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1. Good hires and commitment
Make really good hires, back those hires up with good support in terms of facilities, salaries, etc., and voila. Any program can succeed.
I spent a good portion of my Army and Air Force previews talking about how difficult service academy jobs are in modern college football. Recruiting has all sorts of obvious limitations. Athletic budgets are not exactly expansive. Admissions and fitness requirements are both necessary and a hindrance. That FBS football still has a place for the service academies is unique and fantastic, but it's pretty much impossible for these teams to play at an elite level.
That hasn't stopped Navy from being damn decent for most of the last decade and change. The Midshipmen have been to 11 bowls in the last 12 years and have won at least nine games five times in that stretch. They have ranked 67th or better in the F/+ rankings seven times since 2005. Air Force and Army in those same spans of time: two nine-win seasons and seven bowls in 12 years, four top-67 rankings (none since 2010). In 2013: Air Force and Army 5-19, Navy 9-4.
Navy has more money to work with in its athletic department, and the Midshipmen are able to maintain larger bodies in the trenches (to a degree). The commitment appears to be there for the most part. But really, Navy has just made two straight good hires, first replacing Charlie Weatherbie with Paul Johnson in 2002, then replacing Johnson with Ken Niumatalolo when Johnson left for Georgia Tech in 2008. That's hard to do, and it will make just about any program good.
Niumatalolo has had to overcome in recent years. Following the loss of quarterback Ricky Dobbs and some high-impact defensive players, his program regressed a bit, from 37th in the F/+ rankings in 2009, to 51st, 73rd, and 97th, in consecutive years. His 2012 squad was lucky to finish 8-5 but figured out ways to win close games with a freshman at quarterback. And the experience the Midshipmen gained in scuffling through 2012 paid off in 2013. Navy surged to 58th and 9-4 last fall and did so with complete program improvement -- the Middies' rankings improved from 87th to 32nd in Off. F/+, 107th to 97th in Def. F/+, and 43rd to 11th in special teams.
Navy's 2014 squad will certainly have some question marks, but there's enough experience here to expect the Middies to maintain last year's levels. This team has committed to its identity -- flexbone triple option on offense, bend-don't-break 3-4 on defense -- better than almost any program in the country, and it paid off in 2013. It should again this year. And quarterback Keenan Reynolds looked awfully Dobbsian in 2013.
Really, it takes good hires, commitment, and a quarterback. I guess I should have added that to the header.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 58|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|7-Sep||at Indiana||56||41-35||W||33.6 - 31.7||W|
