- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

A year ago, Navy’s quarterback situation was a huge question mark. And despite the Midshipmen’s most successful season in 99 years, not much has changed.

While the Mids bask in the glow of a 10-win season and the program’s first appearance in national rankings in 25 years (No.24 in both polls), quarterback is one of many unsettled positions heading into the offseason.

Aaron Polanco played the role of understudy for three years and then led the program to its first 10-win season since 1906. Will Lamar Owens be able to do the same?

Owens sat and watched Craig Candeto and Polanco in his first three seasons. Diminutive at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Owens is a gifted runner but not the passer Polanco was.

“I came to this academy knowing at least a quarter of this offense and, sitting back and watching it for three years, I’m learning more as an onlooker about the whole offense, not just my position,” Owens said. “From watching Craig and watching Aaron, I’ve learned things from how they react to certain situations that has maybe made me change the way I play a little bit.”

While Owens will spend the offseason working on gaining rapport with his receivers, how he interacts with the whole team might determine how successful Navy will be next fall. The Mids lose 36 seniors, and next year’s class will be much smaller. Owens will be looked to for the kind of leadership Polanco provided.

“We’ve already been talking to some of the younger guys,” Owens said. “Talking about plans for the summer like how we’re going to break up our leave and how often we’re going to be around here so we can develop some chemistry.”

Coach Paul Johnson will have a new backfield when the Mids face Maryland to open the season next year. Replacing fullback Kyle Eckel — fourth on the program’s all-time rushing list — won’t be easy. Sophomore Matt Hall was Eckel’s backup for most of the season, but he had fumble problems and junior Marvin Dingle moved ahead of him by the Emerald Bowl. A darkhorse is freshman Adam Ballard, who is closer in size to the 5-11, 240-pound Eckel than Dingle and Hall.

The Mids return three slotbacks, sophomores Trey Hines and Marco Nelson and freshman Reggie Campbell, all of whom played a good bit this season. Hines will be the key figure. He is one of the most physically gifted players on the roster, but mental mistakes have hindered him.

Campbell and Nelson could be big-play guys, but both are small and will need Hines to become a better blocker — something that was often overlooked with departing seniors Eric Roberts and Frank Divis.

Three players (James Rossi, Zach Gallion and Marshall Green) return with starting experience on the offensive line.

“We’ve got some holes to fill on offense,” Owens said. “Defensively, I think we’re going to be perfectly fine, but on offense we definitely have [to replace] some of the guys who carry the load. A lot of the guys played in relief when we were winning big or losing big. Going out there on the first play of the first quarter is going to be a lot different.”

Stars need to be replaced on defense, but there is experience at several spots — particularly in the secondary. Starters Hunter Reddick and Jeremy McGown return, along with top reserves DuJuan Price and Keenan Little.

The Mids lose three linebackers, but sophomore David Mahoney made a bunch of big plays and could be one of the best at his position in program history before he’s done.

“We’ll look at our guys coming back and see where we can move guys around if we need to and put guys in position where we think they can help us next year,” defensive coordinator Buddy Green said.

One possibility Green might consider is moving Mahoney inside, something senior Lane Jackson did before this season with great results. Sophomores Rob Caldwell and Tyler Tidwell and junior Jason Monts could join Mahoney in the starting lineup, and freshman Keith Lisante might force his way into the mix.

Up front, the defense will sorely miss nose tackle Babtunde Akingbemi. Left end Jeremy Chase returns and sophomore John Chan is the favorite to replace Jeff Vanak on the other side, but finding someone to clog up the middle will be a priority.

“We’ve got guys who’ve gotten a lot of exposure in the secondary,” Mahoney said. “We’ve started to rotate some of the other guys in at linebacker. We’re losing guys on both sides of the ball, but I think we’ve got players who are ready to fill in.”

When the Mids routed Rutgers and Army to finish the regular season, Johnson was able to substitute liberally and saw glimpses of next year’s team. Owens punctuated the victory against the Black Knights with a 17-yard touchdown run, the first of his career.

“It was great,” Owens said. “That was one of the first games that my parents actually saw me play. They came to some other games, but I didn’t play. I was grateful to score a touchdown. Hopefully, that will be what it’s like next year.”

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