Staying The Course
Aug. 19, 2011
By Bob Socci/A View From The Booth
Pats on the back couldn't cure the pain in Jarred Shannon's shoulders, but they sure helped to ease his mind.
Well before playing his way to the top of Navy's depth chart at outside linebacker, labrum tears in both shoulders -- first the left, a year later the right -- left him wondering whether football was worth it.
Shannon had his moments, like his blocked punt resulting in a touchdown against Temple. But that was one of just four games played as a sophomore. That fall and the following spring, there were too many hours recovering and rehabbing from surgery.
"I had to lean on a lot of teammates and family members to keep going," Shannon said in the wake of Wednesday's practice. "I've got that fire (within me), but after a while, injury after injury, you start to second-guess yourself and doubt yourself. But everyone was supportive of me."
Including head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
"Coach Niumat' was very supportive and very encouraging," Shannon says. "Every day in practice, he was always checking on me, seeing how I was doing and asking how my shoulder was doing. He gave me everything I needed to get through it."
Confronting any doubts, he could also confide in his father. James Shannon was a talented fullback whose career was cut short by injuries.
"He understood where I was," Jarred recalled. "He said, `Son, this is one of those decisions I can't (make for you)...I did what I did, but this is your opportunity. This is something different for you. This is your call, but whatever you do, I'm behind you.'"
To say that Shannon made the right decision to keep playing only begins to tell the rest of the story.
He returned from surgery two months earlier than expected, and held up well enough in last year's preseason camp to earn a place on the Mids' special teams unit. Appearing in all 13 games, Shannon also adjusted to a full-time position change, as a former safety.
A year later, he's in good stead to start the season opener vs. Delaware on Sept. 3.
"There's a kid who stayed the course," Niumatalolo says. "(Jarred's) a guy we were hoping would play more but because of injuries hasn't been on the field much. But the guy has not said a word. He's had two bad shoulders, and he's just toughed it out."
"It's pretty much what I've been working for these last four years," Shannon reflects. "Hopefully I'll be able to show it this year, to make plays, and when Coach (Buddy) Green puts me in different situations be able to capitalize."
The way Green utilizes outside linebackers as Navy's defensive coordinator, there will be no shortage of opportunities. Shannon currently mans the Striker position, opposite fellow outside linebacker Mason Graham, a.k.a. the Raider.
"When we go against conventional offenses, my job is to deal less with linemen and more with receivers," Shannon explains. "We're more coverage linebackers."
Though not exclusively. Green often sends the Striker on blitzes. Therefore, Shannon is expected to be well-rounded, taking over a position responsible for a lot of game-turning plays in recent years.
As a former defensive back, Shannon has the athleticism to enjoy similar numbers. He's also proven himself a heavy hitter.
This is his last chance to do the former and be the latter, injury free.
"You know that all you need is one shot," he says.
"He's healthy now and he's been focused and businesslike," Niumatalolo says. "I'm very happy for him. I've been so very, very impressed with Jarred Shannon."
SOFT SPOT FOR A HARD WORKER
There are times when Niumatalolo can be hard on the Midshipmen; namely when they lack the effort expected of them. But really, he's got a soft spot for his entire team, especially those for whom success doesn't come easy and often comes late.
Of course, naming all the names of such players might make Niumatalolo sound like Deion Sanders, who thanked more than 100 people during his recent Hall of Fame induction speech. Besides, there's only so much space on this webpage.
Nonetheless, during a recent conversation, Niumatalolo talked at length about one player he's taken a rooting interest in this season: senior Mike Stukel.
Early in his career, Stukel rotated back and forth between slot back and quarterback. In the spring of '09, he was strongly considered for backing up Ricky Dobbs, only to get edged out by Kriss Proctor.
With Stukel relocated to slot, Proctor injured his knee the following fall. Stukel briefly returned to quarterback, until Proctor recovered. He then switched out his shoulder pads one last time.
Stukel figured to have a prominent role as a junior. He opened with four carries vs. Maryland, had four more at Louisiana Tech, including his first career touchdown, and two at Air Force. Four games into the season, he didn't touch the ball again in 2010.
Midway through this preseason camp, Stukel's last, six other names fill Navy's first three strings. Yet, he's someone Niumatalolo holds in high esteem. And has high hopes for.
"I'm pulling for that kid. He's worked hard, he's stayed the course, he doesn't complain," Niumatalolo says. "He just comes to work everyday with a businesslike approach and is a pleasant young man to be around. He's nothing but positive for a team.
"It could have easily gone the other way. Here's a guy who at one point was the backup quarterback; he was actually competing with Proctor for that spot. We moved him, but he never complained. He just accepted his role and has continued to work hard. Guys like that I pull for. I just hope he has a great year, because he's such a great kid."
Matt Brewer is another Midshipman who's gladly paid his dues to the program.
That he's competing for a starter's job is both remarkable and still somewhat unsurprising at the same time. The other three players currently listed at first- and second-string inside linebacker all have starting experience.
Last season Max Blue made five starts, Caleb King started four times and Matt Warrick was a starter against Army and San Diego State. Meanwhile, Brewer was mainly a special teamer, totaling four tackles.
Still, he made a lasting impression that's continued throughout the 2011 preseason.
"(Matt) was one of our best special teams players last year," Niumatalolo said. "He's probably our most physical kid. We've got three guys (inside) who've played a lot, and the one guy who didn't is probably our most physical linebacker."
BACK TO RETURN
Niumatalolo confirmed Thursday that sophomore speedster Marcus Thomas, a reserve slot back, will return kicks for the second straight year. In that role the last eight games of 2010, Thomas flashed potential of becoming Navy's most lethal return threat since Reggie Campbell took two kicks back for scores in 2007.
"No doubt," Niumatalolo replied earlier this month, when asked if Thomas is on the verge of becoming a game breaker. "He's probably one of the fastest guys on our team. He's a guy who continues to get better. I thought he did a great job on kickoff returns last year."
Thomas is a product of Catholic High School, a track & field powerhouse in his native Baton Rouge, La. Since 2002, the Bears have won five outdoor and six indoor state titles. Contributing to five of those championships, Thomas was a member of Catholic's All-America 4 x 100-meter relay team.
Individually, according to Louisiana Running, he posted personal bests of 10.06 seconds in the 100 meters and 6.56 seconds in the 55-meter dash.
Speed alone, however, doesn't make a returner dangerous.
"I don't care how fast you are, I don't care how elusive you are or how strong you are, you've got to be fearless," Niumatalolo says. "You've got to hit it, you've got to run and you can't dance."
By season's end, Thomas increasingly showed the willingness to quickly take the ball upfield in search of a seam. Overall, he averaged 21.7 yards per runback, including a season-long 38-yarder to open the Army-Navy game.
Niumatalolo also confirmed that Gary Myers will be utilized again on punt returns. A senior safety converted from wide receiver, Myers was the lone Mid to handle a punt last season, averaging 5.4 yards on 13 returns. He retains his role thanks to sure hands, more than quick feet.
"Ultimately, we want a guy back there who, first and foremost, can catch the football," Niumatalolo says. "That's your number one priority. Gary did a great job last year."