- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

While most of the people on this side of the country were asleep Thursday night, Navy capped another successful season by blasting Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

The scary part is the Midshipmen’s 51-30 victory might not have been a culmination but merely a harbinger of greater success to come. Next season Navy returns seven starters on offense, nine on defense and several other players with plenty of game experience.

“I think there was some doubt about the team this year, not from us but from the outside and the media,” said linebacker Tyler Tidwell, who dominated the Rams with 12 tackles and three sacks. “Next year, well, we’re reloaded. We have a very good chance of being successful next year.”

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year according to preseason pundits. The Mids lost 36 seniors from the 2004 team and began the season with questions at every position.

Instead, Navy (8-4) won at least eight games for the third consecutive season and defeated a Mountain West foe in a bowl game for the second straight year. Meanwhile, senior quarterback Lamar Owens proved to be a capable replacement for Aaron Polanco.

The offensive identity shifted without Polanco and fullback Kyle Eckel grinding out long drives. Led by the diminutive slotback pairing of Reggie Campbell and Marco Nelson, the offense lit up defenses with big plays and quick scores.

Navy’s option machine racked up 611 yards Thursday night and 1,637 in its final three games combined.

Now the Mids enter a different type of offseason. Youth, inexperience and uncertainty will be replaced by momentum and greater expectations.

Replacing Owens will be a top priority, but whoever lines up under center against East Carolina on Sept.2 will have a full assortment of weapons. Rising senior Brian Hampton, who has the most game experience, is the early favorite.

“You can only do so much to try and imagine it,” Hampton said. “I think I’ve gone through it in my head every day. I’m going to come out on the field and be like, ‘Wow. This is our turn.’”

He might be a better runner than Owens and possess a stronger arm, but accuracy has been a big issue. Hampton will face a stiff challenge from a herd of youthful signal callers, including Joe Taylor, Jarrod Bryant and Troy Goss.

The offense will miss Nelson’s big-play ability and wideout Mick Yokitis’ blocking, but there are plenty of options behind them. Freshman slotback Karlos Whittaker will be back from a knee injury and another freshman, wide receiver Tyree Barnes, led the team with 25.7 yards a catch.

Matt Hall is expected to return from a knee injury as well, but he will have a tough task reclaiming the fullback job from Adam Ballard, who gained 498 yards in three starts.

Navy’s defense was shaky at times this season — especially on third down — but 11 of the top 13 tacklers return. Every player in the secondary returns, as does the linebacking trio of Tidwell, Rob Caldwell and David Mahoney.

Replacing co-captain and three-year starter Jeremy Chase at defensive end likely will be Andrew Tattersall, who had 15 tackles and four sacks as a pass rushing specialist.

The biggest question mark is the coaching staff. Can the program continue its remarkable run of continuity, or will there finally be defections after three successful seasons?

Once the 2006 season begins, the questions might not focus on how many wins the Mids will get but which teams they will beat. Coach Paul Johnson is 5-8 against BCS teams in the past three seasons with two wins against Duke, two against Vanderbilt and one against Rutgers.

After near misses against Maryland and Stanford in 2005, beating quality BCS teams is the next step for the Mids’ evolution as a program. A trip to newly renovated Stanford Stadium in September will be the first chance, with a game at Connecticut, a meeting with Rutgers in Annapolis and, of course, Notre Dame’s visit to Baltimore also on the docket.

The group of rising seniors has never lost a service academy game, and winning the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy for a fourth consecutive season will be at the top of the team’s list of goals.

Dealing with the greatest preseason expectations of the Johnson era and warding off complacency are also on the list.

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