ANNAPOLIS — The first hint a change was afoot was early in Navy’s preseason camp. Coaches had junior Graham Vickers, penciled in as one of the Midshipmen’s starting tackles, head out to practice early and work on snapping with a backup quarterback.
Sure enough, he started at center in Navy’s opening loss to Notre Dame.
Now he heads to right tackle as the Mids (0-1) visit Penn State (0-2) on Saturday. Two opponents, two ways of attacking Navy’s triple-option.
And two starting positions for Vickers.
“I’ve been all over,” Vickers said.
He isn’t kidding.
Vickers played tackle in high school. At the academy’s prep school, he worked at center and stayed there as a freshman. After a spring at guard, he moved outside to tackle and started the final three games of his sophomore season on the left side.
Navy’s decision to switch him back to center a few weeks ago rather than at the start of camp caught him slightly off guard. He learned of the move after the Mids’ first scrimmage of camp.
“I remember talking to my dad and my dad was like, ‘Why do they have you at center?’” Vickers said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
In retrospect it was understandable, since Notre Dame does not typically line up a nose tackle over the center when facing the Mids.
“He does have to base block some, but the position is generally blocking at the second level,” Navy interior offensive line coach Ashley Ingram said. “It’s chasing linebackers. It’s chasing safeties. That’s why against Notre Dame we liked him at center so much. He was uncovered and knew he’d be able to get up. We did a much better job — obviously not good enough — but did a much better job of getting to Manti [Te’o] this year and it was because of his athleticism.”
It was an impressive move, even if Notre Dame didn’t opt to have a defensive lineman attempt to overpower him upon a snap each play. Coach Ken Niumatalolo was pleased with Vickers‘ unselfishness, especially considering the difficulty of his task.
“It’s easier to go from center to any other position,” said Niumatalolo, who was an offensive line coach before taking over the Mids’ program. “When you put the ball in your hand, there’s a lot more things involved. When you take the ball out of your hand, you take that stress that you’re snapping out of it.”
The versatility also is a blessing for Ingram and tackles coach Chris Culton, who have some flexibility while stitching together a starting unit. While Vickers moves to right tackle this week, sophomore Tanner Fleming takes over at center.