There are few programs in college football with the history and the dedication to an identity of the Navy Midshipmen. There are unique challenges to building a winner at the service academies but Navy has found a way to be a consistently solid program year in and year out. Last season, they started off slow, sitting at 4-4 two thirds of the way through the season. But they finished 2013 off strong, winning their final five games, including a 24-6 win in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl to go 9-4 on the year.
This season, the team returns plenty of talent on offense and just enough on defense to once again put together a strong campaign in 2014. They will have to replace some key contributors on the defensive side of the ball but head coach Ken Niumatalolo has a system in place to use the servicemen on his roster in the most effective way possible. Will that be enough for Navy to reign supreme over the service academies in their final season as an Independent?
The key to success for Navy has been and will continue to be the triple-option. With junior Keenan Reynolds returning as the trigger-man for the option under center, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Middies will once again rank as one of the nation’s top rushing offenses in 2014 (No. 2 in 2013). Last season, Reynolds showed an elite understanding of the offense, racking up 1,466 yards rushing and 31 rushing touchdowns as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry in addition to his 1,057 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air.
He will be joined by a deep and experienced backfield with five players returning who rushed for at least 300 yards last season. The group is led by big, bruising fullback Chris Swain who racked up 420 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. Senior Geoffrey Whiteside showed some explosive tendencies as a swingback last season, averaging 7.4 yards per carry as he racked up 363 yards on just 49 carries with three touchdowns.
While the passing game is not going to be a point of emphasis for Navy, they do have to deal with the loss of three of their top four wide receivers from last season. The team’s leading receiver, swingback DeBrandon Sanders, does return however after making 13 catches last year for 223 yards and a touchdown. Whiteside also showed some playmaking ability in space, averaging 22.6 yards per receptions last season with a touchdown.
The Navy defense uses a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy on defense that can result in them giving up a ton of yards waiting for the opposing offense to make a mistake. Their defensive line, as a result, struggled against the run in 2013, ranking No. 80 in the country, and will likely bend even more in 2014. The team loses two starters but gets back Paul Quessenberry who was one of the few Middies to play in the offensive backfield last season, recording three tackles for loss and a sack.
At linebacker, the team will lose their top two inside backers for 2014 and will be looking for new leadership to step up. Undersized outside linebacker Chris Johnson returns as the most productive returner in the linebacker corps after recording 67.5 tackles, including three tackles for loss, with three interceptions and three pass breakups. Look for Jordan Drake to step into one of the vacant inside backer positions after recording a team-high three sacks as a junior in 2013.
In the secondary, Navy returns three of four starters but loses talented rover Wave Ryder from the mix. Free safety Parrish Gaines and Brendon Clements will lead the group after combining for six interceptions and six pass breakups in 2013. They will need someone to step up and replace Ryder, however, and senior Lonnie Richardson appears to be the leading candidate after recording 18.5 tackles with two forced fumbles last season.
There is a lot of reason to like Navy’s chances for another successful season in no small part because of their schedule. While they face two games where they will be heavy underdogs at home against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the season opener (who they nearly beat in Columbus the last time they met in 2011) and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in November, the rest of their schedule are all games that the Midshipmen will be competitive in and can win.
The key for Navy will be to find contributors on defense to prevent too many big plays from opposing offenses. With Reynolds under center leading the triple-option attack, the offense is going to be productive running the football. With an average defense, the Middies should be in line for a lot of success in 2014 and win another nine games this season.