Navy had one of its most experienced teams last season, a group so stocked with veteran leaders that it became easy to ratchet up expectations.
But now the Midshipmen have to move forward without top players like Ricky Dobbs, Wyatt Middleton, Jeff Battipaglia, Greg Jones, Tyler Simmons and Kevin Edwards, to name a few. That senior class won 35 games, tied for the second-most wins for a class in school history with the groups in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
There obviously is no doubting Navy knows how to get its players ready to become leaders. Already, quarterback Kriss Proctor has taken the reigns on offense. Jabaree Tuani and Kwesi Mitchell have done the same on defense. But what could be a factor is inexperience. Navy has only three starters returning on defense after losing several seniors and two unexpected players. Starting linebacker Aaron McCauley left the academy for personal reasons, while free safety De'Von Richardson was dismissed for academic reasons.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo said his team worked as much as allowed under NCAA rules limiting tackling and 11-on-11 work during the spring so coaches could identify the players ready to start in 2011.
"You can hit a garbage can and walk through cones, but unless you play, it's hard to see who can do what," he said in a recent phone interview. "That's our approach when we have a new group of guys coming in, to set the foundation and then we go from there. There's no way you can simulate your opening game against Delaware or South Carolina, so turn you turn up the heat a little bit and see how you can handle it."
Indeed, stressing the culture of Navy football has been a constant.
"It's a word I've been using a lot just so they know this is how we play," Niumatalolo said. "We run to the ball, play harder than everyone else, we get off our blocks. It's understanding the mind-set of the way we play, especially from a defensive standpoint. If we want to have a remote chance to win, we have to play harder than everybody else."
The defense had to learn without defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who was out the majority of spring because of complications following gall bladder surgery. But Niumatalolo was able to identify some players who have a chance to make plays for the Midshipmen. Among them: linebackers Jarred Shannon and Mason Graham, and rover Tra'ves Bush.
Offensively, the big question is how Proctor will do in replacing Dobbs. So many new faces, but Proctor is confident his teammates have what it takes to have as much success as their predecessors.
"It's always a tight knit group at the Academy, Proctor said. "We call ourselves 'the brotherhood.' The closeness and the bond is always there. In terms of guys stepping up in leadership, we have a whole bunch who have stepped up and put the weight of the team on our shoulders."