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Kyle Eckel

Kyle Eckel

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Chuck Burton/Associated Press Navy's Shun White celebrates their 24-17 win over then No.

16 Wake Forest last September.Location: Annapolis, Md.Nickname: Midshipmen.

2008 Countdown ranking: No.

62.What I said in last year’s preview: Many critics will point to Johnson leaving for Georgia Tech as a sign of impending doom for the Navy program, and while his departure may signal an eventual downturn, Navy is still in fine shape for another winning season and bowl appearance.

This is mainly due to the fine senior talent and leadership (Kaheaku-Enhada, Kettani, White, King) returning for the Mids, but credit should also go to the Navy administration, whose hiring of Niumatalolo should grant needed continuity to one of the hottest programs in the country.

Looking at this fall, the Mids take on the usual suspects (Air Force, Notre Dame, Army), while also tangling with the 2007 bowl participants Ball State, Rutgers and Wake Forest.

Though the future without Johnson may be giving Navy fans pause, this fall should not bring any major step back.

I predict a 7-5 finish but, unfortunately for the Midshipmen, a passing of the guard to Air Force in the battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.Postseason re-ranking: No.


2008 record and recap: (8-5, 0-0).

A game better than I expected from Navy in its first year without Paul Johnson, who left for Georgia Tech following the 2007 season.

His replacement, Ken Niumatalolo, did a masterly job of maintaining the high level of play the program had been accustomed to under Johnson, beating B.C.S.-level opposition and remaining competitive in nearly every game.

Most important, Navy beat Army and Air Force to claim another Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

My major concern heading into last fall â€Â" and a concern, I believe, shared by many Navy fans â€Â" was how productive the Navy offense could be without Johnson running the show (this will be the last time I mention Paul Johnson, I swear).

Yes, there was a distinct drop in scoring, from 511 total points (39.3 per game) to 373 (28.7), but the Mids did lead the nation in rushing for the fourth straight season, an N.C.A.A.


The team’s rushing average dipped from 348.8 in 2007 to 292.4 last fall, but that was partly because of injuries at the quarterback position, where Niumatalolo was forced to start three different players.

So how were the Mids able to match last season’s win total? With a ferocious defense: Navy allowed only 22 points per game, a decrease of two touchdowns per game from the 36.4 points per game allowed the season before.

It marked the best single-season increase in the F.B.S.

in 2008.

For Navy to again reach bowl play next season, it will need to get a similar performance from the defense, which returns seven starters.

High point: The win over Army, Navy’s seventh straight in the series.

Over the past two seasons, the Mids have outscored the Cadets, 72-3.

Navy also beat three teams that finished 2008 with eight victories: Rutgers, Air Force and Wake Forest.

The win over the Falcons gave Navy its sixth consecutive Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, tying Air Force’s record for the longest streak of titles in the three-way series (1997-2002).

Low point: Hard to find fault in any of Navy’s defeats, minus a 41-31 loss to Duke on Sept.


That dropped Navy to 1-2, but the team rolled off five wins in its next six games to right the ship (nice Naval metaphor).

Navy’s four other setbacks? At Ball State, to then-No.

23 Pittsburgh, to Notre Dame (by 27-21) and to Wake Forest, the latter of which came in a rematch at the EagleBank Bowl.

Tidbit: Navy has 51 wins over the last six seasons, the fourth most of any non-B.C.S.-conference program.

Can you name the three programs that have more victories since 2003? The first to answer the question correctly earns the opportunity to write a 100-word preview of his or her favorite team to be included in the Countdown’s larger preview.

The preview, of course, must be written in a foreign language.Former players in the N.F.L.: 5 â€Â" WR Tyree Barnes (New England Patriots), FB Kyle Eckel (Philadelphia Eagles), FB Eric Kettani (New England Patriots), OG Mike Wahle (Seattle Seahawks), RB Shun White (New England Patriots).

Top five N.F.L.

players from Navy: Navy is entitled to a pass here, just like we gave to Army for its lack of alumni in the N.F.L.

And yes, by and large, the Mids have not put a plethora of ex-players into the pro ranks.

But one, of course, was Roger Staubach, one of the great quarterbacks in N.F.L.


