ANNAPOLIS — Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo struggled through a news conference Saturday after his team's 40-14 victory over Western Kentucky. Many of his thoughts dwelled upon an arm injury senior slotback Aaron Santiago suffered in the win.
Santiago underwent surgery Monday to repair a broken ulna and radius in his left forearm, and Navy (2-0) went about trying to move on from losing a popular player unlikely to return until at least December.
"I think from a football standpoint, hopefully some guys will step into that role," Niumatalolo said. "I just think overall, just as a person he's been a great leader. He's been great in the hall, unbelievable academically. He's been a model of what we're looking for at the academy."
Santiago had 11 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns as well as two receptions for 41 yards and another touchdown as the Midshipmen opened with victories over Delaware and Western Kentucky. His loss could be felt immediately since Navy visits No. 11 South Carolina (2-0) on Saturday.
Niumatalolo said he hoped Santiago, who started six games last season and the first two this year, would be back for the Mids' Dec. 10 regular season finale against Army.
"It's going to be hard to even replace Aaron on the field," slotback John Howell said. "It's going to be a challenge, I can tell you that much."
Howell will no doubt have a say in that. The junior has five carries for 126 yards in Navy's first two games, and rushed for touchdowns of 50 and 57 yards against Western Kentucky.
He became only the fourth Navy player since 1995 with two touchdowns of 50 or more yards in one game. Only one other player in that span - Shun White in the 2008 opener against Towson - did so on two running plays.
"I was telling everyone I was just the lucky one to catch the pitch," Howell said. "Any of the A-backs could have done exactly what I did. By the time I caught the pitch, there was literally no one there."
It's the sort of sentiment the rest of the program hopes can echo deeper into the season.
Navy primarily relied upon four slotbacks - Howell, Santiago, Gee Gee Greene and Bo Snelson - in the first two games. All have at least six carries, while Santiago's 11 rushing attempts lead the unit.
Their playing time also was split fairly evenly; slotbacks coach Danny O'Rourke estimated each of the four regulars have played between 30 and 35 snaps a game.
"I don't know if we truly have starters at that position," O'Rourke said.
That doesn't make it easier to deal with Santiago's injury from a personal standpoint. O'Rourke described the loss of the senior as "crushing," and Niumatalolo recounted how close Santiago was to not making it into the academy.
"I know the road that he's taken," Niumatalolo said. "There was a chance they weren't even going to let him into school. The administration believed he had the grades to get in and he's done phenomenal. He's just been a great leader and what you're looking for. He doesn't say crap and just does what he's supposed to - everywhere. It makes coaching easy when you have guys like that."
Notes: Matt Warrick, who made 12 tackles in Saturday's victory, was named the defensive player of the week among major college independents. ... Linebacker Mason Graham (knee) is day to day. Niumatalolo said linebacker Jarred Shannon (right shoulder) and reserve fullback Delvin Diggs (left ankle) likely will play Saturday.
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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