- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

In the days before his team faced Navy, Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said there were 117 other teams in the country that would love to have a couple of the Midshipmen’s players.

But when guys like junior fullback Adam Ballard and junior slotback Reggie Campbell were available to them, almost none of those schools were interested.

“I don’t know about Reggie, but I know USC and Texas weren’t knocking at my door,” Ballard said.

The same is true for everyone on Navy’s roster. Part of the Mids’ success in the past four seasons is a product of coach Paul Johnson’s spread option offense and defensive coordinator Buddy Green’s schemes.

But the coaching staff has better players running those systems as well. Are they recruiting better high school athletes despite the academy limitations or is the coaching staff developing players better?

“I think it is a combination of the two,” defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “Every coach here, the attitude is we’re all trying to build players. If you get a good player or a good athlete anyway, then the process sort of goes together and you end up with a really nice project at the end.”

Ballard was a tailback in high school in a one-back offense. Before his senior season at Marcus High School in Lewisville, Texas, Ballard started to garner interest from several Division I-A schools.

A position switch during his senior season to wide receiver drove away some recruiters, but Navy stuck with him and he chose the academy. At the time he barely tipped the scale past 200 pounds, but by his freshman season with the Mids, Ballard was already gaining praise on the scout team while Kyle Eckel rumbled through opposing defenses.

The now 6-foot-1, 223-pound Ballard picked up extra muscle during the year he spent at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., before coming to Annapolis.

“NAPS — there ain’t nothing to do up there but work out,” Ballard said. “It is like Alcatraz.”

The potential was there, but Ballard struggled at times during his freshman season and into his sophomore year when he was the backup to Matt Hall. The main problem was his running style — he was way too upright to be a fullback in Johnson’s offense.

He made significant progress during his sophomore year and when Hall went down with a season-ending knee injury against Notre Dame, Ballard seized his opportunity. He ran for 488 yards in the final three games and leads the team with 733 yards this season.

Changing the most fundamental aspect of how he played football wasn’t easy.

“See that chute over there?” Ballard said, pointing to a metal apparatus with a bar across the top about four feet from the ground. “A lot of running under that, running through the “blaster” [another structure designed to force a player to stay low and protect the football], a lot of yelling from Coach Johnson and [fullbacks coach Chris] Culton and a lot of shots under the chin. It helped me get my pad level down.”

Ballard isn’t alone in Annapolis. Players progress not only from year to year but during the season, which is part of the reason Navy is 11-2 since 2003 after the Notre Dame game. The Mids have finished each of the last two seasons with three consecutive wins and will be looking for their second straight today against Eastern Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit.

One main reason for the progress is the continuity of the coaching staff. Johnson is in his fifth season in charge and nine of his 12 assistants have been in Annapolis for all five years while the other three have at least three years working for him at Navy.

“It helps a bunch. The staff understands what I’m looking for, the players understand what the staff’s looking for and anytime you have that kind of continuity it’s huge,” Johnson said. “It always helps. If you are transitioning coaches every year, it’s never a good thing.”

Added Ballard: “Coach Culton knows the mistakes I’ve been making from my freshman year to now and he knows what to focus on and he knows what kind of person I am. He knows how to push the right buttons.”

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