Aug. 8, 2011
By Bob Socci/A View From The Booth
Where else would one of the smallest guys on the field ask to fill the biggest jersey?
And who else could seem the perfect fit for the number called more than any other the last two years, despite barely scratching 5-foot-7 and totaling just 13 offensive touches in those same seasons?
Only at the Naval Academy. And only Bo Snelson.
In two seasons wearing Nos. 41 and 23 at slot back, Snelson had a dozen carries -- one as a freshman and none as a sophomore, until the ninth game of 2010 -- and one pass reception.
Meanwhile, Ricky Dobbs, as much as anyone in recent memory, made himself the face of Navy's program by stretching the No. 4 over his shoulder pads and consistently delivering under the weight of great expectations.
In 2009, he set a record for Division I quarterbacks with 27 rushing touchdowns. In 2010, he passed for 13 scores to establish a new Academy standard. At season's end, after concluding his career with 2,730 yards rushing and a school-record 49 TD, Dobbs hung up his uniform.
Initially, Dobbs's old number was reassigned to sophomore cornerback Eric Graham for spring practice. But before nameplates could be sewn on this fall, Snelson sought to swap shirts.
"All through high school in the Houston, Texas area, I wore number 4," Snelson explained last Friday. "And for various reasons, I've become pretty fond of it. Then I got here and it was Ricky's number."
Actually, Snelson has several thousand reasons for the switch. According to maxpreps.com, he gained more than 2,200 yards and scored 31 touchdowns as a junior tailback at Pasadena Memorial High School. The following fall, after moving to quarterback, he rushed for 1,900 yards and 24 scores.
Coached by his father, John, Snelson was twice named his district's most valuable player, as well as the Old Spice `Red Zone' Player of the Year.
If there's any inherent pressure inheriting Dobbs's `4', it's superseded by superstition.
"I asked Coached `Niumat' if I get my old (numeral) back," Snelson said in his Texas Twang, referring to a preseason conversation with head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "He asked if it would help me play a little better. I said, `Yes, sir, it will.' So he let me have it.
"I feel a little more comfortable wearing number 4. There are a couple of things that I'm superstitious about. I feel like, as far as superstitions go, this is going to be a better move for me."
It helped that Niumatalolo is more than a tad superstitious, even when judged by the extreme standards of the ritual-obsessed wide world of sports. It also didn't hurt that whatever jersey he wears, heart alone should enable the undersized Snelson to overstuff it.
In a Dec. 2008 profile in the Houston Chronicle, Steven Thomson wrote that Snelson patterned his running style after NFL Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. Keep in mind, Snelson is about four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Campbell in the prime of his playing days.
Or, perhaps better yet, Snelson's waist is about as thick as either of the bruising Campbell's thighs.
"When I was in eighth grade, my dad sat me down to talk about my goals," Snelson told Thomson. "He said I would never be the tallest and probably not the fastest or the strongest. So I had to work the hardest and be the toughest. That's the mentality that I've always had."
"I told Bo (about) some of the obstacles that would be in his way," John Snelson said at the time. "He set his mind to it. He's a hard worker and a tough-minded kid."
Up against Class 5A competition, as a genuine 48-minute man -- high school quarters are 12 minutes -- Snelson occupied both offensive and defensive backfields and appeared on special teams; yet he never missed a game or practice due to injury.
Highlights of him with the ball in his hands are a collage of long sprints down the sideline, high leaps over the line and disappearing acts, in and out of piles of defenders.
So far at Navy, as noted, such opportunities have been limited. Snelson did return four kickoffs as a plebe, but registered just a single carry his first 19 collegiate games overall. By November of last year, though, he cracked the Mids' rotation at slot back and scored his first touchdown on a six-yard run at East Carolina.
True to his Pasadena Memorial Maverick roots, Snelson is somewhat of a non-conformist when it comes to football stereotypes. An English major who was a three-time high school class president, he proudly professes a love of ballroom dancing.
"That's actually a hundred percent true," Snelson confirms. "Being from Houston, where we have a large Hispanic population, I was involved in a lot of what are called la quinceañera celebrations (traditionally marking a Latina's transition from childhood to womanhood).
"I was dancing the merengue, cumbia and waltz at a young age," says Snelson, who also did the salsa at the Academy's International Ball. "That's something that I've always really enjoyed doing. It's just presented itself at different opportunities, throughout my life. It's always something that I've jumped at and tried to take advantage of."
Now that Snelson has taken after Dobbs and looks to take on an expanded role on the field, his next logical steps on the floor would seem to be taking on the tango.
