Five Burning Questions: Navy Midshipmen

Crystal Ball Run returns to the service academies for this edition of “Five Burning Questions,” as Michael James from Navy blog The Birddog takes a turn in the hot seat.

1. You know how much I like Ricky Dobbs. All in all, how big of a loss is he for the Midshipmen?

Not as much as some might think. This isn’t one of those Jay Cutler/Vanderbilt situations where the team was struggling until they found some success when one superstar player emerged. Navy has won 8+ games for 8 straight seasons, a streak that’s second only to Boise State among non-BCS programs. It seems that whenever we have a quarterback graduate, everyone wonders what we’ll ever do without him. As it turns out, the team does just fine. That’s not to say that you can win by plugging anyone into this offensive system, or that Ricky Dobbs wasn’t a special player. It’s more of a testament to the quality and consistency of the Navy coaching staff both on the field and in recruiting.

Recruiting is actually where Ricky might have the biggest long-term impact on the Navy program. In the past, because of the amount of repetition needed to master the option reads in this offense, the coaching staff looked for quarterbacks who already had some experience running the option in high school. That wasn’t the case with Ricky; he was lining up in the shotgun and throwing the ball all over the field. Believe it or not, it took some convincing for the Navy staff to really go after him. Now that they’ve proven that they can win games with a quarterback they have to teach the option from scratch, it opens the door for the staff to consider other quarterbacks that might be talented, but lack an option background. When you consider how many players would (or could) never consider the Naval Academy due to the service commitment, military lifestyle, difficult academics, or even the medical screening, anything that can increase the size of the recruiting pool is a big, big deal.

Ricky’s replacement is Kriss Proctor, a senior from California that is more in the traditional Navy quarterback mold. He’s a whole lot faster than Ricky (which isn’t saying much, but seriously, he’s fast), but his passing is most accurately described as shot-put-like. The coaches have compared him to another Navy quarterback, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, whose greatest asset was his knowledge and mastery of the offense. We had a chance to see Proctor’s speed and offensive wizardry last year in his only start, a 38-37 win over Central Michigan in which he ran for 201 yards on 20 carries.

Ricky’s arm was a huge weapon for the Mids for almost three years; you could easily (and truthfully) argue that his arm was what won the Army-Navy game last year. Kriss won’t make the plays in the passing game that Ricky did. If he is as skilled in running the option as the coaches say he is, he shouldn’t have to. With eight starters returning and Proctor at the wheel, the offense is the least of anyone’s worries.

2. Defensively, what will be Navy’s calling card this season?

The defense, unfortunately, is a different story. Only three starters are back from a unit that underachieved a year ago. I say “underachieved” because athletically, they were as good as or better than other Navy defenses of the last 8 years. That didn’t always translate to on-the-field performance, though, as the Mids gave up 390 yards per game. Now, I don’t want to make it sound like they were horrible. They weren’t. The defense had their moments; they played great in the Notre Dame game and against the other service academies, and the second half of the SMU game was as good a defensive performance as I have ever seen. They just couldn’t do that consistently, and seemed to struggle more as the year progressed. It’s hard to come up with a reason why we won’t see a repeat performance in 2011 other than progression to the mean (which is entirely possible). There’s no shortage of talent; most of Navy’s high-profile recruits over the last two to three years have been on the defensive side of the ball (high-profile being a relative term). It makes it hard to get too much of a read on the defense since the only players at the top of the depth chart that you can say with any certainty will still be there at the end of fall camp are DE Jabaree Tuani and CB Kwesi Mitchell.

Buddy Green’s game plan on defense revolves around preventing the big play. That means a lot of zone coverage and not a lot of chances being taken. The idea is that by keeping everything in front of you and forcing the offense to make extended drives, eventually they’ll make mistakes. It can be frustrating as hell since it feels like the other team is marching up and down the field all day, but then you look at the scoreboard and see Navy on top more often than not.