|14-Sep||Delaware||N/A||51-7||W||37.5 - 40.3||L|
|28-Sep||at Western Kentucky||77||7-19||L||14.4 - 22.9||L|
|5-Oct||Air Force||113||28-10||W||20.1 - 21.8||L|
|12-Oct||at Duke||41||7-35||L||27.0 - 30.4||L||-2.9|
|19-Oct||at Toledo||62||44-45||L||26.7 - 31.7||L||-4.3|
|26-Oct||Pittsburgh||54||24-21||W||31.9 - 28.9||W||-3.1|
|2-Nov||at Notre Dame||26||34-38||L||37.3 - 54.6||L||-4.9|
|9-Nov||Hawaii||82||42-28||W||34.9 - 40.5||L||-5.6|
|16-Nov||South Alabama||68||42-14||W||45.5 - 20.3||W||0.1|
|22-Nov||at San Jose State||74||58-52||W||39.3 - 33.9||W||2.1|
|14-Dec||vs. Army||100||34-7||W||22.6 - 13.1||W||3.4|
|30-Dec||vs. Middle Tennessee||85||24-6||W||33.5 - 26.3||W||8.3|
|Points Per Game||33.5||35||24.4||40|
|Adj. Points Per Game||31.1||45||30.5||89|
2. Don't you love it when a plan comes together...
Navy's 2013 season played out in three acts, and two of them weren't very impressive. The defense wasn't good enough against Duke or Toledo (and almost wasn't good enough against Indiana), and the offense wasn't good enough against Western Kentucky or Duke. Knocking off Indiana and feasting on pretty bad Delaware and Air Force teams kept the record at .500, but midway through the season Navy wasn't really looking any better than it had the year before. But the offense figured things out starting with the Pittsburgh game, and the defense got up to speed a couple of weeks later.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 29.2, Navy 26.4 (minus-2.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 37.2, Navy 31.6 (minus-5.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Navy 35.2, Opponent 23.4 (plus-11.8)
The same offense that averaged only 3.2 yards per play against WKU and 4.9 against Toledo turned things up dramatically. The Midshipmen averaged 5.2 per play against Pitt and Notre Dame, then erupted: 6.4 against Hawaii, 7.0 against SJSU, 7.6 against a pretty good South Alabama defense. The pace slowed down in the final two games, but the defense was ready to pick up the slack, allowing only 13 points and 4.4 yards per play to Army and MTSU.
By the end of this season, Navy was a damn strong team. Let's see if that pace is sustained in 2014.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||50.2%||8||Succ. Rt. +||101.3||54|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.5||23||Def. FP+||101.4||41|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.0||9||Redzone S&P+||107.4||33|
|Q1 Rk||88||1st Down Rk||34|
|Q2 Rk||52||2nd Down Rk||93|
|Q3 Rk||86||3rd Down Rk||81|
3. Staying on schedule
Most college offenses need to pass the one-sentence test. As in, you need to be able to describe your offensive identity in one sentence. If you don't really know what you want to do with the ball, or you don't have the personnel to adequately execute what's intended, you probably aren't going to move the ball very well.
Case in point: Michigan, which had a solid quarterback, a great receiver, and an eventual first-round pick at tackle (plus all sorts of former blue-chip recruits scattered throughout the two-deep), but couldn't run the ball to save its life and fell from 16th in Off. F/+ in 2012 to 40th in 2013.
Pure, undistilled talent raises your baseline; as bad as Michigan seemed at times in 2013, the Wolverines still ranked 40th, after all. But you can make up for lack of talent with identity and execution. The service academies have long since decided that the triple option, with its cut blocks and sleight of hand, is the best way to account for a lack of size and/or blue-chip talent, and after some struggles and inexperience in 2012, Navy once again mastered the option in 2013.
With identity comes sacrifice, however. When you've got limited resources and talent, you're probably accepting that strength comes with a built-in weakness. For Navy, the trade-off is obvious; the Midshipmen can absolutely gash you ... but if they fall behind schedule, they're toast. They ranked 41st in Rushing S&P+, generating all sorts of big plays and third-down conversions, but they ranked just 100th in Passing S&P+ with almost no big plays whatsoever.
Keenan Reynolds scored 31 times rushing in 2013 but completed only 68 passes, and while you don't need to pass a ton, you still need to be able to pass. That was a bit of a problem for Navy and will probably be one again this fall. But that will only matter if you stop the Midshipmen from getting four yards on first down and another four on second.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Keenan Reynolds||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||68||128||1057||8||2||53.1%||17||11.7%||6.5|
|John Hendrick||6'1, 198||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||6||15||60||0||2||40.0%||2||11.8%||2.0|
|Tago Smith||5'10, 190||So.||NR|
|Will Worth||6'1, 210||So.||NR|
|Keenan Reynolds||QB||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||283||1466||31||5.2||4.9||39.6%|
|Chris Swain||FB||5'11, 232||Jr.||NR||107||420||4||3.9||1.7||31.8%|
|Noah Copeland||FB||5'10, 214||Sr.||NR||69||339||2||4.9||3.6||39.1%|
|Quinton Singleton||FB||6'0, 204||Sr.||NR||65||361||2||5.6||4.0||41.5%|
|Geoffrey Whiteside||SB||5'10, 171||Sr.||NR||49||363||3||7.4||4.0||65.3%|
|DeBrandon Sanders||SB||5'7, 160||Jr.||NR||42||340||1||8.1||4.9||66.7%|
|Demond Brown||SB||5'9, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||23||220||1||9.6||6.6||73.9%|
|John Hendrick||QB||6'1, 198||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||65||1||5.4||4.7||41.7%|
|Ed Royds||SB||5'10, 197||Jr.||NR|
|Dishan Romine||SB||5'11, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Ryan Williams-Jenkins||SB||5'8, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Toneo Gulley||SB||5'8, 190||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
4. Nick, nick, nick, gash
Even with the collapse of the 2012 offense, Navy has ranked 33rd or better in Off. F/+ in six of the last seven seasons. Again, the Midshipmen are one-dimensional in terms of run vs. pass, but they have succeeded to such a degree because the run itself isn't one-dimensional. Navy has been so consistently strong at pecking away at the middle of a defense with the quarterback and fullbacks; the style of offense is conducive to converting third-and-2 with ease, and Navy will endlessly pound away at you with the fullbacks until you adjust. And when you adjust, the slotback gets to the corner of the defense with ease.
