ANNAPOLIS — It's not a mirage. Navy's fullbacks really are getting smaller.
Gone (for now, anyway) are the days of the beefy bruiser. Instead, the Midshipmen are looking for rushers in the mold of Alexander Teich, one of their biggest departures from last season.
At 6 feet and 217 pounds, Teich was a more compact fullback than Navy was accustomed to using. Just four years ago, Eric Kettani started at an imposing 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds.
Now? Sophomore Noah Copeland is the nominal starter during the first week of spring practice and checks in at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds. None of the other five fullbacks on the roster is listed at more than 220 pounds.
"With [former quarterback] Kriss Proctor, we were a faster team. We needed a faster guy to keep up with him," fullbacks coach Mike Judge said. "We're doing some different things. In the past — six, seven, eight years ago, before I was ever here — we were an inside running team. We're doing things differently now. We're getting the ball on the perimeter. We've increased our outside running game."
Copeland is an interesting case. He attended the academy's prep school and arrived as a slotback. He was 205 pounds at the time, heftier than a slotback typically is in Navy's triple-option offense, and coaches moved him to fullback.
It's a less-than-glitzy position at most schools. Sometimes it's a de facto sixth offensive lineman, only with a running start before plowing into and blocking a defender. At Navy, it's just as rugged, though there is the benefit of actually earning carries, which appealed to Copeland when he was asked to make the switch.
"It just interests me to touch the ball the whole entire time," said Copeland, who added five pounds after making the position switch. "You could possibly get the ball every single play. That's what interests me, just getting the ball and making plays."
Whoever emerges as Teich's eventual replacement will have the opportunity to do so. The evolution of the position in Navy's offense was evident in the Mids' finale last season against Army when Teich collected an option pitch from Proctor and scored from 10 yards out in the first half.
That wasn't a wrinkle past fullbacks like Kettani, Adam Ballard and Kyle Eckel were likely to pull off. But it could become more common with Navy's shift in recruiting the position.
"You still have to be tough enough to hit inside between the tackles, but also do some stuff on the edge, just to try to expand our game a little bit," coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
What's less certain than how the Mids will use their fullbacks next fall is who will emerge as their top option at the position.
The six fullbacks on the spring roster have combined for 17 career carries. Copeland, who was a significant contributor on Navy's special teams last season, had just two rushes as a freshman. Junior Mike Patrick had 15 carries for 96 yards.
"There's not a name tag on the board," Judge said. "Normally, you have them ranked, like one through six. There's not even one on the board."
So, what, are the Mids working off an alphabetical listing?
"That may not even be fair," Judge said. "It's wide open."
That sense seeps down to the smaller-but-sprightlier fullbacks, who have another 13 workouts to sort things out before spring practice ends.
"I think it does feel like a free-for-all," Copeland said. "You just have to go out there and make sure you don't mess up like the last day and correct your problems and try to be better."
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