When the Navy football team steps onto the field in Dublin for its opener against Notre Dame on Saturday, new players will be in place at several skill positions, including quarterback, fullback and wide receiver.
How well they and the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense function throughout the season figures to hinge significantly on another mostly untested group along the offensive line.
After consecutive seasons of limited turnover within that unit, first-time starters have emerged at center, right guard and both tackles. Left guard Josh Cabral is the only regular starter back on an offensive line finalized in the closing weeks of training camp after different players auditioned at multiple positions.
“There’s always concern when you’ve got guys with no experience,” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Our offense isn’t too complicated. Hopefully guys can play fast. We’re trying to keep things simple for guys, and hopefully that will help us, but it’s always a concern when you don’t have experience.”
Over the past two years, offensive line was among Navy’s most steady and dependable positions with the likes of center Brady DeMell, right guard John Dowd and right tackle Ryan Basford. Those three players graduated in the spring, leaving the right side of the line from center out without a senior in its ranks.
The most seasoned lineman among the new starters is junior center Graham Vickers, who began training camp at left tackle but played center at the Naval Academy Prep School.
The original plan coming out of spring practice was to have Bradyn Heap and Tanner Fleming in the mix at center, but when the sophomores weren’t as proficient there as the coaching staff would have preferred, Vickers entered the picture.
“It’s a real easy, comfortable transition back from tackle to center,” Vickers said. “It wasn’t too big of a change. It was more of a change to go from center to tackle.”
With Vickers at center, Ryan Paulson became the starting left tackle. Paulson is one of two senior starters on the offensive line, but he spent last season playing defensive end and on special teams. He’s also the tallest and the lightest among the starters at 6 feet 4, 266 pounds.
The most physically imposing member of the line is right guard Jake Zuzek, who’s listed at 318 pounds. The sophomore began the summer as a starter, and he’s impressed Niumatalolo and interior offensive line coach Ashley Ingram with his technique and resourcefulness.
“Football kind of comes easy to him,” Ingram said of Zuzek. “He understands. He’s a guy you tell him once, and he usually can do it. He’s strong, maybe the strongest kid on our team. He’s athletic, and he loves football. That may be the most important thing. I think he’s got a chance to be really good.”
The offensive staff wanted to get Heap on the field too, even though he didn’t work out at center. Listed first on the depth chart at center when training camp opened, Heap is the starter at right tackle thanks in part to his quickness that’s an ideal fit for Navy’s blocking scheme.
The anchor of the line is Cabral, who has started 25 consecutive games at left guard. His command of the position, he said, comes from learning beside former left tackle Jeff Battipaglia. The 2010 graduate was a three-year starter who became one of the most decorated players at his position in program history.
Cabral’s leadership has been a blessing as well. He’s the player all the other lineman know they can count on if they’re unsure of a call or the specifics of a particular blocking pattern.
That’s been especially helpful for backups such as Fleming, whose conditioning needs to progress, according to Ingram, perhaps to crack the starting lineup. Other reserves include senior tackle Andrew Barker, who started six games at left tackle last season, and junior right guard Thomas Stone.
“Right now we have a couple guys even outside the starting five that can rotate in, and the chemistry is pretty good,” Cabral said. “I think over the summer it’s been real good, even doing stuff on our own right after lifting, walking through plays. Spring [practice] definitely helped too. I think we’ve got a good chemistry so far.”
When Navy’s offensive line is operating at its peak, the running game can be consistently overpowering. From 2005 through ’08, for instance, the Midshipmen ranked first in the country in rushing, including a school-record 348.8 yards per game in 2007 when Niumatalolo took over as head coach for Paul Johnson in the last game of the season.
It’s no coincidence Navy won at least eight games in each of those years. Last year, the Midshipmen ranked fourth in the country in rushing but endured their first losing season since 2002.
“Our standard hasn’t dropped,” Ingram said. “We don’t anticipate having a dropoff on the offensive line because we’ve lost guys. We’ve got to get these guys ready to go, and they have the ability to do it.”