Turnovers doomed the Navy football team over its first two games of the season, and more of the same continued to plague the Midshipmen on two of their first three possessions in their home opener against Virginia Military Institute on Saturday.
When starting quarterback Trey Miller fumbled for the second time, Coach Ken Niumatalolo had reserve Keenan Reynolds warming up on the sideline and later revealed he came precariously close to inserting the freshman during the second quarter.
Niumatalolo instead kept Miller on the field and changed centers, replacing Thomas Stone with Tanner Fleming to begin Navy’s fifth series of the game. The move yielded the Midshipmen’s first touchdown, and they pulled away from there for a 41-3 victory to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2001.
“We’re not looking for another center,” interior offensive line coach Ashley Ingram said of Fleming. “He’s going to be our center, but we’re trying to send a message to him hopefully now that will pay dividends later on.”
Fleming had emerged as the best fit for the position, but inadequate practice habits the week before the VMI game compelled Niumatalolo and his staff to turn to Stone. The junior and Miller misconnected on several early exchanges against the Keydets, so rather than risk more damage, Niumatalolo went back to Fleming.
Fleming “did better when he came in,” Niumatalolo said. “Both he and Thomas had a few mistakes, but Tanner did some good things.”
The center shuffle has been prolonged since spring practice, when Fleming and Bradyn Heap, both sophomores, were in the mix to start. But junior Graham Vickers wound up starting the season opener, a 50-10 loss to Notre Dame in Dublin, before Fleming started two weeks later in a 34-7 loss to Penn State.
Miller, meantime, has taken snaps from four centers dating from last season, when Brady DeMell started all 12 games as a senior. Instability at center, especially against traditional Bowl Championship Series powers such as Notre Dame and Penn State, in part contributed to Miller losing six fumbles through nine quarters while Navy’s normally productive running game stalled.
After Fleming took over last week, Miller and the offense took off, scoring 38 unanswered points and finishing with 402 rushing yards. That total was more than double what the Midshipmen compiled over the first two games combined and gave Miller an injection of confidence in his first season as the regular starter.
“Each guy is different snapping the ball, so I just try to get used to him,” said Miller, who amassed a career-high 116 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
In addition to ensuring a smooth exchange to the quarterback, the center in Navy’s triple-option offense is required to block down almost simultaneously with the snap in order to provide the fullback room to run. Against VMI, starting fullback Noah Copeland rushed for a career-high 126 yards on 20 carries.
Fleming’s resurgent performance comes as the Midshipmen, coming off their first losing season in a decade, embark on what figures to be a pitvotal stretch in their quest to become bowl eligible. Three of their next four opponents, including San Jose State (3-1) on Saturday in Annapolis, combined to win nine just games last season.
The fourth opponent over the next month is Air Force in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. Last season, the Falcons held on, 35-34, following a controversial call that went against Navy in overtime at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I don’t take it personally,” Fleming said of the center rotation. “I take it as I’m not doing my job so that means I don’t deserve to be starting. [The coaches] don’t play favoritism or anything like that. The best player is going to play that week, the person that’s performing best in practice, and that’s how it’s gone. It’s been fair.”