by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

As far as Erin Andrews and the rest of the new ESPN generation are concerned, Navy is a bowl-game fixture. After all, the Mids have made it into the postseason for eight seasons running, and have been able to cut their own deals with a variety of bowl games; if all goes as planned this season, it will be the Military Bowl in Washington D.C., where the Annapolis bunch most recently participated in 2008. (The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, and the Armed Forced Bowl in Fort Worth, have already lined up the Midshipmen for 2012 & 2013, respectively...if, that is, Navy stays bowl-eligible, or, in a wildly best-case scenario, doesn’t qualify for the BCS instead).

We suspect that Andrews and her new-wave college football friends also probably have little or no idea that bowl games were once about as rare for the Midshipmen as was civil unrest on the Academy grounds in Annapolis. Navy once went from 1963 (Roger Staubach’s Heisman year, and a national title game date in the Cotton Bowl vs. top-ranked Texas) until 1978 (the inaugural Holiday Bowl in San Diego vs. BYU) without reaching the postseason. The program bottomed out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s under Bill Elias and Rick Forzano; the 1970 team under Forzano needed a season-ending 11-7 success vs. Army to avoid a winless campaign. Not until alum George Welsh took over in 1973 did the turnaround begin, with the bowl drought eventually snapped in 1978, and two more postseason trips followed before Welsh took his act to Virginia in 1982. The Midshipmen began to slip again until the mid ‘90s under Gary Tranquill, Ellito Uzelac, and George Chaump (who also had to beat Army in the ‘91 finale to avoid the big donut) before Charlie Weatherbie arrived from Utah State in ‘95 to breathe some life into the program once more. But it wasn’t until Paul Johnson, who assisted on some of Weatherbie’s teams, took control in 2002 that Navy began its recent and dramatic ascent, which has continued under longtime Johnson aide Ken Niumatalolo, whose .659 win percentage since the 2007 Pointsettia Bowl is the best for all coaches in the post-World War II era at Annapolis.

Andrews and her modern-day contemporaries might also be excused for believing that the Mids always handle Notre Dame, especially after the Navy has won three of the last four meetings vs. the Fighting Irish. They might, however, be surprised to find out that the Midshipmen had lost a record 43 straight vs. Notre Dame between 1964 (Staubach’s senior year) and 2006, which was in the middle of the recent bowl revival under Johnson. Rest assured the longtime Naval Academy football supporters are not taking these recent successes for granted.

And recalling those depths Navy football plumbed not long ago, those retired admirals and other Annapolis power brokers, many of whom now serving as well-paid consultants in and around nearby D.C. and still living vicariously through Mids football, are hellbent to keep the momentum (and wins over hated Army, now at nine and counting) rolling. Which is why Navy supporters have kicked in to make sure Niumatalolo, whose total compensation is reportedly in the low seven-figure range, stays comfy in Annapolis. Football is indeed a very big deal to the Navy brass and alum base.

Another bowl trip (to the Military Bowl) is likely, but some mid-Atlantic observers wonder if the Mids might be slipping just a tad from their better Johnson and Niumatalolo-coached teams in recent years. Last year’s edition lost the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy (to Air Force) for the first time in eight years, and fully half of the 2010 starting lineup has graduated. Although retooling is standard operating procedure in Annapolis, some Navy watchers are wondering if plugging the gaps is going to be as easy this fall.

That’s because, for the first time since the Welsh years, it was mostly the defense that was featured a year ago, and replacing eight starters from that gnarly, veteran platoon will require all of scheming vet d.c. Buddy Green has in his playbook.

The defensive front in Green’s 3-4 was particularly strafed by graduation, and was operating with a completely new look in the spring, although sr. DE Jabaree Tuani should be ready for the Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware after sitting out March and April workouts while recovering from knee surgery. Tuani’s presence in the fall is considered an imperative for the defense after he started all 13 games a year ago while registering team-highs in tackles for loss (15 ½) and sacks (5 ½).

