Anatomy of a Position: The Navy Slot Backs
Aug. 15, 2011
By Bob Socci/A View From The Booth
After nine years on the job, Danny O'Rourke ought to know nearly every square inch of Navy's football headquarters at Ricketts Hall.
Inside the building's respective subdivisions, he's poured over scouting reports and dissected video with several position groups, on both sides of the ball.
Then last winter, O'Rourke was asked to move again.
Slot backs coach Joe DuPaix left for BYU, leaving Niumatalolo to reorganize his staff. The first step was hiring Naval Academy grad Mick Yokitis (Class of '06), a former receiver. The next involved reassigning O'Rourke to the spot vacated by DuPaix.
It entailed relocating to a different meeting room and becoming familiar with another group of Midshipmen. Fortunately, as well as O'Rourke knows his indoor workplace, he's even better finding his way around the field.
"Danny's a smart guy and a good football coach," says Niumatalolo.
Smart enough not to be a know-it-all.
Before trying to teach the slightest nuance associated with his new role, O'Rourke reached out to others. He phoned DuPaix and Jeff Monken, the ex-Navy assistant now head coach of Georgia Southern, and consulted with Ivin Jasper, a one-time slot back at Hawaii currently coordinating the Mids' offense.
"Everybody kind of used different coaching points on how they (taught); what they thought was most important or hardest to learn (for players)," he says. "Everybody has a different take on it and different ideas."
Each offered a lot to think about. A lot; but not everything. So O'Rourke opened the door to the slots themselves.
"The players, too, were important," he says. "I'm stepping into a room with guys who've played probably 1,200 plays as a group.
"Seven guys in the room played in games last year. That's a lot."
Otherwise known in Navy's triple-option vernacular as A-Backs, their insight proved especially helpful, considering the unconventionality of their position. Hybrids of tailbacks, flankers and fullbacks; they must run, catch and block. In most formations, they align on the wings or, naturally, in the slots; each a counterweight to the other. Almost always, one of them is in motion.
"Everybody doesn't have to be great at everything, but they've got to be really good though," O'Rourke asserts. "You can't be a great runner and an awful blocker. I'd rather you be a good runner and a good blocker. You've got to be able to do both.
"A lot of conventional offenses will put a guy in a certain spot and give him the ball. That's not our deal. We're very multiple, very balanced; we can go either way. That's the way the offense is designed."
In Navy's scheme, which way the defense tilts dictates the direction of the offense. The option is designed to get the ball to someone unaccounted for, so until the quarterback is under center, it's unknown whether the play flows right or left.
That puts A-Backs in exclusive company. They always have to be ready to run and block. And when it's the latter, they're doing it for each other.
"The unique thing about the position is that the majority of time, you're blocking for the other guy in the room," O'Rourke explains. "So when our block really counts, on the perimeter, the difference between a four-yard run and a 60-yard run is the other guy in the room.
"It's not the (offensive) linemen, because the ball is out on the perimeter. It's not the fullback, it's the other (slot back). In traditional offenses, a lot of times the running backs aren't blocking for each other."
In that sense, A's are beholden to one another.
"Taking some ownership, taking some accountability to each other is very important," O'Rourke continues. "With that, you gotta like each other, you gotta trust each other...you need that camaraderie. It's important. They have to do their job because the next time it might be them carrying the ball."
"Blocking for the guys in the room, running the ball and carrying the livelihood of the team in your hands; that builds kind of a special bond between everyone in that room," adds Snelson.
He and his fellow A's often hear O'Rourke's mantra: No weak links. With this group, there don't appear to be any. Talent runs deep; as does their knowledge.
"They're all very similar," Niumatalolo says. "They play hard and they have some football sense. They're probably the first group we've had in a while (in which) all of them can do everything. They can all run with it. They can all catch it. They can all block. And they're all tough. The thing that's really helped us is that they're all football smart. That's definitely a big-time benefit."
"The thing I've been most impressed with is that they're very, very, very football intelligent," O'Rourke concurs, a slight drawl informing his Georgia roots. "These guys do a lot, a lot of different motions. They have a good enough sense of what's going on that they can adjust or ask really good questions."
And sometimes, answer them.
"During spring practice there were a lot of little details that (O'Rourke) wasn't aware of," says Greene, Navy's third-leading rusher and second-leading receiver in 2010. "He listened to what we had to say."
"There's a really high level of football knowledge of the ins and outs," Snelson adds. "Not just about the option game, but football in general."