Navy Midshipmen3. Football is obviously a physical game, and might normally makes right. Given the general size disparity between Navy’s players and opponents, how do you think this impacts both what the coaching staff looks for in players as well as how the team trains off the practice field?

One of the great advantages of running an offense that almost nobody else runs is that you’re able to recruit players to fit that offense that get passed over by other schools running different systems. While those programs fight each other over towering 320-pound tackles, Navy looks for smaller, quicker linemen who can run and get to the second level of the defense faster. For the athletic option quarterback that other schools end up turning into a safety or wide receiver, Navy can sell the opportunity to stay behind center. Running backs that are too small to run between the tackles at most Division I programs do just fine as slotbacks in Navy’s offense, where they get the ball in space. There’s a saying in football that if you can’t do it better, do it different. You won’t beat Rutgers and ECU by doing the same things they’re doing with players that they didn’t want. Again, it’s all about increasing the size of the recruiting pool.

Defensively, Navy shows multiple looks but uses 3-4 (sometimes 3-3-5) personnel. The most sought-after commodity in football is the big, fast defensive lineman. They’re rare and precious jewels, and as such they rarely find their way to a service academy. Using a 3-4 takes the emphasis off of the defensive line and places it on the linebackers, a position where there is plenty of talent to go around and one that Navy doesn’t have nearly as much trouble attracting. A 3-4 defense also puts more team speed on the field than a 4-3. Everyone wants big and fast, but if you have to pick one or the other, Navy’s coaches will choose fast every time. That philosophy manifests itself in the strength and conditioning program too; the coaches won’t add bulk for the sake of adding bulk. If getting bigger makes a kid slower, they don’t want it.

4. In your mind, what’s a good season for this team?

The same as every other year: a winning season, a bowl game, and the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. Some people look at 2010 as a disappointment, but that’s mostly because they let their expectations run wild. I mean, the team was 9-4. That’s a great year at Navy, and fits right in line with what they’ve done for the last 8 seasons. It doesn’t fit in with some of the preseason hype, but people (especially Navy fans) should know better than to buy into all that. The one real disappointment was losing the CIC Trophy; there are only so many players willing to consider a service academy, so whatever edge you can get over the other two schools is huge.

The schedule won’t impress the average fan, but for a service academy it’s pretty brutal. Over the 8-game stretch in the middle of the season (at South Carolina, Air Force, Southern Miss, at Rutgers, ECU, at Notre Dame, Troy, at SMU), Navy might only be favored against two of them if the season holds to form. Not that Navy can’t win their share against those teams, but a winning season against this schedule would be something to be proud of.

5. Are you as annoyed by some of the complaints about Navy’s blocking techniques as I am? (I guess now you have to guess if I’m annoyed or not.)

It’s ridiculous. Cut blocking is no more dangerous than any other aspect of what is already a very fast and very violent game. How is blocking at the legs any different from tackling at the legs? What’s the difference between cut blocking and a defensive back stepping up to tackle a ballcarrier by putting a shoulder into his legs? It’s only dangerous if the player being blocked is already engaged with his weight planted & legs locked, but that’s a chop block and already illegal. I think the coaches who complain about it the most are just trying to plant a seed with the refs to get a few penalties during the game, but that makes them hypocrites since EVERYONE cut blocks. Do you run slant patterns? Then you cut. Run zone stretch plays? You cut. Screen passes? You cut. If you run any play that requires you to get a defender on the ground in a hurry, whether to create a quick passing lane or a running lane, then you cut block. These same coaches who say they’re so concerned about player safety don’t seem to have a problem turning 18 year-olds into 340-lb. leviathans. Which do you think has more of an affect on player health? What do you think THAT does to a kid’s knees?

How are games between Army, Navy, and Air Force not littered with carnage with all those dirty blocks? Hell, how do they even get out of spring practice? How are their scout team defenses not crippled? Must be a miracle.

Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter at @CrystalBallRun.

Follow Michael on Twitter at @navybirddog.