Ricky Dobbs Under Center Is Front and Center for Navy Football
Navy opens practice on Tuesday, with its eyes set on claiming another Commander-in-Chief's trophy -- which would be a record seventh in a row -- and winning seven games to secure its spot in the Texas Bowl, which will be held at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Dec. 31.
Here are four story lines to watch:
Protecting Ricky Dobbs
A year ago, Ricky Dobbs was the third-string quarterback, a big-armed sophomore with a lot of promise but no experience. Now he is the clear-cut starter and one of the unquestioned leaders of Navy's offense. He is the only quarterback on the roster with even modest playing experience; his backups are sophomores Kriss Proctor and Kameron Smith.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo jokes that if he could, he would keep Dobbs in bubble wrap to ensure that he doesn't get hurt. Instead, Dobbs will wear a green jersey at practice that makes him off-limits to full contact; it's the first time that Navy has made its quarterbacks off-limits in practice since Chris McCoy in 1997.
"I knew that [Dobbs] needed live reps in the spring, and you were just crossing your fingers that he didn't get hurt," Niumatalolo said. "He needed that live work; there's no way to simulate what we do without getting hit. But I also knew that once camp comes, just the time to heal is not as long, so we knew as soon as spring was over that all of our quarterbacks would be in green."
Dobbs was dazzling at times last season, rallying the Midshipmen from a 20-point deficit to an overtime victory against Temple, and nearly pulling off another improbable comeback against Notre Dame. He made one start, rushing for 124 yards in a 16-0 victory at Northern Illinois.
He has a strong arm, and Niumatalolo says that Navy will likely throw the ball more than in previous seasons -- "though we're not going to become Texas Tech," he added.
Finding a Fullback
Eric Kettani was the workhorse last season, with 982 yards on a team-high 190 carries. No other fullback touched the ball more than 25 times. Niumatalolo says that he would like to have a little more diversity at the position this season.
Alex Teich ended spring practices atop the depth chart at fullback; he rushed for 24 yards on seven carries as a freshman. He is fast and athletic, but at 6 feet, 215 pounds, doesn't have the size of some predecessors.
Junior Vince Murray, who has yet to record a carry in his career, had a solid spring, according to Niumatalolo. Senior Kevin Campbell (Robinson High) is a steady, consistent performer; he rushed for 84 yards on 22 carries last year. Sophomore Delvin Diggs emerged over the summer, Niumatalolo said.
Getting the Secondary Set
Navy has few holes to fill on defense, where it has 12 players who started at least one game last season. Its front seven is deep and experienced, particularly along the line, but the Midshipmen lost three-quarters of their starting secondary.
Junior Wyatt Middleton, a standout at free safety last season, has moved to rover. Junior safety Emmett Merchant, who had two interceptions last year, missed spring practices while he considered leaving the academy; he ultimately decided to stay and has to work his way back up the depth chart.
Preparing for Ohio State
The past three years, Navy has opened its season with less than formidable opponents: East Carolina (2006), at Temple (2007), and division I-AA Towson (2008). Not so this fall; the Midshipmen will face Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 5. It will be the first visit to the Horseshoe by a service academy team since 1931, when the Buckeyes beat the Midshipmen, 20-0.
-- Camille Powell