Navy coach Paul Johnson worked miracles last season, guiding his program to a winning season, a bowl game and a sweep of Air Force and Army for the first time in 22 years.
All of this came after years as a college football doormat, with a total of three victories over the previous three seasons.
Now the question is what can Navy, 8-5 last year, do for an encore?
“The coaches have stressed the whole ‘last season was a fluke’ deal,” quarterback Aaron Polanco said. “People are going to think that. We know that it hasn’t happened here in awhile. It was great that last year we went to a bowl game and started to turn things around. But last year is last year, and we’ve got to come out and start something.”
Everything with Navy’s high-powered rushing attack starts with Polanco, a senior co-captain who will be the starter after two years of backing up departed Craig Candeto. Polanco is bigger than Candeto and possesses a stronger, more accurate arm, but he will have to prove he can pilot the option offense as deftly as his predecessor.
“Aaron’s got some athletic ability,” Johnson said. “We’ll see if he breaks tackles and makes good plays and manages the game. The biggest thing Aaron needs to do is take care of the ball. That’s what Craig was so good at. He didn’t give it away.”
Polanco has seen considerable game action in relief. When Candeto went down against Notre Dame two years ago, Polanco rushed for two touchdowns and almost led the Mids to an apocalyptic upset of the undefeated Irish.
One of the pressing concerns during fall camp has been injuries along the offensive line. Right tackle Casey Hughes remains hobbled by a left ankle injury and will miss Saturday’s opener against Duke. Sam Brown is scheduled to start, but the senior has seen only mop-up duty during his career.
Left tackle Tyson Stahl also was injured, but he will be fine to play against the Blue Devils. The middle of the line is a strength, led by right guard August Roitsch. He started last year at center but was moved so the team could get the five best linemen on the field.
Running behind the middle of the line will be fullback Kyle Eckel, who bulldozed his way to 1,249 yards last season. Eckel, who could be a legitimate prospect for the NFL Draft next April despite his service commitment, could become the third player in Navy history to compile 3,000 yards in his career. He is injury-free after minor offseason shoulder surgery and could be primed for a huge year.
“It’s something that people are forcing me to worry about,” Eckel said. “Everybody’s like, ‘What are you guys going to do this year? Are you going to go 11-0? Are you going to rush for this many yards?’ You know, hopefully.”
Half of last season’s dynamic duo at slotback, Eric Roberts, is back. Frank Divis will replace Tony Lane alongside Roberts, while sophomore Trey Hines and freshman Reggie Campbell are expected to contribute as potential home run threats.
Campbell, passed over by other major schools because of his height (listed at 5-foot-6), has been impressive in the fall and will back up Roberts.
Maybe the biggest reason for last season’s dramatic turnaround was the vast improvement by the defense. One of the nation’s worst two years ago, the Mids yielded 15 points a game less in 2003.
“I think it was a couple of things,” Johnson said. “I think we got more guys that can run on the field. “We didn’t get the ball thrown over our heads, the schedule, we rushed the ball pretty good offensively and we were just better on defense, so there were probably several reasons.”
Senior safety Josh Smith is the captain of the defense and could become the first Mid since the early 1980s to lead the team in tackles three consecutive years. He has been invited to play in the Gridiron Classic in January.
Jeremy Chase shifted from linebacker to left end to add more speed to the defense. The group of linebackers, led by seniors Lane Jackson and Bobby McClarin, must replace last season’s captain, Eddie Carthan, but it is one of the deepest units on the team.
There is an abundance of returning starters at Johnson’s disposal (there will be at least 18 seniors in the starting lineup Saturday), and his effort to recruit against other big Division I-A schools has yielded some interesting young prospects.
Though the schedule will be slightly tougher this fall, every game is winnable. Johnson has expressed his concern about inflated expectations, but last season’s revival has people in Annapolis dreaming big.
“Everyone in the hall — they are ready for the game on Saturday like they’re going to be playing in it,” Smith said. “Everybody’s really excited around here. We’re tired of beating each other up. We’re ready to hit someone else.”