“I wasn’t too pleased with my performance,” said the junior. “I thought I did ok, but nothing to really stand out. I really wasn’t pleased with my performance.”
If his comments come as a shock to some Navy fans, there’s good reason why. Ever since breaking out in intra-squad competition during the spring of 2009, Mike Stukel has mesmerized onlookers with his slippery juke moves and uncanny field sense. A quick survey of the past few months yields few exceptions, as the Jacksonville native led all Navy slotbacks with 54 yards on five carries during the team’s first scrimmage in April, and rocketed up to the top position on the depth chart soon after.
So what exactly was the 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior so upset about following the conclusion of spring practice? Perhaps it was the fact that he didn’t make the most of the opportunity he had seized in early April, and instead of finding himself entrenched atop the depth chart at slotback, he now faces the realization of an intense position battle heading into fall camp. According to the Florida native, it was the little things which ultimately did him in as far as his position on the depth chart is concerned, dropping him to the third spot at one of the A-back positions behind junior Aaron Santiago and senior Andre Byrd.
“It was just consistency,” Stukel said. “I wasn’t real consistent throughout camp. It was mostly with the blocking, but also when I got the ball in my hands. I felt like I could have done a lot more – just with ten yards here or fifteen yards there – instead of like a five yard gain. I felt like I could have done a lot better to be honest.”
Consistency has been a hallmark in the ongoing search to replace departed senior Bobby Doyle for the Navy slotbacks. “Big Play Bobby” wasn’t just a catchy moniker for the versatile slotback, and Navy’s efforts to replace Doyle have only been compounded by the recent dismissal of junior-to-be Marcus Curry. Curry, who led all Navy slotbacks in rushing and receiving in 2009, gave the Midshipmen offense a dynamic boost with his unique blend of size and speed, but his dismissal in early May (due to an Honor Code infraction) leaves Navy short on experience headed out of the spring. Stukel, who like Curry runs a sub 4.6 second 40-yard dash and sports an impressive frame, made no mistake of his intention to assume the void left by Curry, and said that becoming the “go-to” slotback is his goal heading into fall practices.
“That’s what I want to be,” said Stukel in regards to becoming the next “big-play” Navy slotback. In limited duty last season, the Florida native accounted for 54 yards on eight carries, the second most for returning Navy’s slotbacks in 2010.
“I am one of the bigger slotbacks, and hopefully I can be just as versatile in the passing game as Marcus was. Also with my blocking and running the football, which I think I bring to the table because my size and being one of the bigger slotbacks.”
Despite his position on the depth chart, Stukel figures to be in the hunt for the starting job come fall camp. Following the Blue and Gold Game, Navy headman Ken Niumatalolo addressed the slotback rotation, and warned against putting too much emphasis on evaluating coach Joe DuPaix’s grouping of the players.
"Slot back is probably the most competitive position we have," Niumatalolo said. "The depth chart changes daily. Aaron Santiago, Andre Byrd, Mike Stukel, John Howell, Bo Snelson (plus Marcus Curry and David Zapata) all have great attributes and then we have some kids coming in we are really excited about so that is our most competitive and deepest position. There is a fraction of a difference between all of them so every one of them better have a great summer."
For his part, Stukel is well aware that his ability to contribute on the field in 2010 depends on having a strong summer and fall camp. And while he admits that the constant move between quarterback and slotback over the past year has hindered his ability to pick up the intricacies of slotback, he maintains that the experience at quarterback hasn’t left him completely in the dark when it comes to adjusting to life as a fulltime A-back.
“Being at quarterback helped. Just with being in the meeting with coach Jasper, you kind of learn the whole offense. As a quarterback you know what your slotbacks are going to be doing, so with my transition to slotback I had a feeling of what I was supposed to do.”
The start of the academic year at the Academy might be a few months on the horizon, but Stukel is already gearing up for the fall. Not content to leave his talent on the sidelines, he’s staying hungry and focused on improving his speed and flexibility, as well as becoming a better pass catcher.
“What I’m going to be focused on mostly is my flexibility, my hands, and just getting out and running and working on my speed,” Stukel said. “Actually, that’s what I’m focused on the most – speed. I need to try to lay off the weights a little bit and to get more flexible in that sense.”
“I’ve talked to Ricky [Dobbs], and we’re going to try to throw everyday to where we can get comfortable with each other and get my hands to where they need to be,” he added.
With questions still abounding as to who will replace Curry is the offense, Stukel seems like the perfect fit. Fast, tough, and bolstering a strong work ethic, he’ll have to show consistency as a blocker and as a pass catcher this summer in order to make his presence felt in the offense. For now, Navy’s triple option offense will look to a number of smaller backs – including last year’s freshmen sensation Gee Gee Green – to assume the void left by Curry’s departure, with the knowledge that the “next Mid up” could come from any number of springtime heroes.