As Naval Academy football seasons go, it would be difficult to find one worse than 1986 (also known as 1 A.N. -- after Napoleon). In their previous 105 seasons, the Midshipmen had compiled records of 3-8 or worse only 12 times. Only in 1946 had the Midshipmen ended a season with seven consecutive losses. Only in 1984 had Navy lost to both Army and Air Force. And not since 1964 had the head coach been let go.

That's where Eliot Uzelac came in. On Dec. 15, the Naval Academy Athletic Board of Control hired him to replace Gary Tranquill, and soon the Midshipmen were off and running -- and lifting and trimming down and beefing up and learning and regaining lost confidence.

"When I got here, there was disbelief. They doubted themselves," said Uzelac, a former Navy assistant (1971-72) who made his return after seven seasons as a Michigan assistant, split by a stint as head coach at Western Michigan (1975-81). "When you lose like that, you will. We thought it was very important to get their confidence back. We also felt they needed more discipline, more of a structured program, and we implemented that."

Offensive linemen were instructed to lose weight. The new wishbone offensive would require quickness, speed and strength, not bulk. Defensive linemen were instructed to gain weight. Navy, which gave up over 200 yards rushing in five games last season, no longer would be pushed around. Defensive backs were instructed to lose weight. When you give up 240 yards passing four times in a season, you're too slow.

Lastly, the Midshipmen, whose quarterback would be without any varsity experience and whose defense would be without a single returning starter, were instructed to learn the new system by the time they returned to the Academy for summer practice.

"Our players were confused at first," Uzelac said, "because we gave them everything -- everything that they could possibly have within the offense, the defense and the kicking. And then we gave them every situation. And at the beginning {of spring practice} they were making mistakes. But if you only give them a little bit, then they don't have all summer to digest that material and the retention rate won't be as high."

Now, as 1987 football heats up and the Naval Academy gets ready for its 107th season, 1986 can be forgotten, or at least renamed. Call it 1 B.U. -- before Uzelac.

"Coach U came in and he's been really enthusiastic. He just radiates," senior running back Chuck Smith said. "It's amazing. Everybody's picked it up, and now we're all enthusiastic and psyched up and ready to go."

Smith and the Midshipmen were ready to go last season, too. By the end of the fourth game, a 45-0 victory over Dartmouth, Navy was 3-1 and Smith was leading the nation in rushing (156.7 yards per game), all-purpose running (226 yards per game) and scoring (13.5 points per game).

But then came game five, against Air Force. And on a brutal winter day in Colorado Springs, the Midshipmen had their season handed to them on a stake, 40-6.

"We went into the Air Force game as prepared to play a game as could have been," recalled then senior co-captain and linebacker Vince McBeth, now an ensign and a temporary active-duty assistant coach. "To have lost it by such a large margin . . . guys kind of went into a shell and didn't come out the rest of the season."

Smith, at least, had an excuse. He later pulled his left hamstring, forcing him out of two games and parts of two others. He still totaled 933 yards rushing (the seventh-highest season total in school history), 280 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. His 26 receptions placed fourth on the team and he finished 15th in the nation in rushing, 17th all-purpose running and 10th in scoring.

Then, just before the start of spring practice, Smith pulled his right hamstring. Uzelac wasn't so enthused.

"Sure he was frustrated," Smith said, "but not more frustrated than I was. I'm the one that wants to get back bad. It's my last year and don't have a lot more opportunities to play football."

Uzelac had the Navy training staff redesign Smith's offseason training program -- lots of biking and distance running, but no sprinting.

"When he'll sprint," Uzelac said, "will be the William and Mary game {Navy's season opener, Saturday at Annapolis}."

To be successful this season, the Midshipmen will need Smith to sprint in more than just one game. They also will need outstanding play from quarterback John Nobers, a senior who has not won a letter.

Most of all, though, Navy will need its 11 new defensive starters to play as if they've played before, but not as if they played last season.

"I'd like to have some people back just for experience's sake," Uzelac said. "But last year's starters were 3-8. I want to do better than that."