The Navy football team routinely has featured shifty slotbacks well suited for the team’s triple-option offense, but following a recent wave of graduation at the position, mostly untested players moved into those featured roles for last Saturday’s season opener at Indiana
It didn’t take long for that group to become involved, with quarterback Keenan Reynolds pitching to slotbacks on four plays during the visiting Midshipmen’s opening possession against the Hoosiers.
Geoffrey Whiteside was the first to get a turn, and the junior burst through a hole to gain 31 yards. Sophomore DeBrandon Sanders picked up eight yards on the next play, and Darius Staten, one of two senior slotbacks, added 13 to move Navy to the 1-yard line.
Reynolds ran it in for a touchdown on the ensuing snap, and Navy led wire-to-wire during a 41-35 victory in which it amassed 444 rushing yards and attempted just five passes. Slotbacks combined for 287 rushing yards, with Staten’s 109 yards on nine carries leading the barrage.
Slotbacks in general have been significantly involved in Navy’s passing game, too, but Whiteside’s one catch was it Saturday. Then again, the Midshipmen were running the ball so well that Reynolds had little need to throw.
“I was very impressed with our position,” said Staten, who finished last year as Navy’s sixth-leading rusher. “We had a bunch of fresh guys come in who haven’t played a game at all. When they stepped in and showed they can do the role, it really made me happy and gave me confidence in these guys.”
The position over the last several years has included the likes of Aaron Santiago, Gee Gee Greene, John Howell and Bo Snelson. Greene was Navy’s leading rusher last season, and Snelson was a team captain and the fifth-leading rusher.
They also were leaders in the locker room, providing guidance for younger players. On the field, their contributions went well beyond numbers in a box score. Blocking, for instance, was a particular source of pride.
“They really preached toughness,” Whiteside said. “I think they did a good job with us.”
But their departures led to some uncertainty over whether this year’s slotbacks would be able to produce in line with their predecessors. The entire unit did offer promise during spring practice and summer training camp, but it wasn’t until the season opener when Coach Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive staff could exhale completely.
“It’s always the fear of the unknown,” said Midshipmen assistant coach Danny O’Rourke, who works with the slotbacks. “You think they’re prepared. You think they’ve worked hard. You think they’ve done things the right way in the offseason and are ready to play, but you never know until they get out and actually do it. I guess that’s why us as coaches stay up late and don’t sleep much and are stressed out all the time.”
Staten, who played in 12 games last year, was the only slotback entering this season with more than 20 carries. Whiteside played in all 13 games but carried only 16 times, and senior Marcus Thomas had eight carries in 12 games.
Sophomore Desmond Brown played in eight games with one carry but did not have an attempt Saturday as he works his way back from a sore hamstring. Sanders did not play last year.
Niumatalolo called his slotbacks “clones” after practice the other day in that all possess roughly the same physical characteristics. Of the seven on the depth chart, none is listed taller than 5 feet 10, and the heaviest among the regulars is 191 pounds.
None was a blue-chip recruit, either, providing additional incentive when facing opponents from power conferences.
“Very excited about those guys,” Niumatalolo said. “I think people are concerned when you lose John Howell, Bo and obviously Gee Gee. But we knew we had some talented kids, and the thing that that’s kind of scary is we have some other freshmen that are still on the scout team, and they might be able to get it done too. It’s probably the deepest position we’ve got on our team.”