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Navy Football: The Midshipmen have questions to answer in Spring Ball

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What to Expect from the 2019 Squad

Temple v Navy Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

There is a litany of questions for the 2019 Navy Football season. The last two seasons have fallen short of the standards the program has come to expect since the Paul Johnson era of the early 2000’s. Is this the new normal for Navy football? Something that was bound to happen when the Mids joined a conference four years ago? Or is this just a speed bump? It’s unreasonable to expect any program to sustain that level of success year over year in perpetuity. No program can do that unless your name is Nick Saban or Bill Belichick, but that doesn’t mean you can’t expect your program to at least be competitive.

What do the Mids have in store for 2019 with a heavy staff turnover and no clear starting quarterback? Gavin and Rocky tackle those questions and more!

Lehigh v Navy Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Who is going to takeover at quarterback?

In the 2018, Navy began the season with Malcolm Perry under center. It is clear that Perry is Navy’s most explosive athlete and talented player on the offense. For years, the Midshipmen have found great success when placing this type of player in charge of their offense. But with Perry, Navy struggled. There were many other factors to Navy starting the season 2-8.

Ultimately, the Midshipmen shuffled back and forth between Garret Lewis and Zach Abey throughout the rest of the season, even playing both of them in their final game of the season against Army. Abey and Lewis are both seniors and will not be returning next season.

So back to Perry at quarterback? Unlikely.

Rising junior, Dalen Morris, appears to be the front-runner for the starting position. Morris is listed as 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. However after seeing the coaches lack of decisiveness last season at the quarterback position, we can expect to see Perry getting plenty of repetitions this Spring Ball.

What can we expect going forward from the new coaching staff members?

Frankly, not much. Now, I’m not suggesting we should expect not much in regards to performance of coaching and results on the field. But, we can not jump too far ahead thinking Brian Newberry and his staff are going to immediately solve Navy’s defensive issues.

Newberry is the new defensive coordinator but will also be coaching the safeties specifically. This appears practical given the Midshipmen having serious issues on deep pass coverage. Navy has also brought on Coach Brian Norwood to coach the cornerback. Norwood has the most extensive and notable experience on the defensive staff, including stints with Penn State and, most recently, Kansas State.

While the coaching staff has changed, personnel has not. We will get our first look at whether Newberry plans to employ an zone defense or a man defense. Navy has been relatively unsuccessful with both in recent years.

Temple v Navy Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

How much can we expect from Nelson Smith?

Nelson Smith took the Navy backfield by storm in 2018, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Smith demonstrated a tremendous balance between power and breakaway speed. Smith plays the B-Back position, which serves as Navy’s fullback. He will likely be relied upon heavily this season, especially if Perry finds his way back to quarterback.

Navy’s offense is most successful when they are able to gain significant yardage up the middle. Therefore, it will be up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Bryan Fitzpatrick, to get Smith ready to be a freight train who can still break loose on occasion. The strength staff has had the full attention of the team since the end of last season. Spring Ball will highlight the fruits of their efforts. And of course, following the spring practices, the team will go back to strength and conditioning in preparation for Fall Camp and the 2019 season.

Navy’s 2019 Schedule Shifts to the Other Half of the AAC East. What Does That Mean for This Years Schedule?

Every two years American Athletic Conference programs swap the groups of teams they face from the other division of the conference. This year Navy goes back to facing arguably the “worst” teams in the conference that hail from the AAC East.

Navy had terrific success when it entered the AAC in 2015. Stating the obvious, that had almost everything to do with the fact that the Mids were led by arguably the greatest Navy football player of all time, with Keenan Reynolds under center. The Mids went 11-2 that season and capped off the historic run with a dominating victory over Pitt in the Military Bowl. Navy also got to face East Carolina (5-7) and UCONN (6-7), as well as South Florida, a program that was most definitely not weak (they went 8-5 that year).

Navy faced those same three teams in 2016 when they went 9-5 with surprise superstar Will Worth under center. Navy eked out a win over UCONN (3-9) early in the season, destroyed ECU (3-9), and lost to USF (11-2) in a Thursday night game on the road (one of the grittiest loses in recent memory.)

That brings us to 2017 when Navy swapped UCONN, ECU, and USF for the stronger half of the AAC East in Cincinnati (4-8), Temple (7-6), and National Champion Central Florida (13-0). Navy went 1-2 against them; those two losses were a part of the surprising spiral for a program that started the season 5-0. Navy finished 2017 7-6, but the future seemed promising for the 2018 season.

We now know, however, that Navy went 3-10 in 2018 which included an 0-3 record against the AAC East, including the first time Navy had been shut out in six years against Cincinnati (11-2). Navy also competed with, but ultimately fell to, both Temple (8-5) and Central Florida (12-1).

Looking ahead to the 2019 season, Navy gets to face the bottom half of the AAC East once again. The trio of ECU, UCONN, and USF went 11-26 collectively last year. While the Keenan Reynolds show set sail long ago, Coach Ken and his new crew have to be pleased they get to say goodbye to the other half of the AAC East that collectively went 31-8 last year.