You don't get one without the other. At first glance, the ball distribution above doesn't make a lot of sense. The top three fullbacks averaged only 4.6 yards per carry but got almost 20 carries per game! Reynolds himself only averaged 5.2 yards per (non-sack) carry but had almost 22 carries per game! Meanwhile, the top four slotbacks averaged 8.7 per carry but only got 12 per game! They should get more touches! But the slotbacks' success is the punishment for defenses having to keep their eyes on the fullbacks. And Navy pulls off this balance well.
|DeBrandon Sanders||SB||5'7, 160||Jr.||NR||21||13||223||61.9%||16.0%||78.9%||10.6||62||10.0||28.6|
|Brendan Dudeck||WR||6'0, 202||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||5||48||45.5%||8.4%||60.0%||4.4||-25||4.8||6.2|
|Geoffrey Whiteside||SB||5'10, 171||Sr.||NR||10||7||158||70.0%||7.6%||75.0%||15.8||77||11.7||20.3|
|Jamir Tillman||WR||6'3, 190||So.||3 stars (5.5)||5||2||12||40.0%||3.8%||0.0%||2.4||-20||1.3||1.5|
|Noah Copeland||FB||5'10, 214||Sr.||NR||5||3||43||60.0%||3.8%||40.0%||8.6||5||9.0||5.5|
|Ryan Williams-Jenkins||SB||5'8, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||5||2||24||40.0%||3.8%||25.0%||4.8||-8||12.9||3.1|
|Demond Brown||SB||5'9, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||3||2||45||66.7%||2.3%||100.0%||15.0||21||8.3||5.8|
|Quinton Singleton||FB||6'0, 204||Sr.||NR||2||1||5||50.0%||1.5%||100.0%||2.5||-9||2.8||0.6|
|Marc Meier||WR||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Thomas Wilson||WR||6'0, 192||Jr.||NR|
|Derek Mann||WR||5'11, 180||So.||NR|
|Calvin Cass Jr.||WR||5'10, 200||So.||NR|
|Julian Turner||WR||6'2, 190||So.||NR|
|Jake Zuzek||RG||6'0, 310||Sr.||NR||26|
|Bradyn Heap||LT||6'3, 288||Sr.||NR||15|
|Tanner Fleming||C||6'2, 276||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12|
|E.K. Binns||LG||6'3, 287||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||10|
|Brandon Greene||LT||6'3, 257||Jr.||NR||7|
|Joey Gaston||RT||6'5, 281||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||3|
|Blaze Ryder||C||5'11, 265||Jr.||NR||1|
|Nathaniel Otto||LG||6'2, 260||Sr.||NR||0|
|Matthew Van Halanger||RT||0|
|Ben Tamburello||LG||6'2, 275||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Maurice Morris||C||6'2, 310||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Patrick Hoffman||LT||6'4, 265||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Blake Copeland||RT||6'4, 258||So.||NR||0|
5. Being good at what you need to be good at
However you want to divvy out blame, Reynolds and the offensive line combined to form a pretty awful sack avoidance unit. But Reynolds only attempted about 11 passes per game.