So, in addition to graduating a United States president (Jimmy Carter), a man who walked on the moon (Alan Shepard), an Arctic explorer (Richard Byrd) and countless others who have made their mark on American life, Navy has given us a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.


QB Roger Staubach (Dallas; 1969-79) 2.

OG Mike Wahle (Green Bay, Carolina, Seattle; 1998-present) 3.

OT Max Lane (New England; 1994-2000) 4.

WR Phil McConkey (Giants, Green Bay, San Diego, Phoenix; 1984-89) 5.

RB Napoleon McCallum (Los Angeles; 1986-94)TeamConference: Independent.Head coach: Ken Niumatalolo (Hawaii ‘89), 8-5 after one season at Navy.

Niumatalolo is the first Polynesian head coach in F.B.S.

history and the first Samoan head coach on any collegiate level.

Reaching eight wins, matching the team’s 2007 total, has to make the 2008 season a successful one for the Midshipmen.

The team did take a step back offensively, but the defense made great strides in scoring, keeping the team competitive in most games.

Niumatalolo joined George Welsh as the only first-year Navy coaches to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy (something, admittedly, I didn’t think the Midshipmen would do last fall).

All told, a very successful season for the rookie coach, though â€Â" at least for me â€Â" he’ll need to bring the Mids back into bowl play in 2009 before putting his predecessor in his rearview mirror.

Niumatalolo has served two stints at Navy: the first from 1995-98, under the current Louisiana-Monroe coach, Charlie Weatherbie, and from 2002 to 2007 under Paul Johnson.

Niumatalolo has several ties to his predecessor: in addition to serving as his assistant head coach and offensive line coach, Niumatalolo took over as offensive coordinator when Johnson left for Georgia Southern in 1996 and was the starting quarterback at Hawaii when Johnson was coordinating the Warrior attack in the late 1980s.

His first stretch with the Mids, though marginally less successful (24-21), gave Niumatalolo valuable play-calling experience, which helped in his transition last fall.

In addition to his time at Navy, Niumatalolo has coached at his alma mater (1992-94) and U.N.L.V.


Returning starters: 11 (4 offense, 7 defense).Key losses: The offense was hit by losses at both the skill positions and along the line to the tune of seven lost starters.

To be honest, I’m only concerned about two of the departed former Mids: fullback Eric Kettani and slotback Shun White.

Both players topped 2,000 career rushing yards, making them the first teammates in school history to reach that mark.

Over all, Kettani finished ninth in team history in rushing (2,091 yards), White sixth (2,311).

As seniors, the pair finished one-two on the team in yardage: White led the team with a career-high 1,092 yards (on a team-record 8.3 yards per carry) and added 8 scores, while Kettani finished with 982 yards.

That total gave Kettani 1,662 yards over his final two seasons.

Of course, much of White’s yardage came in one game, the season opener against Towson University (part of the F.C.S.), where he rolled up a team-record 348 yards rushing.

The Midshipmen also lost two valuable contributors at quarterback, including multiple-year starter Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.

I had very high hopes for Kaheaku-Enhada entering his final season, but the senior struggled through injuries and played in only six games; he only began and completed three of the team’s 13 games.

His numbers obviously took a dip â€Â" 295 yards rushing and 305 yards passing â€Â" from his sophomore and junior seasons, when he combined for 35 total touchdowns, 22 on the ground.

In his stead, the Mids looked toward Jarod Bryant, who responded with career highs in rushing (481 yards), passing (275) and touchdowns (8, 6 rushing).

Bryant’s departure robs Navy of much-needed depth at the position.

At wide receiver, the Midshipmen will miss the pass-catching of Tyree Barnes (20 receptions for 400 yards, by far the best totals on the team) and the blocking of Curtis Sharp and T.J.

Thiel, which helped free countless Navy ball carriers for long gains.

Finally, two more starters are lost up front: Anthony Gaskins and Ricky Moore.

Gaskins started the final 26 games of his career.

The defense seems in much better shape.

Four starters must be replaced, including the three-year starting cornerback Rashawn King, whose final season saw him post a career-best three interceptions.

King finished with at least 49 tackles in each of his final three years, starting at least 10 games in each season.

Ketric Buffin, another multiple-year starter at corner, tied King for the team lead with three picks; that gave him a career total of nine, seven over the past two seasons.