Last year’s veteran stop unit, the most effective in recent memory at Annapolis, contributed heavily to the Mids’ high national ranking in TO margin (+0.54 pg) while allowing only 23.3 ppg. Some of its most-important playmakers such as four-year starting S Wyatt Middleton, and impactful LB Tyler Simmons, have graduated. A key for Green’s platoon will include how well new NT Jared Marks, very big by Annapolis standards at 6'5 and 288 lbs., is able to tie up multiple blockers in the middle of the DL, and if playmakers emerge at LB (watch OLB Max Blue) to soften the departure of Simmons. Sources expect the secondary to be snippy again, with CB Kwesi Mitchell & rover back Tra’ves Bush possessing excellent closing speed, although Middleton’s savvy and big-play ability are elements that will not be easy to replace.

Meanwhile, most mid-Atlantic sources don’t expect the offense to be bothered too much by the departure of long-time QB Ricky Dobbs, who has set his sights on a run for the White House in 2032. While running the patented Navy spread option, Dobbs was often harder to pry the ball from than Kobe Bryant, as Ricky would continually call his own number, often to the detriment of the offense; anyone who recalls Dobbs’ insistence on keeping the ball instead of using other available elements in the option package in the late stages of last year’s bitter opening-week loss vs. Maryland can relate. Although Dobbs was an accomplished playmaker and respected on-field leader, sources suggest that new QB Kriss Proctor, an excellent runner who had several calls from the bullpen last fall including a 210-yard rushing day when starting for an injured Dobbs vs. Central Michigan, can at the least keep the option humming. Whether Proctor, who completed only 2 of 5 passes a year ago, can develop the sneaky downfield passing threat that Dobbs would display on occasion, remains to be seen, as will be the offense finding a capable replacement for the big-play threat that WR Greg Jones (20 yards per catch on his 33 receptions in 2010) provided. Keep an eye on big (6'4) and fast jr. WR Brandon Turner, who has hinted at homerun potential in the past.

Still, it’s the bread-and-butter infantry component of the spread option that will remain the Navy trademark. Slamming senior Alexander Teich (863 YR & 5.9 ypc in 2010), who missed spring drills while recuperating from offseason shoulder surgery, is the latest in a long line of battering-ram Mid FBs in the mold of recent stalwarts such as Kyle Eckel, Eric Kettani, and Vince Murray; Notre Dame certainly needs no introduction after Teich gouged the Irish for 210 YR in the Mids’ 35-17 win at the Meadowlands last October 23. Proctor and quick-footed slot backs Gee Gee Greene (6.6 ypc in 2010) and Aaron Santiago (7.1 ypc in 2010) figure to provide most of the lightning alongside Teich’s thunder. Meanwhile, four starters return along what should be another well-coordinated and effective forward wall.

But if there has been one drawback to Navy’s recent success, it’s that it no longer operates beneath the national radar and routinely discounted by the oddsmakers and wagering public. The Mids’ once imposing pointspread prowess has dissipated somewhat in recent years; with that little handicapping secret long since exposed, and the Mids are only a modest 25-25 vs. the line over the past four seasons. One spread angle that has endured, however, is Navy’s 42-22 mark vs. the number in its last 64 games away from Annapolis, including 5-2 last season.

Summary...The Mids have been operating without much drop-off over the past eight years, seemingly reloading each campaign without skipping a beat, and have not regressed in the past three seasons under Niumatalolo since he took over for Paul Johnson, who left for Georgia Tech prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl. And scouts suggest that the patented Navy spread option offense should continue to operate in its normal efficient manner this fall with Kriss Proctor appearing to be an able replacement for Ricky Dobbs at QB. Some mid-Atlantic observers, however, are wondering if maintaining the recent status quo might be a bit more difficult with so many key components having graduated from the best Mid defense since George Welsh’s rock-ribbed stop unit in 1978. And with a fairly-challenging schedule featuring eight bowl teams from a year ago, Navy would seem hard-pressed to replicate last year’s 9 wins. Still, returning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Annapolis and a ninth straight bowl visit look to be realistic and attainable goals.

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