Navy football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Midshipmen, best players and season prediction.
The quarterback from last year’s first-ever 11-win season is gone. The head coach from that squad, though, is still in Annapolis.
Navy knew that 2015 would be the final glorious chapter for record-setting QB Keenan Reynolds. However, there were some tenuous moments in December regarding the future of head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was being courted by BYU. Coach Ken stayed put, resulting in a sigh of relief throughout the Academy.
Niumatalolo has been one of the game’s premier coaches over the past eight seasons, building upon what Paul Johnson first started in 2002. Johnson and now Niumatalolo have succeeded in doing the improbable in this era of college football, transforming a service academy into a program that expects to perennially win eight or nine games.
But after almost copping a crown in their inaugural season in the American, and cracking the Top 25 for the first time in 11 years, the Mids face a lot of work ahead to match the 2015 results.
Reynolds was one of 35 seniors who used up their final season of eligibility, so the 2016 squad is going to be younger and a lot less experienced. The next in a long line of prolific triple-option quarterbacks here is senior Tago Smith, who’s ready to seize his opportunity. He’ll be the centerpiece of an entirely new backfield looking for holes behind an entirely new front wall.
The defense is facing a similar situation, wholesale changes and the need to rebuild in the trenches. While the Midshipmen D enjoyed a bounce back campaign a year ago, maintaining that trend will largely be the responsibility of the newcomers to the lineup at nose guard and in the secondary. If Navy is unable to plug holes on this side of the ball, the odds of unseating Houston in the West Division grow markedly longer.
Now that Niumatalolo has resisted the temptation to take on a new challenge, it’s relatively smooth sailing ahead for a Naval Academy that’s remarkably won at least eight games in 12 of the past 13 seasons. Yes, significant roster turnover brings new challenges to the staff. But the Midshipmen have become the epitome of consistency, discipline and stability since the beginning of this century. And with Niumatalolo at the helm, they’ll find a way to remain at the forefront of postseason and Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy contention.
What You Need to Know About the Navy Offense
The 2015 starting lineup should have been written on an Etch A Sketch, because everyone but star WR Jamir Tillman has been erased from the current roster. The Mids are starting over, and not just with the graduation of iconic QB Keenan Reynolds.
All five starting linemen need to be replaced, as do four of last season’s five best backs. Still, the triple-option is such a fixture in Annapolis that the attack will fare better than others undergoing such turnover. It’s going to help that Reynolds’ heir, Tago Smith, is a senior who’s spent his past few years preparing for this opportunity. Provided a capable line can be cobbled together by assistants Chris Culton and Ashley Ingram, slot backs Toneo Gulley and Dishan Romine are poised to deliver breakout seasons.
But the ground game in these parts also relies heavily on the fullback, a role being undertaken by senior Shawn White. At 6-1 and 255 pounds, he’s Navy’s largest fullback of the triple-option era, yet he’s surprisingly nimble and eager to emerge from the shadow of Chris Swain.
Biggest Key To The Navy Offense
The machinations up front. Yeah, the big news is that Tago Smith is replacing legendary QB Keenan Reynolds, but the bigger concern is that last year’s starting O-line has been wiped clean by graduation. Five new starters, with hard-nosed junior Robert Lindsey expected to be the leader from right tackle. Replacing Reynolds is a daunting enough task for this offense. Doing it in a year that the line is rebooting and 1,000-yard FB Chris Swain has graduated will be an epic challenge.
What You Need to Know About the Navy Defense
The Midshipmen D bounced back in a big way last season, allowing 21.8 points per game. Now, coordinator Dale Pehrson will look to keep the unit rolling, despite the loss of much of the defensive line and the secondary.
Navy can take solace in a veteran corps of linebackers that’ll be anchored by Daniel Gonzales, Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore. However, beyond the second level, the team will be graded by how well it regroups at the nose, now being handled by Patrick Forrestal, and in the secondary.
The Mids lost a ton of veteran leadership in the defensive backfield, which is why the late April reinstatement of CB Brendon Clements was such an important offseason development. Without the senior, who was shelved for an unspecified violation of Naval Academy rules, juniors Elijah Merchant and Tyris Wooten rose to the top of the depth chart by the end of spring drills.
Biggest Key To The Navy Defense
Run, Forrestal, run. The offensive line is getting an extreme makeover. So, too, is the defensive line. The ends ought to be okay with Amos Mason mentoring up-and-coming sophomore Jarvis Polu. However, the all-important nose guard position is a different story. Cagey veteran Bernard Sarra will be missed in the middle, leaving senior Patrick Forrestal with the tall task of filling the void. Forrestal has been a solid contributor off the bench, but must now prove he can be an every-down traffic jammer.
Navy Will Be Far Better If …
the defense can control the better offensive attacks on the schedule. The Midshipmen only lost two games in 2015, allowing 41 points to Notre Dame and 52 to Houston in the seminal matchup to decide the West Division champion. Navy will again face the Fighting Irish and the Cougars, and improving on last year’s banner season will mean finding a way to corral quarterbacks Greg Ward Jr., Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.
Best Offensive Player
Junior WR Jamir Tillman. When you operate out of a triple-option, it’s less than ideal when a wide receiver is your most accomplished player. But such is life in Annapolis this offseason. Tillman is to Navy what Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill were to Georgia Tech in recent years, a big target who can torch defenses that overcommit to stopping the run. When Tillman isn’t taking the top off the secondary, he’s simulating the role of a blocking tight end on running downs.
Best Defensive Player
Senior LB Daniel Gonzalez. Gonzales is everything the Midshipmen want in a SAM linebacker, tough, smart and fueled by a motor that doesn’t quit. He sets the example for his defensive teammates, one of the key reasons why he was named a co-captain prior to the start of spring drills. Gonzalez is one of the Mids the staff will lean on the hardest this fall, for his consistency and his general approach to the game.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB Tago Smith. Absolutely no one is counting on a reincarnation of Keenan Reynolds, a player who had his number retired by the Academy. But Smith will have to be one of the visible faces of the Midshipmen, because that’s a built-in role of the point man of the triple-option. He’s been patiently waiting for this opportunity, and he’s learned behind one of the best. Plus, Smith has started a pair of games in his career, and Navy QBs get plenty of practice reps, so he should be mentally prepared to succeed a legend.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Midshipmen win at least eight games … again. In one of college football’s most remarkable feats this century, Navy has won no fewer than eight times in 12 of the last 13 seasons. And if they can maintain that high standard of excellence the year after Keenan Reynolds and nearly every starting lineman from both sides of the ball, it’ll be further testament to the ability of Ken Niumatalolo to lead—and coach up—young student-athletes.
Dec. 10 vs. Army. The Oct. 10 visit from Houston could go a long way to determining who captures the American West. And Nov. 5 in Jacksonville, Fla. against Notre Dame is another chance to make a huge national wave. But absolutely nothing compares to facing the Black Knights in one of the sport’s most storied and consequential rivalries. Navy will be looking for its 11th Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, pending the outcome of the Oct. 1 trip to Air Force, and its 15th consecutive win over Army.
2015 Fun Stats
– Rushing yards per game: Navy 326.7 – Opponents 143.0
– Yards per catch: Navy 20.0 – Opponents 11.5
– Turnovers: Navy 8 – Opponents 27