"I do know how to tango, but I've never actually had to perform that before," he laughs. "But, hey, if the opportunity comes about, I might have to do that, yes sir."
MORE NEW RULES
By now, after averaging 8.75 wins the last eight years, there shouldn't by any secrets to Navy's success. But there is an underlying truth that can easily get overlooked.
Almost without exception, the Midshipmen don't beat themselves. They rarely lose possession and they rarely lose yardage.
Navy committed only 16 turnovers in 2010, tied for the 12th-lowest total in the country. The Mids also averaged just 3.38 penalties per game. Only Wisconsin (3.15) was flagged fewer times, though the Badgers actually lost more yards as a consequence.
This, despite the regular grousing of opposing coaches -- and, in some cases, media -- posturing in hopes that officials couldn't recognize the difference between cut blocks (perfectly legal) and chop blocks (totally illegal). As you may know, the former has been part and parcel with Navy's triple-option offense.
In other words, the Mids have blocked below the belt, legally if not metaphorically. That won't change in 2011.
What is different, however, is how the NCAA Rules Committee is asking officials to view blocks below the waist, specifically by wide receivers and running backs. Essentially, they'll look to protect unsuspecting defenders in the middle of the field from "crack-back" blocks thrown by offensive players who go against the flow of the play to make contact.
Players on the line of scrimmage, within seven yards of the center, will be able to block as always, anywhere on the field. A receiver on the perimeter can only hit below the waist if he is facing the defensive player, or trying to block him toward the nearest sideline. The same restrictions apply for backs or receivers in the backfield, either aligned outside the "tackle box" or in motion.
Confusing as the new blocking rules seem to some of us, Navy coaches assure there's no need to worry.
If the Mids need to alter anything, Niumatalolo says they'll simply "change (their) aiming point." Danny O'Rourke, who previously coached Navy's receivers and now oversees its slot backs, agrees that any technical adjustments will require only tweaking.
"As long as you're going north and south or going back away from the ball, you'll be okay," O'Rourke explains. "We never, never cut low going back towards the ball anyway.
"It might affect us sometimes on the blocks made 30-40 yards downfield, where the wideout is trying to cut off (a defender) on the backside. Now he's just got to work harder and try to get more inside of him before he can cut him."
Niumatalolo and his staff frequently consult with Doug Rhoads, coordinator of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which supplies the crews for most Navy games. According to O'Rourke, an ACC review of video from the 2010 season confirmed that the Mids blocked well within the framework of the 2011 rules.
Late last month, as he was about to embark on his 46th season as head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno told reporters at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago that he's "looking at four or five (more) years" overseeing the Nittany Lions.
Then, on Sunday, the 84-year-old Paterno was hospitalized following a collision with a wide receiver who was running a pass route in practice.
"I expect to be back at practice soon," Paterno said in a statement, after undergoing tests on his right arm and hip. "I'm doing fine; tell everyone not to worry about me."
Assuming health allows, Paterno should continue coaching as long as he likes. Born on Dec. 21, 1926, he could still be on the sidelines, coaching in a bowl game, after his 90th birthday.
Let's hope he's still knotting his tie, rolling up his shirt sleeves and pant cuffs and leading Penn State when Navy visits Happy Valley in 2012. If so, he'll be revisiting a crossroads in his unparalleled coaching career.
Paterno opened his second season in charge of Penn State on Sept. 23, 1967 in Annapolis. The Nittany Lions entered with just five of their now record 401 all-time wins under Paterno; they also had five losses.
With less than a minute left, Rob Taylor made his Academy-record 10th catch of the day, hauling in a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Midshipmen a 23-22 victory. Paterno's record as a head coach was 5-6.
In his book The Lion in Autumn (published in 2005), author Frank Fitzpatrick wrote of Paterno's fragile state of mind in the aftermath of that loss, on a long, quiet bus ride back to State College, Pa.:
"One of the few times when anyone can recall the coach being silent for an extended period also marked the moment when he might have come closest to abandoning his profession...all the plans and dreams he had formulated in sixteen seasons as Rip Engle's assistant were evaporating in a haze of mediocrity. His best coaching attributes -- competitiveness, a fierce drive, a need to excel -- had turned inward and were devouring him."
Paterno admitted to "having my doubts" after seeing Navy consume 489 yards of total offense at Penn State's expense.
Any doubts -- save for those related to age and its effects -- were removed decades ago.
Get well and stay forever young, coach. See you next September.