Coming off one of its most prosperous seasons in program history, the Navy football team begins spring practice Monday set to address significant turnover at several positions, most notably inside linebacker and wide receiver, but also with an eye toward its opener Aug. 30 against Ohio State at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Midshipmen went 9-4 last season, won a bowl game for the eighth time in school history, beat Army for a series-record 12th straight time and captured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the ninth time in 11 years. They also closed with five consecutive wins.
Much of the personnel is back from the fifth Navy team in 132 years to win at least nine games. But Coach Ken Niumatalalo and his staff are making it a priority to find replacements for graduating linebackers Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti. Peterson led the Midshipmen with 142 tackles, and Sargenti was second with 110.
“That’s going to be a tough one,” Niumatalolo said last week while meeting with members of the media for Navy’s annual spring football luncheon. “I feel good that we’ve got the physical talent. Will they be as good as Cody and guys we’ve had in the past, Tyler Simmons, [Ross] Pospisil? I don’t know, but physically we have some guys in there.”
Listed first on the depth chart at inside linebacker are senior James Britton and junior Don Pearson. Both served primarily on special teams last season, with Britton playing in 12 games and Pearson in 11. They finished with a combined 13 tackles on a defense that ranked 40th nationally in points allowed per game (24.4) and 57th in yards per game (394.8).
Also in the mix at inside linebacker heading into the first of 15 spring practices, including two scrimmages and a tentative game, are seniors Maika Polamalu, Joe Worth and Anthony Lewis as well as junior Tyler Goble and sophomores Daniel Gonzales and Ryan Harris.
“That job is wide open,” Niumatalolo said, “and I think that those guys going into our offseason conditioning recognize that there’s no incumbent, there’s nobody that’s penciled in. Even if you traveled last year, that doesn’t mean anything.”
Niumatalolo does have a bit more experience at wide receiver, where Brendan Dudek is first on the depth chart after playing in all 13 games this past season. The senior to-be finished with five catches for 48 yards and is a tenacious blocker, which is the most valued asset in the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack.
Navy graduates three wide receivers who played extensively last season in co-captain Matt Aiken, Casey Bolena and Shawn Lynch, but with two slotbacks finishing among the top five in catches and yards, the passing game doesn’t figure to regress much if at all behind standout quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
While the coaching staff will be monitoring closely competition at those positions, Niumatalolo said he also plans to sprinkle in a bit of long-range preparation for the Buckeyes. Ohio State finished 12-2, going undefeated in the regular season before losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
“You’ve got to introduce concepts, but that can’t be your sole goal of” spring practice, Niumatalolo said. “I think you introduce concepts defensively, maybe see some of the core stuff that they do on the offensive side of the ball and maybe get your defense ready to do that, but a big part of it is getting yourself ready, trying to evaluate younger personnel, new schemes. It’s so much a balance of all of that.”