ANNAPOLIS — In the middle of Navy’s offensive line this spring is a sophomore who spent half of last season on the scout team … as a tackle.
To his right is another sophomore, a special teams fixture last fall but hardly a known quantity.
To his left is Josh Cabral, who enters his third year as a starter and, as coach Ken Niumatalolo approvingly observes, “keeps his mouth quiet.”
It is Niumatalolo’s way of describing Cabral as a low-maintenance, high-production player, the sort any coach (Niumatalolo included) happily will have on a team.
It also turns out Cabral isn’t much different than center Bradyn Heap and right guard Jake Zuzek, who quietly have gone about their work during an important spring for their development.
“They don’t say anything,” Niumatalolo said. “They’re just like Josh Cabral. They don’t say a word. They bring their lunch pail every day. They just bust their butt. They have the tools, and they have the work ethic. They have to get it done on the field, but they have all the qualities I’m looking for.”
That’s welcome for the Midshipmen, who must replace three stalwarts on the offensive line.
Heap is set to replace Brady DeMell, a three-year starter whose steadiness ensured there never was reason to fret about who might replace him.
Until now, anyway.
Heap played center at Navy’s prep school, then moved to tackle upon joining Navy’s program. He learned about three weeks before spring practice he would be DeMell’s heir apparent.
It didn’t leave much time to get ready for the move back to center. He did, though, have the benefit of Navy’s graduating veterans lingering around spring ball to help with the transition.
“It’s a great time to be rebuilding if we have to because we have all the people surrounding us to help us succeed,” Heap said.
Zuzek is a little more established, if only because he played some on special teams while backing up Cabral and John Dowd a year ago.
It hasn’t reduced the significance of this spring, considering how much greater his responsibilities could be once Navy’s Sept. 1 opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, arrives.
“Being able to travel to the game and getting to know pregame, during the game, the pressure, the speed of the game helps,” Zuzek said. “But playing special teams, I didn’t realize I’d be starting going into the spring. … It’s nerve-wracking. It makes me nervous. I just take it day by day and try to get better every day.”
Heap and Zuzek aren’t the only linemen adjusting to altered roles. Right tackle Andrew Barker moves over from the left side, where he started six games a season ago. Left tackle Graham Vickers is settling into the starting spot he occupied the last three games of 2011. Only one player from the three-deep in Navy’s season finale (center Kahikolu Pescaia) is among this spring’s backups.
Then there’s Cabral, who Heap and Zuzek believe they’ve learned plenty from in the past year. Their similarities to the senior provide at least some optimism they can replicate Cabral’s on-field production.
“They’re quiet kids, pretty studious, they listen,” said assistant coach Ashley Ingram, who works with Navy’s centers and guards. “They line up and play. Obviously, they have some of the characteristics Josh has. Until they get on the field and prove it, obviously we won’t know. Hopefully, that’s what we’re getting.”