In terms of allocation of resources, Navy's line was very good at precisely what it needed to be good at in 2013 -- keeping defenders out of the backfield against the run, converting short-yardage, and creating holes on standard downs. The line succeeded despite some juggling of personnel, and that juggling could pay off in 2014.
The line returns seven players with starting experience (74 career starts), including two-year starting guard Jake Zuzek. Navy's line has more size than one would expect -- only two of these seven experienced players carry fewer than 276 pounds, and the starting guards average 6'2, 299 -- and when you combine decent size with all of the annoying cut blocks that Navy is so good at, you've got a hell of a unit.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||50.6%||121||Succ. Rt. +||87.6||104|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||33.3||8||Off. FP+||103.5||23|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||75||Redzone S&P+||84.2||108|
|Q1 Rk||44||1st Down Rk||64|
|Q2 Rk||95||2nd Down Rk||96|
|Q3 Rk||90||3rd Down Rk||84|
6. Committing to your identity
The bend-don't-break approach to defense is rather common in college football, and for pretty obvious reasons. Not every defense has the athletes to dominate at the line of scrimmage; not every defense has cornerbacks who can consistently win one-on-one battles on the outside. If you can't dominate from an athletic standpoint, you try the next best thing: containment. Sacrifice some smaller gains to prevent the really big ones and hope that, with your help, the opposing offense makes a mistake before it crosses the goal line.
Again, there is power in being honest with yourself. Navy all but trademarked the bend-don't-break approach in 2013; the Midshipmen ranked 104th in Success Rate+ (bending) and second in IsoPPP+ (breaking). They were less efficient than most FBS defenses and more capable at preventing big plays than almost anybody. And it paid off. Less disciplined offenses either struggled to move the ball at all or struggled to finish the opportunities they generated. WKU averaged 5.6 yards per play but scored just 19 points; MTSU averaged 5.2 and scored just six.
Having two senior inside linebackers and a great rover in Wave Ryder helped Navy to perfect the art of defensive flexibility. Losing those three will hurt, but there is still enough experience here to assume a maintained identity.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Will Anthony||DE||6'1, 238||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||20.0||2.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Paul Quessenberry||DE||6'2, 251||Sr.||NR||12||18.5||2.4%||3.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Bernard Sarra||NG||6'1, 303||Jr.||2 stars (5.1)||10||17.0||2.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Davis||DE||6'0, 251||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||11||5.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|A.K. Akpunku||DE||6'3, 238||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Sean Reaver||DE||6'4, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Amos Mason||DE||6'1, 250||So.||NR|
|Patrick Forrestal||NG||6'4, 305||So.||NR|
|Cam Henson||NG||6'3, 281||So.||NR|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Chris Johnson||OLB||6'1, 207||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||13||67.5||8.8%||3.0||0.0||3||3||0||0|
|Jordan Drake||ILB||6'4, 220||Sr.||NR||13||32.0||4.2%||3.0||3.0||0||0||1||0|
|William Tuider||OLB||6'2, 205||So.||2 stars (5.2)||13||25.5||3.3%||4.0||2.0||0||1||1||0|
|Obi Uzoma||OLB||6'3, 231||Sr.||NR||13||14.0||1.8%||2.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Don Pearson||ILB||6'3, 224||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||7.5||1.0%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|James Britton||ILB||6'2, 223||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||4.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyler Goble||ILB||6'1, 228||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||7||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Maika Polamalu||ILB||6'0, 218||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Josiah Powell||OLB||6'3, 200||So.||NR|
|Nick Martinez||OLB||6'2, 222||Jr.||NR|
|Ted Colburn||OLB||6'2, 225||So.||NR|
|Daniel Gonzales||ILB||6'2, 220||So.||NR|
7. Expect more bending
Again, Navy boasts size that other service academies cannot. The three nose guards listed above average 6'3, 296; perhaps that isn't quite opimtal for a 3-4, but it's damn close. So maybe the Midshipmen should be doing a little bit better up front when it comes to preventing rushing opportunities. But they didn't, and they probably won't this fall, either.
