After virtually every exceptional performance during his record-setting career, former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds would make sure to credit his offensive line. The five players in front of him, Reynolds often said, were most responsible for his accomplishments. All he had to do was wait for the hole to open before sprinting to daylight.
Entering this season, the Midshipmen not only must replace the graduated Reynolds but also the entire starting offensive line that contributed significantly to Navy finishing second in rushing among major college football programs for a third consecutive year.
Navy now ranks last among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in career starts (four) by its offensive linemen heading into its opener Sept. 3 against lower-division Fordham. Only senior left tackle Blake Copeland and senior left guard Adam West have any starting experience. Copeland has three career starts and West one.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said when asked about the state of the offensive line several weeks into training camp. “I’ve always told the linemen they’re kind of like mules. You just keep going. Mules carry things. Donkeys, they carry the goods, whether it’s coal or gold or diamonds. They don’t care. They just do their job without any fanfare, without any accolades.”
It’s not uncommon for Navy to enter a season with an untested offensive line. Two years ago, for instance, the Midshipmen had three first-time regular starters but wound up rushing for 338.1 yards per game. That total was Navy’s highest since 2007, when it set a program single-season record for rushing yards (348.8) on the way to an 8-5 record.
Both Copeland and West participated in their first college games in 2014. West played in every game as a part of special teams. Copeland played in three games, including the first start of his career during a 51-14 win against Virginia Military Institute. That game also was the second career start for then-sophomore quarterback Tago Smith, who is charged with replacing Reynolds this year.
“It’s a process,” said West, who played on the scout team as a freshman after moving from center to guard when he came to Annapolis from the Naval Academy Prep School. “It’s a four-year layered program of development. I got to play some last year, and then here I am first string right now. Yeah, it’s been a journey.”
Perhaps the most promising of the newcomers to the offensive line is right tackle Andrew Wood. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound sophomore received offers from several Southeastern Conference schools as well as California, Purdue and Virginia. Wood, like junior Evan Martin, who is slated to start at right guard, played on the PAT/field goal unit last season and logged considerable minutes on the regular offensive line in the second half of a 44-21 victory over Tulsa.
Junior Parker Wade, meanwhile, has ascended to first on the depth chart at center after going into the spring behind senior Maurice Morris. At 6-2 and 271 pounds, Wade is much lighter than Morris (6-2, 327), but sheer girth isn’t as imperative in Navy’s triple-option attack, which relies more heavily on leverage than merely overpowering a defender.
Still, the Midshipmen average nearly 289 pounds along the offensive line. That’s heft comparable to American Athletic Conference West rival Houston, which has a projected starting offensive line averaging 292 pounds. The Cougars claimed the AAC championship last season, one game after dealing Navy its most lopsided loss of the year, 52-31.
“We’ve got as talented guys as we’ve ever had,” said Navy assistant coach Ashley Ingram, who works with the offensive line and serves as running game coordinator. “They’re bigger. They’re fast. They’re strong. They just haven’t played a lot. Obviously we’ve got to coach them, teach them what the standard is.”
Even though this season’s starting offensive linemen are short on in-game reps, the group is plenty familiar with the nuances of the triple option. Last year each member received roughly as many practice snaps as the first string throughout the season, often blocking for Smith with the reserves when they matched up against the scout teams.
And in case it needed any more reason to perform mistake-free, the first unit received a bit more attention than anticipated from Niumatalolo during training camp.
Early in his coaching career at Navy, Niumatalolo was an assistant working with the offensive line. Last week he revisited those duties, at least for a few days, when Ingram missed practice to be with his wife for the birth of their third child.
“It’s our culture. We’re going to keep grinding,” said Niumatalolo, the winningest coach in program history. “That’s kind of our mantra. Just stay in their corner, do their job, and we just keep working.”