With Great Expectations, Navy Sets Sail

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Annapolis: His team is fresh off a 10-4 season and has been ranked in several preseason Top 25 polls. His quarterback has garnered national acclaim as a Heisman trophy candidate. And when it comes to setting the stage for 2010, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo isn't veering from a familiar mantra: expect to win.

"Our expectation is to win. That is the only expectation we have," said Niumatalolo, who spoke for nearly 30 minutes on Thursday during the team's annual Media Day. The Naval Academy will begin fall camp in earnest on Friday, as the team holds the first of 29 workouts which will include four two-a-days and three scrimmages.

"Expect to win" has become more than just a marketing slogan for the Midshipmen in recent years, as 2010 demonstrated. Navy went 10-4 last season and finished just outside the Top 25, in the process soundly defeating Missouri in the Texas Bowl. National attention soon followed, and with 14 returning starters and 35 returning lettermen in 2010, some are predicting even greater success for Navy this season.

But when it comes to looking at 2010 as a season of especially high expectations, Niumatalolo isn't buying the hype based only on last year's success. "We don't look to the past," he said. "This is a new season. Anything we did last year has no bearing on this year."

For a program that has won seven consecutive Commander-in-Chief's trophies and gone to sevens straight bowl games, Navy's team objectives for 2010 remain consistent and unwavering.

"Our main goals are always the same," the third year headman said. "It's pretty simple: win the Commander-in-Chief's trophy and win a bowl game. Whatever (goals) the senior class has after that, it's their choice. We'll wait to see what they have."

Despite his warning not to think too highly of the 2010 team based on past accomplishments, Niumatalolo was pleased with the offseason gains made by his team, and was particularly complimentary of strength and conditioning coach Mike Brass in getting the team ready for the season. Prior to addressing the media, Niumatalolo oversaw the team's pre-camp shuttle run drills, and said that his players passed with flying colors.

"Our guys did a great job," Niumatalolo said. "Coach Brass and all of our training staff did a great job. Our young men worked really hard this summer and I'm very pleased with what we just saw. I'm excited from that standpoint."

There is a lot to be excited about for Navy, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where five of the team's top six rushers from 2009 return. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who rushed for an NCAA record 27 touchdowns in 2009, returns after offseason surgery, and has recently made headlines both on and off the field. A potential Heisman trophy candidate and member of the O'Brian Award Watchlist, Dobbs was honored with the key to his hometown during the summer, and also participated in numerous charitable activities. He admitted that his sudden celebrity status has been a whirlwind, but he isn't planning on letting the attention go to his head.

"I have to make sure I prepare as a quarterback and everything else falls into place," said Dobbs. "No matter what goes on I am who I am, but I need to make sure I'm doing those things and to stay humble and handle it as a quarterback."

His head coach agreed, saying: "The best way Ricky can help us is to be a quarterback. Not be the mayor of the city and not trying to do all this other stuff – just be a quarterback. That's our sole goal for him this camp."

The Mids will have other goals heading into the fall. Among the most pressing will be replacing four starters at linebacker. Only inside linebacker Tyler Simmons returns with significant playing experience to the unit, with defensive coordinator Buddy Green expecting to fill the other three linebacker spots with previously untested players.

"Our outside linebackers and our inside linebackers are relatively untested from the standpoint that they haven't played games, but we're real excited from a physical standpoint," Niumatalolo said.

"From a physical standpoint we look at those nametags all the time and we're really excited," he continued, adding that: "nametags don't play, so hopefully on September 6th they'll be ready to go."

Navy will play in-state rival Maryland to open the year. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN, and although Maryland went just 2-10 a season ago, Niumatalolo and his players aren't taking the Terps lightly.

"We've seen them on tape and know they have very good football players," said Niumatalolo. "We've got to be ready. Our focus is to be ready for a great Maryland football team and we know they'll be ready on September 6th."

Navy has already been named a favorite for the game, and is being touted as a team capable of even breaking into a BCS bowl game by some prognosticators. According to both Dobbs and defensive team captain Wyatt Middleton, the attention has been nice, but it won't hinder the team from staying focused and hungry as the season draws closer.

"All the hype...all the expectations from the media, it doesn't really mean (anything) until we come out there and perform," Dobbs said. "Part of our motto is the ‘Three H's,' and that is to stay humble, stay hungry, and try to stay healthy." Middleton, who recorded a team-high 4 interceptions, last year, concurred, saying: "we don't really pay attention to our rankings at all."

He continued, saying: "What matters is what people do on Saturday's when it's game time. Our thing and our focus as players right now is on each other and getting better every day. We don't worry about the rankings. We don't worry about the standings. We make sure we come out there every practice and get better everyday."

Navy will also be looking for a playmaking slotback, or A-back as they're known in the triple option. Last year's big-play slotback, Marcus Curry, was dismissed from the Academy during the offseason, while the other two prominent Navy slotbacks from 2009 – Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty – graduated. Navy has several players who will be in the mix to fill the avoid, although Niumatalolo isn't quite sure which players will step up.

"(A-Back) is a position that really is wide open," Niumatalolo said. "Even though we lost some guys with experience I'm very excited with what we have coming back. (they're very, very talented young men…Whoever comes out of it, we know we have good players who'll come out of that group."

Expectations from the outside might be higher than usual, but Niumatalolo and his players won't let that limit or hinder them throughout fall camp. Neither, they say, will comparisons to the 2009 team. Only hard work and a focus on the next game will help the Mids continue their run as a service academy heavyweight, and perhaps prove once and for all that Navy is a program with serious staying power.

"From teaching to coaching to the way we practice, we're getting ready for the 2010 season," Niumatalolo said. "Anything that has happened to this program which is great, you can't look at that. You can't look at the rearview mirror – you've got to look ahead. Our coaches and players have done a great job in doing that."

Adam Nettina is a writer for GoMids.com and the sports editor of the Utah Statesman. You can follow him online at Twitter.com/AdamNettina

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