- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Paul Johnson last year led Navy’s football team to its most successful season in 99 years. The Midshipmen won 10 games for the second time in school history, the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy and the Emerald Bowl.

He was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year for his efforts.

Now it’s time to start over.

A major part of the Midshipmen’s success last year was their gigantic senior class. Not only was it 33 players deep, but it included some of the most decorated players in program history.

Spring practice started for the Mids yesterday, and Johnson’s task is finding replacements for last season’s stars: quarterback Aaron Polanco, fullback Kyle Eckel and safety Josh Smith, as well as a host of other starters.

“This spring should be interesting because we have so many guys who haven’t played,” Johnson said. “Each team has its own identity, and that certainly is going to be the case this year.”

There will be new starters at every offensive backfield spot. The offensive line will be virtually new. The same goes for the front seven. The senior class also is small because it is the “transition class” — players recruited during the offseason in which Charlie Weatherbie was let go and Johnson was hired.

The situation is not as bleak as it might appear. Johnson’s recruiting efforts have produced a number of players for him to pick from at nearly every position. Most of them are more athletic than their predecessors, but many are untested.

Lamar Owens and Matt Hall will have the first crack at replacing Polanco and Eckel, but there are plenty of other options. Owens, a rising senior whom Johnson first recruited when he was at Georgia Southern, will try to replicate Polanco’s career path.

“It felt so strange when we came out here [yesterday],” Owens said. “We do this passing drill, and I almost went to the No. 2 huddle, and everybody was like, ‘No, you’re over here [with the starters].’ I was looking over at Aaron [on the sideline] in a T-shirt, and it’s just funny. Since the first day I’ve been here, Aaron’s always been with me.”

Owens is more similar to Polanco’s mentor, Craig Candeto, and he scored his first career touchdown against Army last year. Behind Owens is Brian Hampton, who spent last season as the No. 3 quarterback, and a trio of interesting prospects who will be sophomores in the fall — Damian Satete, Troy Goss and Derrick Bruce.

Hall is part of a much deeper rising junior class. He was Eckel’s backup last season but must rid himself of the fumble problems he encountered in limited action. Right on Hall’s heels are a senior (Marvin Dingle), a junior (Ron Kimbrough) and a sophomore (Adam Ballard).

Johnson said one of those four will move to slotback to try to replace Frank Divis, who was a dynamic blocker at the position.

There will be plenty of competition at other positions. The Mids must replace three of four starting linebackers, but there is enough talent there — led by rising junior David Mahoney — that it again could be one of the team’s strongest units.

A pair of projected starters — defensive end Jeremy Chase and slotback Trey Hines — will miss spring drills with injuries.

“We had a big meeting [after the Emerald Bowl],” Owens said. “Everyone just talked about where we wanted to take this thing. Nobody wants to go backwards. … We lost a lot of seniors, but the attitude that those seniors built for this program is still here.”

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