Seniors steer Midshipmen

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ANNAPOLIS | Navy football players are constantly reminded of the success of their predecessors when walking through Bancroft Hall.

One look at the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is all it takes to make an impression. Winners of the trophy five years running, the Midshipmen have taken a stranglehold on service academy football. Winning the award - presented annually to the winner of round-robin play between Navy, Army and Air Force - is the top priority for the Mids each season.

“We intend on keeping it,” defensive team captain Clint Sovie said without hesitation.

Navy’s seniors know the importance of winning the trophy. Winning it honors the players who have succeeded before them and keeps the title of the nation’s best service academy in Annapolis.

When Navy opens camp Friday, it will be led by a strong senior class occupying key positions. That’s an asset coach Ken Niumatalolo is relishing as he enters his first full season.

“I’m grateful that we’ve got a lot of seniors that have played a lot of football for us,” he said. “Sometimes coaches get overrated. The players play the game. For me being a first-year head coach, I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”

Jarod Bryant’s athleticism impressed Navy’s coaching staff so much that they shifted the senior from quarterback to slot back to get him on the field more. Bryant played double-duty in spring practice, splitting his time between slot back drills and quarterback in 11-on-11 situations. Bryant’s teammates rewarded him for his effort by naming him offensive team captain, a move that has reaped benefits for the program.

“We’ve got guys who are great players but also great leaders,” Niumatalolo said. “I was impressed this offseason with our two captains. They already had ideas for me, what they wanted do, some of their visions for the team, what they wanted to accomplish. The great thing about the Naval Academy is that’s what this place breeds - leadership.”

The coaches changed Bryant’s position because he was behind Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who excelled in the Mids’ triple-option offense last year, on the depth chart. The easygoing quarterback was surprised to hear he was named a preseason candidate for the Davey O’Brien Award, given annually the nation’s top quarterback.

“I’m honored, but I hope it’s not for my passing,” Kaheaku-Enhada joked.

The Mids’ leading rusher from last year, fullback Eric Kettani, slot back Shun White and top cornerback Rashawn King are other notable seniors atop the depth chart. Last year’s defensive team captain, safety Jeff Deliz, is back in the secondary after breaking his foot last year.

“For us as a coaching staff, it’s a security blanket knowing we’ve got a ton of guys that have been through a ton of battles in hostile environments and know what it’s like to play in front of 90,000 people,” Niumatalolo said.

The plethora of upperclassmen available to the Mids as the 2008 season begins has Niumatalolo optimistic about his first season. But he made it clear that the next five months will be about work. The players took their running test in front of the fans at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, as opposed to a practice field on campus and then mingling at the stadium.

“This is our house,” Niumatalolo said. “We lost some games here the last couple of years. Sometimes when we’ve come here before for the fan and media day, our guys came to jump on the slide and sign autographs. I wanted to take that atmosphere out of it so our guys realize first and foremost, when you come to this stadium, it’s business.”

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