Navy's approach is to tackle well and wait for you to make a mistake, and while most of the potential play-makers on the edge return -- skinny OLBs Chris Johnson and William Tulder, end Paul Quessenberry -- Navy isn't really going to be spending much time in the backfield. This defense's success will again hinge on its ability to prevent big plays, and it might not be as well-built for such a thing this time around.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Parrish Gaines||FS||6'2, 196||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||54.0||7.0%||2||0||3||2||0||0|
|Brendon Clements||CB||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||44.0||5.7%||2.5||0||3||4||2||0|
|Kwazel Bertrand||CB||5'10, 186||Jr.||NR||9||36.0||4.7%||2||0||0||2||0||0|
|Lonnie Richardson||ROV||5'11, 188||Sr.||NR||13||18.5||2.4%||0.5||0||0||0||2||0|
|Myer Krah||CB||5'11, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||18.0||2.3%||0||0||0||2||1||0|
|Quincy Adams||CB||5'11, 195||Jr.||NR||13||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|George Jamison||FS||6'0, 197||Sr.||NR||13||7.5||1.0%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Shakir Robinson||FS||5'10, 197||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Shelley White||CB||5'10, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Lorentez Barbour||ROV||6'1, 194||Jr.||NR|
|Kyle Battle||CB||6'1, 190||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Daiquan Thomasson||ROV||6'0, 190||So.||NR|
|Chandler Hawkins||DB||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
8. Expect more breaking?
Generally speaking, Navy returns a solid amount of experience in the back eight: seven of the top nine at linebacker, every cornerback, and three of the top five safeties.
But Navy's margin for error on defense was minimal, and without wonderfully named Wave Ryder and ILBs Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti, we'll see if the Midshipmen can prevent big plays with the same panache as last year. Anything less could force the offense to win quite a few shootouts.
|Pablo Beltran||6'2, 225||Sr.||40||41.4||5||10||12||55.0%|
|Austin Grebe||6'0, 192||Jr.||76||61.1||16||2||21.1%|
|Nick Sloan||6'0, 190||Jr.||51-55||10-13||76.9%||1-1||100.0%|
|Demond Brown||KR||5'9, 191||Jr.||5||22.2||0|
|Special Teams F/+||11|
|Field Goal Efficiency||80|
|Punt Return Efficiency||20|
|Kick Return Efficiency||33|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||28|
9. Shore up the place-kicking
Granted, the Navy offense was really good at finishing drives in the end zone (another plus with the triple option: you never have to adjust your play-calling), so field goal kicking wasn't as big a deal as it could have been; still, Nick Sloan missed four PATs and was a little worse than you would prefer on field goals under 40 yards. I mention this because it was basically Navy's only special teams weakness. The return game takes a hit with the loss of Marcus Thomas and Shawn Lynch, but Pablo Beltran's punting is solid, and the coverage units are excellent. Navy should once again be pretty good at the field position battle.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|30-Aug||vs. Ohio State||4|
|13-Sep||at Texas State||113|
|4-Oct||at Air Force||102|
|25-Oct||San Jose State||88|
|1-Nov||vs. Notre Dame||25|
|28-Nov||at South Alabama||87|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-1.1% (59)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||106|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||12 / 4.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. Another fun schedule
I mentioned yesterday that I really enjoyed Army's schedule, with a lot of battles against Northeastern programs and smart-kid schools and games at Yale and Yankee Stadium.
I like Navy's as well. In their final season before joining the AAC, the Midshipmen play Ohio State and Army in Baltimore and Notre Dame in Landover, meaning they get five home games and three others nearby. They play Temple in Philadelphia, they get another military school in VMI, and they battle Georgia Southern in mid-November in what could be a very fun, very run-heavy contest.
There's a nice mix of intriguing games and built-in wins. Navy plays only two teams projected better than 78th, and if the defense is able to remain flexible (without becoming too flexible), the Midshipmen could find themselves with another nine-win (or more) season. Considering where I thought this program might be headed a year ago, that's a really nice turnaround. Niumatalolo has not only found his next great option quarterback, but he's got an experienced, disciplined team with one of the strongest identities in the country.
Navy should easily be, once again, the best football team among the service academies.