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OVERVIEW: The return of four starting linemen plus the top two running backs from last season assures that Navy once again should boast one of the nation's top rushing attacks. But the departure of QB Ricky Dobbs could make the Middies even more one-dimensional than usual.
BACKFIELD: Kriss Proctor takes over for Dobbs, a three-year starter, as Navy's No. 1 quarterback. Proctor isn't as good a passer as Dobbs, but he should do an effective job of leading Navy's option attack. Proctor started in place of an injured Dobbs and rushed for 201 yards in a 38-37 victory over Central Michigan last season. The return of FB Alexander Teich (147 carries, 863 yards, five TDs) and slotback Gee Gee Greene (72-492-5) leaves Navy well-stocked at the running back positions. Teich rushed for 210 yards against Notre Dame and 157 against East Carolina last season.
RECEIVERS: Navy lacks proven pass-catching wide receivers as it attempts to replace Greg Jones, who caught 33 passes for 662 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Middies in all three categories last season. Jones' departure leaves slotbacks Greene (18 catches, 286 yards, no TDs) and Aaron Santiago (13-251-3) as Navy's top returning receivers. Senior Doug Furman and junior Brandon Turner exited spring practice atop the depth chart at receiver, but they combined for just seven catches last season.
LINE: This group means Navy should continue to run the ball well against just about anyone. LG Josh Cabral, C Brady DeMell, RG John Dowd and RT Ryan Basford are returning starters who helped Navy average 5.4 yards per carry last season. DeMell, Dowd and Basford are seniors. Navy must break in a new starter at left tackle. Senior David Sumrall and junior Andrew Barker are competing for the job.
OVERVIEW: Navy may have to rely heavily on its offense early in the season because the Middies could have trouble stopping teams. Navy returns only two defensive players (CB Kwesi Mitchell and E Jabaree Tuani) who made at least seven starts last season. And it wasn't as though Navy played particularly well on defense last season: The Middies gave up at least 34 points in four of their last six games.
LINE: Tuani is a legitimate star who has started for the Middies in each of the past three seasons. He had a team-high 15.5 tackles for loss last year and also posted 72 overall tackles, an unusually high total for a lineman. He ranks fifth in school history in career sacks (10.5) and sixth in tackles for loss (30). As the only returning starter on the line, Tuani can look forward to plenty of double-teams. Navy also plans to start senior Jared Marks at nose tackle and junior Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick at end. Marks teamed up on a big fourth-down stop in the victory over Notre Dame last season.
LINEBACKERS: Although Navy doesn't return any full-time starters from last season at the position, the Middies have plenty of linebackers with at least some starting experience. Max Blue started five games last season and ranked sixth on the team with 58 tackles, even though he was sidelined for five of Navy's final six games. Caleb King made four starts last season, and converted slotback Matt Warrick started Navy's final two games. Starting positions here could remain up for grabs well into preseason camp.
SECONDARY: Navy ranked just 94th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and now must break in three new starters. The lone returning starter is Mitchell, a cornerback who also is versatile enough to play safety if necessary. Junior SS Tra'ves Bush moves into the starting lineup after making 44 tackles in a reserve role last season. Bush's backup has one of the best names in college football: Wave Ryder. And, yes, Ryder is from Hawaii.
Senior Jon Teague likely will take over as Navy's main kicker. Teague primarily was a kickoff man last season, though he went 2-of-2 on field goals and 16-of-16 on extra points while filling in for an injured Joe Buckley. Junior Justin Haan is the front-runner for the punting job. Haan spent last season as Navy's holder. Backup slotback Marcus Thomas averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return last season and should have that role again. Backup S Gary Myers averaged 5.4 yards per punt return, and backup WR Matt Aiken also could return punts. As a team, Navy ranked just 99th in punt-return average last season. Navy ranked 46th in punt coverage but 93rd in kickoff coverage a year ago.
Navy doesn't redshirt and rarely recruits true freshmen who are ready to step into featured roles, so it's tougher to find impact newcomers here than at most other programs. We typically use this space to point out freshmen or transfers who could play immediately, but sophomore Travis Bridges should qualify in this case since he hasn't actually played a down for Navy. Bridges exited spring practice as the Middies' second-team left guard and should add depth to Navy's veteran line. Bridges, a 6-foot, 300-pound sophomore, is a first cousin of Arizona Cardinals RB Tim Hightower.
After opening the season against defending FCS runner-up Delaware and Western Kentucky, the Middies play seven 2010 bowl teams in an eight-game stretch (at South Carolina, home against Air Force, home against Southern Miss, at Rutgers, home against East Carolina, at Notre Dame, home against Troy and at SMU). Navy's last three games are all away from Annapolis, though the season-ending showdown with Army is at nearby Landover, Md. An odd quirk to Navy's schedule is that it will play three teams from Conference USA in Southern Miss, East Carolina and SMU. Navy has won three of its past four games with Notre Dame and has beaten Army nine consecutive times, though its seven-game winning streak over Air Force ended last season.
Navy has won at least eight games every season since 2003. It will be interesting to see if the Middies keep that streak alive with a first-year starting quarterback and so many new starters on defense. Those first seven games before the trip to Notre Dame are crucial. Navy realistically could head into South Bend anywhere from 3-4 to 6-1. Although Navy's running game should be as solid as ever, the Middies might not even have a semblance of a passing attack anymore now that Dobbs has departed. And that could prove critical if Navy ends up playing a bunch of high-scoring contests again. Navy should earn a ninth consecutive bowl bid and may indeed get to eight wins again, but the Middies may need a late-season run to keep both streaks alive.