a long way to go but I am definitely encouraged by what I saw from the fifteen spring practices that we had."
Despite improvement in what he calls the team's "overall body of work," Niumatalolo stressed that his team has not yet answered all the pre-spring questions both fans and media members have posed. Aside from continued improvement in all phases of the triple option, Niumatalolo reiterated that his team must improve on special teams, where the second year headman said junior return man Mario Washington will have to battle to keep his punt returning and kick returning duties.
"[Mario] will start, but it's an open competition. We will let some of the young guys compete. We will obviously do more in camp, and we've got to work hard in all of our special teams phases…that is an area we are going to have to spend a lot of time in during summer camp."
Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina@gmail.com.