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.
That played to Vickers' strengths, the sort that will come in handy back at tackle after the Navy staff's well-choreographed one-game switch.
"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.
Assuming the 275-pound Vickers starts, he will become the first Navy offensive lineman to get the nod at three different positions since at least 2004. He'll have pulled it off in three straight games dating to last year's season-ending defeat of Army.
"We like to have guys on our offensive line who can play multiple positions, guys that can play center and guard, guys that can play tackle and center," Ingram said. "We have some guys that are kind of specialized and have to stay where they are. Guys like him, he can do these things."
When Vickers first learned tackle, he said it was a difficult move to pick up after spending so much time at center in Navy's offense. It was so much different than what he was used to after playing in a spread scheme in high school.
It is no longer an arduous task, especially with two weeks of work heading into Saturday. Instead, it's a snap — even if that's one of the skills he is unlikely to need against Penn State.
"Since I play all the positions now, it's easy for me to go anywhere because I can pretty much play anywhere," Vickers said.
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