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Post-Spring Update: Navy

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In a traditional rivalry that’s been far more spirited than Notre Dame fans would like lately, the Naval Academy and the Irish meet once again in 2014, playing in the nation’s capital at FedEx Field. After pushing the Irish to the max last year in Notre Dame Stadium, Ken Niumatalolo’s squad will be looking to avenge a tough loss.

Doing so won’t be outside the realm of possibility. The Midshipmen have veteran depth on both sides of the ball. They also have quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Reynolds was impressive in South Bend, the start of a statistical tear that turned him into one of college football’s most prolific scorers.

To get us up to speed on how spring practice went for the Midshipmen, and just how dangerous they might be next year (the answer: very), is Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette.

 

After a down 2012, Navy is coming off a 9-4 season that ended with another Commander-In-Chief Trophy and a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl. It might be too early to tell, but heading out of spring, does this feel like one of Ken Niumatalolo’s better teams?

Yes, Navy should be very solid this season as there are a slew of returning letterman on both sides of the ball. Navy is stacked on offense with four of five starting offensive lineman back along with numerous skill position players. Obviously, having a third-year starting quarterback who is a big-time playmaker is a great start. Navy returns its top three fullbacks, all of whom earned starts in 2013. Navy also has a slew of quality slotbacks led by Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders and Demond Brown. Navy graduated both starting wide receivers, but the coaching staff is very high on sophomore Jamir Tillman (6-2, 205), the son of former NFL wide receiver Cedric Tillman and winner of the Admiral Mack Award as Most Improved Player during spring camp.

Defensively, Navy returns an outstanding nose guard in Bernie Sarra and a very good defensive end in Paul Quessenberry. Safety Parrish Gaines and cornerback Brendon Clement lead a secondary with experienced players at every position. Lone question marks come at inside linebacker as Navy graduated both starters and its top two leading tacklers in Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti. There was enough concern about the potential replacements that Jordan Drake, who started every game last season at outside linebacker, was shifted inside toward the end of spring drills. Punter Pablo Beltran and placekicker Nick Sloan also return. Navy should have no trouble securing the six wins necessary to qualify for the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.

 

Junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds gave Notre Dame all it could handle last year in South Bend, kicking off a near-historic month of football that had him racking up insane stat-lines down the stretch. Is it fair to call him a Heisman contender? Just how good can Reynolds be?

Reynolds is going to graduate as the most accomplished quarterback in Navy history behind Roger Staubach. He is already on the verge of breaking several school records. Reynolds just keeps getting better and better and the sky is the limit. He is an outstanding runner and a very solid passer. He is smart, a great leader and outstanding at reading defenses and making decisions in the option game. Having a QB of that caliber is huge in Navy’s system and almost guarantees good offensive production.

 

Navy’s option attack will always be difficult to stop, but with seven starters returning, how does Buddy Green’s defense look?

See first response. There are plenty of proven performers along the defensive line and in the secondary. Question marks come at inside linebacker as those two players make the majority of tackles in Navy’s 3-4 alignment.

 

The season starts off against Ohio State and Urban Meyer. After coming close to springing the upset a few years ago, is that a game circled on the calendar?

Obviously, getting Ohio State on a near home field in Baltimore is a coup for Navy and a major upset is slightly possible, although likely improbable. Navy almost beat Ohio State on its home field a few years ago so that provides some hope. Obviously, the fact it is the opener for both teams is good for Navy as Ohio State may not be clicking on all cylinders. Of course, the Midshipmen need to hope the Buckeyes struggle against the triple-option.

 

Notre Dame has committed to keeping Navy as part of its annual schedule. How will the Midshipmen’s schedule transform after it enters the AAC?

Navy must play eight American Athletic Conference games, which leaves four open dates. Three of those are locked in stone – Air Force, Army and Notre Dame. So basically, Navy has one open date and will no doubt schedule a very beatable opponent. Navy will NEVER stop playing Notre Dame.

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Special thanks to Bill for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these. Find more of his coverage of the Naval Academy at the Capital Gazette’s Navy Sports blog or on Twitter @BWagner_CapGaz.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.