The would-be senior Darius Terry, a favorite to step into one of the open cornerback spots this fall, recently left the team, thinning the Navy depth in the defensive backfield.

The rover and linebacker Jeff Deliz, made the most of an extra year of eligibility by setting a career high with 82 tackles (4 for loss), third on the team.

Deliz, who started 10 games at rover and 3 at outside linebacker, was granted a fifth year of play after breaking his foot two games into the 2007 season.

Corey Johnson, another fine outside linebacker, capped his lone season in the starting lineup with 85 stops (8.5 for loss) and 2 sacks.

Terrific numbers for the former Navy basketball player, who did not play college football until the fall of 2007.

Players to watch: The new starter at quarterback is the junior Ricky Dobbs, who started one game and earned significant playing time in four others a season ago.

He was impressive when called upon.

In his lone start, a 16-0 win over Northern Illinois, Dobbs rushed for 124 yards on 25 carries.

That was his second-highest single-game total on the season, trailing a 224-yard performance against S.M.U., a game he did not start but entered in the second quarter.

For the year, Dobbs rushed for 495 yards (third on the team) and passed for 212 more.

He tied for the team lead with eight rushing touchdowns, and led all Navy quarterbacks in completing 56.2 percent of his passes.

It is in the passing game where Dobbs will separate himself from Bryant and Kaheaku-Enhada, giving the Mids an added dimension to their offense.

I’m excited to see what Dobbs can do over the course of a season.

Navy will need to keep him healthy, as depth is a concern.

The senior Bobby Doyle has been tabbed to step in at slotback after serving as a backup in 2008.

Last fall Doyle had 169 yards rushing (a team-leading 10.6 yards per carry) and 54 yards receiving.

I believe he’ll step into White’s shoes nicely in terms of production, though cracking 1,000 yards rushing might be too much to ask.

Either the senior Cory Finnerty (71 yards rushing, 1 touchdown) or the sophomore Marcus Curry will fill the second open slotback position (held by Greg Shinego last fall).

While the Navy wide receivers are blockers first, pass-catchers second, the team will have a nice option in the passing game with the junior Mario Washington.

The juniors Mick Schupp and Greg Jones will also be featured at wideout.

The offensive line should be good.

Two starters must be replaced, but the team returns solid starters in the senior Curtis Bass and the juniors Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Molloy.

Battipaglia is the best of this group.

A fourth player with starting experience from a season ago, the senior Austin Milke, will be a key reserve at both tackle spots.

I believe the Navy defense will suffer no drop-off in its play from a season ago, and should be even better.

Like all good defenses, it all starts up front, where the Mids return every player from their 2008 two-deep.

The leader of the unit, and the leader of the defense as a whole, is the senior nose guard Nate Frazier, whose junior season (44 tackles, 9 for loss, a sack and an interception) marked an improvement over his stellar 2007 campaign.

He is the engine of the Navy three-man front.

He is joined by the ends Michael Walsh, Matt Nechak and Jabaree Tuani, each of whom made at least four starts last fall.

Tuani, a sophomore, earned freshman all-American honors after posting 42 tackles (9 for loss) and 1.5 sacks.

Though Tuani may start, Walsh will see plenty of time in the rotation at left end.

The group at linebacker is almost equally strong.

The seniors Ross Pospisil (team-best 106 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Tony Haberer will start in the middle (Navy runs a 3-4 defense).

Haberer made five starts inside last fall.

Another starter at middle linebacker, the senior Clint Sovie (60 tackles), will move to outside linebacker, where he’ll be joined by fellow seniors Craig Shaefer and Ram Vela.

While Vela might not find himself in a starting role, he’s a solid reserve who can step in at both outside linebacker spots.

Navy is as deep and experienced at linebacker as any team in the F.B.S.

Leading the way in the secondary is the junior rover Wyatt Middleton, now entering his third season as a starter.

Middleton has notched 163 tackles over his first two seasons.

The secondary received a boost from the junior Emmett Merchant’s decision in mid-May to remain with the program; there was a period where it looked like Merchant would not be with the team in 2009.

Merchant started three games at rover last fall, making 38 tackles and a pair of interceptions.

