- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2008

— ANNAPOLIS | As Navy’s leading rusher last year, fullback Eric Kettani had high expectations entering the 2008 season. So it was a cause for concern when Kettani, one of the Midshipmen’s top talents, sputtered through the first three games.

In an attempt to jump-start his fullback, coach Ken Niumatalolo privately challenged him to be more productive.

“Coach has been riding me lately, saying I haven’t done anything,” Kettani said. “And it’s true that I haven’t done anything. He’s been pushing me and pushing me in practice, and it’s been working.”

Kettani responded by posting career-high numbers in the Mids’ recent back-to-back wins. Against Rutgers on Sept. 20, he rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown. And in Saturday’s upset of then No. 16 Wake Forest, Kettani followed up with 175 yards.

Kettani hit his stride when the Mids (3-2) needed him most. Navy’s season could have spiraled out of control after a 1-2 start with two BCS schools looming on the schedule. But after dispatching Rutgers and Wake Forest, the Mids are playing their best football of the season heading into Saturday’s showdown with rival Air Force (3-1).

Niumatalolo’s faith in Kettani’s ability never wavered, but he expected more out of the senior. Before the Rutgers game, he said Kettani was talented enough to put together the best season ever for a Navy fullback, but it wasn’t showing on the field.

The first priority of Navy’s triple-option offense is to establish the fullback, so it brings a smile to Niumatalolo’s face to see Kettani return to form.

“We just played two very physical football teams, and Kettani was a horse in the middle,” Niumatalolo said. “He played with great determination. He’s been big for us.”

There have been multiple theories offered to explain Kettani’s less-than-ideal start. Niumatalolo said opposing defenses have dictated where Navy’s carries have gone. In the Mids’ season-opener, Towson routinely had two defenders in the box to stuff Kettani. Slot back Shun White exploited the opening on the outside by rushing for a school-record 348 yards and three touchdowns.

Kettani ran for 92 yards in a losing effort at Ball State but had to leave the Mids’ loss to Duke a week later after suffering a strained hip on his first carry.

Kettani couldn’t duplicate the frequent big plays he made last year. But he didn’t panic, insisting his yards would come with a more consistent number of carries.

He also gave credit to Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper for the extra motivation in practice, which he coyly said have come in the form of “more personal talks to me.”

Kettani’s patience paid off. After a combined 21 carries in the Mids’ first three games, Kettani had 20 carries against the Scarlet Knights and 19 against the Demon Deacons, and the production followed.

But there is still one element missing from Kettani’s game. Last year, he showed breakaway speed, part of what makes him a dangerous fullback; three of his 10 touchdown runs were longer than 20 yards. This season, he has three carries of at least 44 yards, but his lone touchdown came on a 2-yard dive.

“I’ve been more worried about fumbling the ball because on those long runs you’ve got to keep the ball high and tight so they don’t pop it out, and 50 yards can become zero yards and now it’s their ball,” Kettani said. “But I need to take one of these long ones to the house.”

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