The Navy football program has reached new levels of success since former coach Paul Johnson installed the triple-option offense. His replacement, Ken Niumatalolo, continued that last year as the Midshipmen led the country in rushing for the fourth straight season.
But the caveat to the unique system is that experience and familiarity with the techniques far outweigh talent in determining the Mids’ success. Since opponents can expect a rushing play on nearly every down and the Mids are typically undersized, execution is critical.
Navy’s offense usually operates with a wealth of experience on the field, but this year it is as raw as ever. Only seven offensive players on Navy’s roster have starting experience, and four of them are offensive lineman.
Of the skill position players, senior slot back Cory Finnerty has seven career starts and Bobby Doyle just one. No other slot back who figures to be in the regular rotation has made a start, and neither have the expected starters at receiver (Mario Washington and Mike Schupp) and fullback (Alexander Teich).
But none of them will be as important to Navy’s success as junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who was third on the depth chart this time last year.
Not that anyone in Annapolis is concerned.
“Coach told me last year to always prepare as a starter, and the only thing I can say that’s changed is the fact that I am a starter now,” Dobbs said Monday at Navy’s media day. “Preparing is still the same. Now that I am the starter, I just have to try not to put myself under too much pressure because doing so will only drive me into the dirt. If I put myself under a lot of pressure, then I’ll try to become someone that I’m not.”
What Dobbs has going for him is the success he achieved last year in the relatively small amount of playing time he had. He only saw action in eight games but finished third on the team with 495 rushing yards and tied for first with eight touchdowns.
Dobbs stood out in the process, racking up 224 yards on the ground on a rainy afternoon against Southern Methodist in which the Mids didn’t attempt a pass. In another start, he ran for 124 yards and a touchdown.
“It prepared me, and I feel more comfortable in myself because those games allowed me to see what type of player I was on this level,” Dobbs said. “When you play games, you just have to step up to another level because I believe in practicing how you play, but I don’t think you ever play how you practice.”
Knowing that the quarterback-fullback exchange is the most fundamental aspect of the triple-option, Dobbs and Teich worked on it tirelessly this summer while taking classes. The pair woke up at 5 a.m. three days a week to get more comfortable with each other, and Dobbs said they were often joined by slot backs as well.
The new faces in the backfield will create an added wrinkle to the Mids’ attack this year. This year’s crop of slot backs has more size than in years past, when the Mids featured shorter backs with great breakaway speed.
“I don’t think we’ll have to put in guys by situation, whether we want a blocker here and try to manipulate the game like that. We can just let the game unfold,” Niumatalolo said. “This year, with guys that have some size on them, we’re not worried about a certain guy blocking or catching the pitch or running a pass route, so we can be a little bit more diverse.”