Middleton moved to rover in Merchant’s stead, and may remain there while Merchant works his way back into the starting lineup (and into the coaching staff’s good graces).

The senior Blake Carter becomes the team’s top cornerback.

After starting in 2007, Carter finished his junior season with only 16 tackles.

Position battle to watch: While I believe Doyle will step in nicely for White at one slotback spot, the fullback position remains a question mark.

This is a very important position for the Navy offense: while the team relies on its slotbacks for outside carries, the fullback does all the dirty work up the middle.

I expect Dobbs to help out between the tackles, but finding a solid workhorse who can soften up the opposing defense while taking care of the ball will be important.

As it currently stands, three Mids are in competition for the starting role: the sophomore Alexander Teich, the junior Vince Murray and the senior Kevin Campbell; Teich is the favorite.

Like most first-year Mids, Teich played sparingly in 2008, carrying the ball only 7 times for 24 yards.

Kettani, for example, played in only three games as a freshman.

Unlike Kettani, Teich does not bring prototypical size to the position (6 feet, 217 pounds).

However, he may end up being a bigger home run threat than his predecessor, though he’ll need to burrow his way through the first line of defense first.

Campbell has the most experience of the three, having finished his junior season with 84 yards rushing on 22 carries.

Though Teich has the inside edge to the starting job, I believe you’ll see all three earn carries throughout the season, especially if the sophomore is unable to stand up to the physical nature of the position.

2009 schedule: Sept.

5 @ Ohio State Sept.

12 Louisiana Tech Sept.

19 @ Pittsburgh Sept.

26 Western Kentucky Oct.

3 Air Force Oct.

10 @ Rice Oct.

17 @ S.M.U.


24 Wake Forest Oct.

31 Temple Nov.

7 @ Notre Dame Nov.

14 Delaware Nov.

28 @ Hawaii Dec.

12 Army (in Philadelphia)Game(s) to watch: Army, always.

My recurring nightmare every December is that many college football fans will not tune in to Army-Navy â€Â" the best rivalry in college sports â€Â" causing CBS to decide to discontinue its yearly tradition of broadcasting the game.

I worry, I know.

The game with Air Force will decide the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

Finally, I see Louisiana Tech as a big game for the Mids: sandwiched by two tough road games, it may be a must-win.

Season breakdown & prediction: The schedule has been beefed up quite a bit: Towson, Ball State and Duke are off the docket, replaced by Ohio State, Louisiana Tech, Pittsburgh and Hawaii.

This schedule alone will make it difficult for the Midshipmen to reach eight wins, though having a 13th game helps.

Like it has in the past, Navy will do a number of things well in 2009: run the ball tremendously, protect the ball (win the turnover battle), play tough defense and, as always, give 100 percent effort in every game.

That is what makes Navy, and Army and Air Force as well, such a joy to watch: the Mids are not better, in terms of talent, than any opponent on their roster (with the exception, perhaps, of the Cadets).

But Navy makes up for that lack of talent with honor, courage and commitment â€Â" the Academy’s core values.

How far will that take the Mids in 2009? Back to a bowl game, for starters.

I expect a rough start but see Navy finding its balance during a midseason stretch of winnable games, and locking a bowl bid with either a road win at Hawaii or in the season finale against Army.

And what of the C.I.C.

Trophy? Yes, I understand the Mids have taken it to Air Force in six straight matchups, and yes, I realize the game is in Annapolis; nevertheless, I believe the Falcons are the better team in 2009, and will take back the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after a seven-year drought.

My respect for what Navy has done since 2002 knows no bounds, and even with a 7-6 regular-season finish â€Â" my prediction â€Â" that won’t change.

Dream season: The offense improves and the defense remains stingy: 10-3 and in the top 25.

Final score against Army? Mids 38, Cadets 10.Nightmare season: Navy slips to 5-8, largely thanks to a defense that reverts to 2007 form.

Final score against Army? Cadets 21, Mids 17.Where do Navy fans congregate: When it comes to Navy football coverage, nobody does it better than

In addition, check out The Birddog for a blog’s take and find local newspaper coverage at The Capital and The Washington Post.

Who is No.

63?: This university’s home state has a fine history of good college coaches, like Hayden Fox and, of course, his lead assistants Luther Van Dam and Michael Dybinski.
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