Gary Tranquill's first act as Navy football coach was to attend the academy's March banquet for the team, where he heard one speaker after another praise his predecessor, George Welsh.

When it was Tranquill's turn at the microphone, he said, "There's no one I have more respect for than George Welsh. He'll be a tough act to follow. I agree to the challenge."

Four straight winning seasons and three bowl teams were Welsh's legacy. Considering the problems involved in coaching at Annapolis--recruiting, class time, distractions -- it will be extremely difficult to match that, much less improve on it.

Tranquill has no delusions. He was an assistant to Welsh from 1973 to 1976 and he knows he faces obstacles that did not exist at his last two stops, Ohio State and West Virginia. He also recognizes that Welsh, while establishing some lofty targets, smoothed the path of a successor.

"There are more good players here now than there were five years ago, but the biggest thing George did was convince them they could win," Tranquill said. "It's easier coming into a winning situation. Things are organized, there's a winning attitude and you don't have to change everything."

Navy had what Tranquill called "an excellent spring practice" with a team that was set in most areas. The problem spots were in the secondary and among the receivers, many of whom had either graduated, resigned or were injured.

"Our defense will be the same as under Welsh; we just have a few problems in the secondary," Tranquill said. "On offense I'd like to throw more, if we can find the people to do it.

"We have a shortage of receivers. (Troy) Mitchell and (Eric) Wallace could do the job, but we don't really know, because Mitchell has been hurt so much and Wallace needs experience. We have four plebes who could be good ones, but you have to wait and see on them."

Tranquill got a break when Jon Ross, a three-year letterman dropped from the academy a year ago for problems relating to a final examination, regained his appointment.

Since Ray Daly resigned from the academy and Jeff Shoemake faced a long recuperation from complicated knee surgery, none of the 1981 starters in the secondary was available when the Midshipmen opened practice Aug. 16.

Navy has two experienced quarterbacks returning, Marco Pagnanelli and Tom Tarquinio; two potentially outstanding tailbacks, Napoleon McCallum and Rich Clouse, and four lettermen in the interior of the offensive line.

The defensive strength is at linebacker, with junior Andy Ponseigo considered all-America material after setting a school record with 152 tackles a year ago. Veterans Ken Fancher and Carl Wagner are vying for the other linebacker spot.

Tranquill improved his defensive line in spring practice by shifting Rick Pagel from offensive guard to tackle and Steve Peters from tackle to middle guard. Travis Wallington and Hamp Oberle are highly regarded defensive ends.

The graduation of place-kicker Steve Fehr, second-leading scorer behind Joe Bellino in Navy history, leaves a void, and Tranquill must hope for the best from sophomore punter Mark Colby in an area that was troublesome to Welsh.

Although new coaches usually can count on a break-in period of grace, Tranquill faces an early examination. Navy's first game is against Virginia, coached by Welsh.

"The opener is always your biggest game," Tranquill said. "You want to win the first one, so the players will figure you know what you're talking about. This one, of course, is even a little more important."