O'Rourke is convinced that several current A-Backs can make great coaches someday. Unsurprisingly, Snelson is one; he played for his father, John, at Pasadena Memorial High School in Texas. Another is Howell; although his career interest lies instead under water, in marine biology.
"I think (our knowledge) comes from the guys before us," Howell says specifically of ex-teammates and mentors Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty, who graduated in the spring of '10. "Those guys were unbelievable. They knew the offense, in and out.
"Sitting down with those guys as freshmen and studying with them in the meeting room just accelerated our ability to learn the offense. Now, we can see things in slow motion and understand exactly where to go."
By slowing down what they see, Navy's veteran A's can speed up their movements. They'll need to this season, with Kriss Proctor at quarterback.
"The one thing we all tried to work on this summer was our motion timing," Howell explains. "Kriss gets off the line fast. There's no doubt about it, he's probably one of the fastest guys on the team, if not the fastest. And with him, particularly when he has the ball, we've got to be on top of our game, when it comes to motion. The second we hear the cadence, we've got to come out firing."
"Getting our motions down, leaving at a different time with (Proctor) than with Ricky (Dobbs), was a major adjustment," admits Greene. "He's a lot faster than Ricky, so we've got to be a lot quicker."
Santiago identifies another area of needed improvement.
"Perimeter blocking was one of our biggest faults last year as A-backs and we need to improve on that," says Santiago, one of only two seniors among the seven slot backs on the Mids' preseason depth chart.
With the duties of an A-Back divided disproportionately -- he is more apt to block than rush or receive -- Santiago's criticism is a shared point of emphasis in preseason camp.
"I felt like at times I knew where I needed to be, but didn't execute as well as I should have," said Howell, speaking for the group, by speaking for himself. "That's why I wanted to work on the fundamentals over the summer...I think that's the number one part of the game I wanted to get better at."
Perhaps they're being overly harsh. Or maybe they're just reflecting the not-so-new guy who took over their room.
"I thought they did some good things blocking," Niumatalolo says. "But it shows you the mentality those guys have and the mentality of Coach O'Rourke. They want to get better at it. I'm encouraged to hear them say that."
"We've definitely got to be better blockers," O'Rourke bluntly states. "We weren't as good as could have been (last year)."
O'Rourke doesn't mince words on the practice field either.
"Coach DuPaix was more of a calm guy," Greene said. "With Coach O'Rourke, if you mess up, he's going to be on you real quick."
"Coach O'Rourke definitely brings a different attitude to the game," Howell laughs. "He's in there in the huddle with us, jumping around, smacking people on the back. He reminds me of a Drew Brees out there."
Despite a role change, coaching different players, O'Rourke is in his element. Physically, he sees eye-to-eye with the A-Backs, whose average height is about 5-foot-8. They're also in line philosophically. He asks a lot of them, and they ask a lot of themselves.
"We're the smallest in stature," says Snelson, who like most slot backs also excels on special teams. "But we've got to be the toughest."
SCOUTING THE SLOT BACKS
- Greene was Navy's third-leading rusher and second-leading receiver in 2010. He netted 492 yards on 72 carries (6.8), ran for five touchdowns and made 18 catches for 286 yards (15.9).
- Santiago missed three of the first four games of 2010 due to a hamstring injury, but recovered to average 7.4 yards a rush and 19.3 yards a reception.
- Howell scored four touchdowns in just 17 touches, rushing and receiving, including a 77-yard TD catch vs. Army.
- Niumatalolo: "I think it's as deep a group (of slot backs) as we've had."
- Snelson: "One of the things we talk about here is kind of `playing scared.` We don't use that as a negative term. We see that as: You've got to play well because there's somebody right behind you chomping at the bit."
- O'Rourke: "I've got some freshmen who are coming in here and can't crack the lineup, but they're good. They're a year away."
AWAITING THEIR TURN
- Niumatalolo on former quarterback Mike Stukel: "(He) is a guy who played early on (in 2010) and kind of lost his spot. But we're not afraid to play him. Mike is a very, very good football player."
- Howell on sophomores Darius Staten and Marcus Thomas: "They definitely have the ability to play. They have the speed and agility. They'll definitely be key aspects of the team."
- Howell: "With our offense, anyone can make plays. That's just who we are, A-Backs as a whole. Our mentality is that we're the best on the field."
- Snelson: "I feel like having so many different options and so many different weapons, that's something the defense always has to account for. They're not just seeing 21 (Greene) or 26 (Santiago). Every time they see a different number, they've got to mentally check themselves...we're all well-rounded athletes...we can keep the defense on their toes."