- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

While members of the Class of 2005 watched and waited four years ago, Navy’s football team did not win a game in Charlie Weatherbie’s final season as coach. They talked amongst themselves about how it would be different for them.

This season, members of the Class of 2009 watched while the Midshipmen had their winningest season in 99 years. Now, the freshman banter is about maintaining Navy’s success.

“It was a great season, especially with what we’ve been through for four, and some of us five, years,” fullback Kyle Eckel said. “We said it when we went to prep school, we said it when we were plebes and we did it.”

“It” was rebuilding the Navy football program, reviving it from the depths of three wins and 30 losses in three seasons. “It” was restoring pride at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, where student attendance at football games is mandatory. What used to be an unwelcome burden has become a Saturday afternoon party at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and a huge home-field advantage.

“I said after the game I’m so happy for these players because they’ve seen the bottom of the barrel and now they’ve had a lot of success,” said Navy coach Paul Johnson, who was named the 2004 Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year last night. “The fans have been the same way. The fans have struggled for so long, and for the last few years these guys have given them something to cheer about and something to be proud of.

“The students are 4,000 strong at the academy, and I think they have a pretty strong bond. They’ve been really great.”

Eckel, one of 36 seniors, finished his career fourth on the program’s all-time rushing list. He found less room to rumble at times this year because defenses focused on stopping him, but he still pounded out 1,147 yards. The tough-nosed kid from Packer Park in Philadelphia also established a new career high with 179 yards playing against Army in his hometown.

Quarterback Aaron Polanco emerged from Craig Candeto’s shadow and had one of the most productive seasons for an option signal-caller in team history. He finished 20 rushing yards shy of 1,000 passing and 1,000 rushing, but he finished the season with more rushing touchdowns than any other quarterback in the country.

“When I got sold on Aaron Polanco was in fall camp. I saw how tough he was,” Johnson said. “We had some struggles on the offensive line and some guys hurt, and we don’t put our quarterbacks in a redshirt — they play like everyone else. He took some poundings, but he kept getting up and kept coming back. I got after him sometimes, but I respected his toughness.”

Polanco didn’t waste any time making believers out of everyone else. He was nearly flawless in the team’s opener against Duke, had a career high through the air in a comeback win against Vanderbilt and made two of the biggest plays of the season to rally the Mids against Air Force.

The defense, once laughable during the stretch of constant losing, consistently applied its bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. With the exception of a total team collapse against Tulane, Navy yielded 21 points or less in every game of the second half of the season.

Its strength came from the middle, with nose tackle Babatunde Akingbemi emerging during his senior campaign as a roadblock in the middle. Inside linebackers Lane Jackson and Bobby McClarin — smaller than some college safeties — both finished with more than 100 tackles.

Behind them was safety Josh Smith, who catapulted from ninth on Weatherbie’s depth chart as a freshman to only the second player in program history to lead the team in tackles three times.

This senior group ultimately will be remembered as one of the finest ever to pass through the academy. For every star like Smith and Eckel, there were unsung contributors like right tackle Sam Brown and special teams hitman Lord Cole — two players who barely got on the field before this season.

While players from opposing teams questioned the legitimacy of Navy’s record, the Mids pounded their final three opponents by a combined margin of 130-53 to finish the school’s first 10-win season since 1906.

“If you’re winning time and time again, I hope you’re sending a message,” cornerback Vaughn Kelley said. “I take that back, we did send a message. Whether [people outside the program] received it is up to them. As long as it’s in our heads that we’re a good team, I’m not really concerned what other people think.”

While Johnson will have to regroup next season and replace 17 starters and his kicker, the foundation has been laid in Annapolis. The team that takes the field Sept. 3 against Maryland — the first time the programs will meet in 40 years — will look almost completely new, but there has been a fundamental shift in attitude. The departing Class of 2005 had a great deal to with that.

“I don’t think you can put your finger on any one thing,” Johnson said of the resurrection. “I think you have to give the players a lot of credit. I think we got the attitude changed. I don’t think you’re ever going to win if you don’t expect to win or if you don’t think you’re going to. It’s hard to think you’re going to if you haven’t ever won. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

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