ANNAPOLIS | With spring football less than a week away, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo needs to find two new starting outside linebackers.
A year ago, the Midshipmen eventually found senior Jerry Hauburger and junior Aaron McCauley to fill vacancies at outside linebacker. Both played well and ranked among Navy's top four tacklers.
But Hauburger graduated and McCauley (82 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss in 2010) recently chose to leave the program, creating a familiar issue for a team coming off a 9-4 season.
"We were surprised," Niumatalolo said Tuesday of McCauley. "He was having good workouts, a good offseason and obviously he had a great Army game. He's a great young man, and we wish him the best of luck, but you've got to move on."
That means uncovering impact players with little or no on-field track record at Navy.
Seniors Mason Graham and Jarred Shannon, who enter the spring atop the Mids' depth chart, combined for nine tackles last season. None of the four players listed behind them recorded any statistics in 2010.
Considering the lack of experience among even the seniors, the absence of numbers is unlikely to impact one of Navy's most obvious position battles.
"If you're a young guy, and if you're not a shark that doesn't smell blood in the water, then you probably don't deserve to play because it's wide open at linebacker," Niumatalolo said. "We like our guys from a physical standpoint. I like what we have on paper."
There are also possibilities already at Navy but unavailable to the Mids during the spring. Brye French (lacrosse) and Craig Veech (baseball) are busy with other sports and did not participate in Navy's offseason workouts.
Niumatalolo considered giving both rising juniors an ultimatum to choose one sport over another before reconsidering.
"This is just my opinion, doesn't mean it's right, but I think it's hard to do both," Niumatalolo said. "I think it's hard now to do both. I got to a point where 'Hey, you either play one or the other.' But our team captains came back to me and they talked to the team and they said 'Coach, we want these guys to have a chance to come out and play.' It's not like they're sitting around or they quit. They're playing another sport for our school."
Still, French and Veech will miss part or all of the spring. And that means they'll lose significant opportunities while teammates begin vying for the open linebacker spots on Monday.
"Whenever they can join us, they'll join us," Niumatalolo said. "I'm going to leave it kind of open-ended because I think that's the fair thing to do. I also think it's the fair thing that they're going to start at the bottom and kind of have to work their way up, because there's guys that are out there."
NOTES: Linebacker Max Blue (neck), fullback Alexander Teich (shoulder) and defensive end Jabaree Tuani (knee) will not participate in spring drills. Tuani started all 13 games last season, while Teich had seven starts and Blue had five. ... Niumatalolo said Kriss Proctor, the Mids' starting quarterback, will wear a noncontact jersey all spring. His reserves, none of whom has played, will be subject to contact.
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