The schedule is certainly more favorable than it has been in a few years for the Mids, but their reunion with the other AAC East foes are not guaranteed victories by any means. USF has remained a solid program and the Pirates will turn to Mike Houston to right the ship down in Greenville. A lot remains to be seen this year, but no one in Annapolis is upset they get a two-year reprieve from the powerhouses of the AAC in the other division.

Do We Need to Worry About Air Force or Army?

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Navy went 24-4 against Army and Air Force from 2002 to 2015, including the historic 14-year run against Army. The last 3 years, however, have been quite a different story for the Mids as they have gone just 1-5 against their Service Academy rivals, and have failed to win the Commander-in-Chiefs trophy outright three years in a row.

Air Force

NCAA Football: Air Force at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The rivalry with Air Force has been as fierce as ever, including the Falcons delivery of one of the worst losses for Navy in recent memory in the 2018 matchup (35-7) in Colorado Springs. Air Force was not particularly impressive in 2018, delivering a 5-7 performance on the season, but that did not stop Calhoun and company from throttling the Mids at home.

Air Force had plenty of position battles of their own last season, but it gets a little less complicated with Arion Worthman graduating. Fullback Cole Fagan returns for his senior year, and is the only Flacon to get close to 1000 yards rushing (997). They also return leading tacklers Jeremy Fejedelem (DB) and Kyle Johnson (ILB). Air Force will lose their leading receiver in Marcus Bennett.

Bottom line is you should not expect this matchup to get any easier for Navy. This is a do-or-die season for Calhoun who enters his 13th year as head coach for Air Force. 4 out of the last 7 years have been losing season for the Falcons, and although two of those years include 10 win seasons, the Falcons have claimed the CIC just 2 times in that stretch and 4 times throughout Calhoun’s tenure.

Army

NCAA Football: Army at Navy James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

After a decade and a half of dominance, Navy has lost three straight to Army. All three games have been one score affairs; in fact the last five contests between the rivals have been one score games. The gap has been closing for some time now, and Army’s star has been on the rise, while Navy’s appears to be declining. But I don’t think it’s been nearly as bad as it appears.

Yes, dropping three in a row to Army has been brutal, but go back and watch those games to see how close they really were. 2016 was Zach Abey’s first start EVER under center, and despite his understandably shaky performance, the Black Knights barely pulled out the win. 2017 was a defensive battle, and Army was saved by back-to-back false start penalties that turned a very makeable 38-yard FG in inclement weather, to a long shot 48-yard (barely) missed FG by Bennett Moehring. 2018 was the first year where Army really appeared to have the upper hand in the contest, but it was back-and-forth all afternoon, and they still only won by a touchdown even after several Navy mistakes at critical moments.

Look, I am obviously looking at this through Navy Blue and (Rose) Gold colored glasses. But the fact is this: Army’s 10 and 11-win seasons are impressive, but they came with strength of schedules ranked 73 both years. Those rankings were heavily weighted by games against Ohio State and Oklahoma on the road. Army’s matchup against Oklahoma in 2018 was undeniably a workshop in triple option magic at it’s finest, but make no mistake, everything absolutely broke their way that evening; and despite their incredible efforts, it still wasn’t enough. I say all this not to besmirch the great seasons Army has had lately, they were certainly noteworthy, rather I point this out to provide some context for distraught Navy fans everywhere. Yes, Army football has had Navy’s number for the last few years, but the streak had to end eventually, and the Black Knights began to peak at the right time.

Army is showing no times of stopping. They have managed to keep Monken around for at least one more year, and they return star quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr.; but they lose stud fullback Darnell Woolfolk. The Black Knights also lose linebacker and leading tackler James Nachtigal. Running backs Kell Walker and Connor Slomka also return in 2019, meaning 3 out of Army’s top 5 rushers will be back to help in the pursuit of three consecutive double digit win seasons. It also means the class of 2020 will try to be the first Army class to sweep Navy since the class of 1997.

While we acknowledge Army’s rise and growth over the last several seasons, we aren’t quite ready to anoint Army football as having surpassed Navy as the superior program yet, but they did catch up. Yes, Army has really come into form over the last three years, but they have also done so in the wake of injuries and turnover in the Navy program. We give credit where it’s due, and Army has just out played the Mids as of late, but that is not due to a talent disparity. I still think it’s too early to predict the winner for the 2019 Army Navy game, but for the sake of addressing the questions posed, I give West Point a slight advantage. We still have to see how spring ball plays out across these programs not to mention the fact that Army Navy is still 9 months way.

NCAA Football: Navy vs Notre Dame Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions

So as you can see there are still a lot things that remain to be seen for this season. There is a lot of uncertainty around the Navy program with all of the coaching and personnel changes, but a fresh start and a favorable schedule are on the horizon. Navy football has had adopted a “1-0” mentality and the last few seasons are now in the past. It’s early but we are going to conservatively predict an 8-5 year for the Mids.