Navy football coach Paul Johnson said Aaron Polanco is faster and stronger than Craig Candeto, and has a better arm than Candeto, who started the past two seasons as the team's quarterback. But Johnson doesn't know if Polanco has Candeto's most important attribute -- the ability to run Navy's triple-option offense to near perfection.
Johnson and Navy's football players will start finding out today, when the Midshipmen open preseason practice. Polanco, a senior from Wimberley, Tex., watched last season as Candeto led the Midshipmen to an 8-5 record and a berth in the EV1.net Bowl in Houston, their first bowl appearance since 1996. It was also just the academy's third winning season in the last 20 years.
With Candeto off to active duty, it's Polanco's turn to run the offense. And he'll have less than a month to master it before Navy opens its season Sept. 4 against Duke at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"It's going to be a little different," Johnson said. "I'm sure on Sept. 4, you're going to need a sledgehammer to drive a straight pin through his tail."
While Candeto was a bit smallish at 5 feet 11 and 197 pounds, and didn't possess the strongest arm (he threw for only 1,140 yards and seven touchdowns last season), he was able to master Johnson's complicated offense, in which instincts and a sense of awareness are paramount.
In the triple-option spread offense, the quarterback has four options on a running play: run with the ball, hand off to the fullback or pitch to one of two slotbacks. Johnson has been running the offense since he moved from defensive coordinator to offensive coordinator at Division I-AA Georgia Southern in 1985.
"I feel great about Aaron" playing quarterback, Navy fullback Kyle Eckel said. "He's got a strong arm. He's a different quarterback from Craig. . . . He's been in the system for three years. Running [this offense] in practice with him, it looks pretty smooth to me."
While Johnson says he'll adjust his offense to cater to Polanco's strengths, don't expect Navy to turn into a pass-happy offense. The Midshipmen threw only 158 passes last season and ran 760 times, leading the nation with 323.2 rushing yards per game. And Johnson still wasn't satisfied. "We led the nation in rushing, but I think we left a lot out there," he said.
Eckel and slotback Eric Roberts give Polanco two proven threats in the backfield. Eckel, who reported to camp at 5 feet 11 and 244 pounds, ran for 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His seven 100-yard rushing games were fourth-most in school history.
Roberts, a senior from Miami, needs only 78 receiving yards to become the first Navy player to have 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in his career, and he scored five touchdowns of 40 yards or more in 2003.
But it's up to Polanco to lead them. While Polanco has played sparingly in 16 games the past two seasons, he has proved he can play under pressure. When Candeto was hurt during the first series against Notre Dame in 2002, Polanco came off the bench and led the Midshipmen to a 23-15 lead in the fourth quarter. The Fighting Irish rallied to score 15 points in the last 41/2 minutes, but Polanco proved his abilities, for at least a day.
"There's always going to be comparisons to [Candeto], especially with me being behind him the last two years," Polanco said. "You can't change that. I've just got to play the way I can play."