July 28, 2011
By Bob Socci
If your summertime reading includes college football annuals, you're likely sensing a return to what Navy fans knew as the norm for most of the last eight years.
Virtually all of those seasons, amounting to a modern-day renaissance for the Midshipmen, began with relatively little national fanfare. Expectations rose only gradually, as Navy kept extending its ongoing streak of winning records and bowl games.
Generally, even the most optimistic projections only went so far. Written outlooks typically read like weather forecasts calling for partly sunny skies: Winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is a definite possibility. There's a good chance of returning to the postseason. If things break right, this just might be an eight-win team.
That seemed the consensus every August. Invariably, by late October, the Mids would turn up on the radar, on their way to at least eight wins. Seven Decembers in a row, they were crowned CIC champions. Perennially, people eventually noticed: The Little Team That Could had done it again.
All that changed last summer.
So-called insiders outside of Annapolis looked at Navy differently. Ten victories in 2009, following a narrow loss at Ohio State and capped by a Texas Bowl rout of Missouri, convinced some prognosticators to foresee the potential for an unbeaten finish to 2010. Those same pundits hailed quarterback Ricky Dobbs as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
They weren't the only ones entertaining visions of Navy grandeur.
"We want to have a perfect season," Dobbs admitted to Steward Mandel of SI.com.
"Top 25, undefeated, BCS bowl game -- that's all that is left. That's what the next level is," said fellow co-captain Wyatt Middleton in an Associated Press story.
Such talk about and, frankly, from Midshipmen was unfamiliar. As we soon learned, it was also unrealistic. And unfair. Unable to meet such outsized expectations, Navy still managed nine wins and reached another bowl. Imperfect as it was, that's still a damn good year.
Turning the pages of periodicals to see what's written in 2011, there's concern on paper about significant roster turnover and what figures to be a very strenuous schedule. The Mids are ranked as high as the mid-50s (Lindy's and Athlon) and as low as the mid-80s (Phil Steele's).
To senior fullback Alexander Teich, they're right where they want to be. For now.
"At times last year, we'd get caught up in what was going to happen down the road," Teich said earlier in the offseason. "We got a little too full of ourselves early on. That's not the Navy way. If we get attention, we'll take it. But we're not going to go out and seek it."
As Dobbs's successor in the role of offensive captain, Teich is focused on the finer details. And concentrating only on the immediate future.
"Win the game every day," he says of this year's overriding objective. "In the weight room, win the day. In practice, have a better day than the previous day."
Throughout their eight-year run from 2003-10 -- resulting in a 70-33 (.680) record -- the Mids were at their best when carrying a chip on their shoulder pads. The playing field was their proving ground.
They must see it the same way in 2011. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo puts it this way: "We can't forget who we are."
It's his constant reminder that although Navy's program is populated by "tough, smart kids," as Niumatalolo says, they "have to play harder than everyone else." Or else.
No doubt, he'll be repeating that point from Wednesday's practice -- the first of the preseason -- right up to the afternoon of the Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware. So will Teich and fellow co-captain Jabaree Tuani.
Perhaps, one more emotionally than the other.
"I wear my emotions on my sleeve," admits Teich, who doesn't plan to temper them as elected leader of the Mids' offense. "I've been the same person all along. I'm still full of energy and a vocal person. I think people feed off that energy. People react that way, when I'm more fired up on the sideline."
Whereas Teich's unit is experienced, Tuani's is exactly the opposite.
The offense returns eight starters and features a well-established heir apparent to Dobbs in senior Kriss Proctor. The defense lost eight starters and welcomes back only two of its top six tacklers from 2010.
"I'm definitely trying to be more of a vocal leader," says Tuani, a starter in 35 of the last 36 games. "I'm trying to help people mature. We need guys to come out of their shell and reach their potential."
There's a month to resolve considerable personnel issues, particularly on the back end. Absent from the secondary are safety Middleton and cornerback Kevin Edwards, who graduated with a combined 80 starts. No longer at linebacker are Tyler Simmons, Aaron McCauley and Jerry Hauburger; three of last year's top four in tackles.
What's more, the first test for their successors is against a Delaware team coming off an appearance in the FCS Championship game. Featuring All-America running back Andrew Pierce, the Blue Hens seek their third win in Annapolis since 2003.
Two weeks later, the degree of difficulty increases exponentially at South Carolina, a favorite in the SEC East. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks only happen to have, arguably, the nation's premier running back (Marcus Lattimore) and wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey).
With no margin for error, there's little time to grow up.
"We really need (everyone) to focus, and be on their keys," Tuani says, echoing Teich's call for an everyday sense of urgency. "Take our (offseason) `Fourth Quarter' (conditioning) drills. Nobody really wants to be out there. But come game time, like Coach says, `You play like you practice.'
"I always try to think about this: everybody should (think) like a senior, because a senior always remembers his last game. You don't want to let anyone down who came before you."
Of course, if teammates can play remotely as well as their senior co-captains, it won't be long before Navy gets noticed again.
Both are healthy, after battling injuries much of last season, and enter their final campaign considered among the best at their respective positions. Teich was `watch-listed' for the Doak Walker Award; Tuani for the Rotary Lombardi Award.
A year ago, Teich rushed 147 times for 863 yards and five touchdowns. His signature performance and play helped the Mids beat Notre Dame, 35-17. Twenty-six carries against the Fighting Irish consumed 210 yards; a record for Navy fullbacks and most by a Mid in the 84-game series.
On Navy's third play, Teich blasted through the middle for 54 yards. On its sixth, he wandered into the left flat, reached back with his right hand for lob from Dobbs, batted the ball to himself and took off running. Thirty-one yards past the line of scrimmage, he launched himself -- head over heels -- into the end zone.
Similarly, Tuani showed near reckless regard for his already-banged-up body in the singular moment that sums up his first three seasons. Fighting off a block behind the play, late in a tight encounter with SMU, he lost his helmet. Unrelenting, he still tracked down the ballcarrier to make a crucial stop in a seven-point win.
Niumatalolo was so inspired on the spot, watching Tuani's helmet-less tackle, he introduced a new team honor. He called it the `Warrior Award.' Naturally, Tuani was its inaugural recipient.
"Luckily, the tackle wasn't head on head," Tuani joked, before reflecting. "I hope it showed that I would put anything on the line to help the team. There was no way I was going to pull up. It shows the devotion I have for the team."
Should the 2011 Mids devote themselves to winning the day, from today thru December, they can prove once again, with Navy, what you see isn't what you get.
"We're not the biggest. We're not the strongest," says a representative Tuani, who defies the usual parameters of Division I, as a 6-foot-1, 265-pound lineman. "But playing us is going to be 60 minutes of hell."