ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo spent much of the offseason figuring out ways not to duplicate problems the Midshipmen had last year.
For the first time since 2003, Navy finished with a losing record — going 5-7 in 2011 and had its run of eight straight bowl bids end.
The Midshipmen enter the 2012 season with a sense of urgency.
“Nobody, coaches or players, was happy with what happened last season,” Niumatalolo said. “All of us are determined to do whatever possible to get things turned around.”
Five of Navy’s losses were by a total of 11 points and the fifth-year head coach was unhappy with all the uncharacteristic mental and physical mistakes. So Niumatalolo placed renewed emphasis on fundamentals and toughness.
“We wanted to get back to the basics during spring practice so we hit more than usual to toughen people up and really focused on doing things right technique-wise,” he said. “At Navy, we have to remember who we are. Our opponents are always going to be bigger, stronger and faster. We have to win by being tougher, playing harder and not making mistakes.”
One of those bigger, stronger and faster teams is Notre Dame, Navy’s opponent in the season opener Saturday. The game will be held in Dublin, Ireland.
The Midshipmen utilize the triple option, and while the Irish have practiced against it this summer, they know stopping it won’t be easy.
“Our scout team is doing great, but obviously they’re not going to be the same speed as Navy is going to be,” Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “You’ve got to pay attention to your keys with a triple-option team like Navy. We’re working at it every day. If everybody pays attention to your keys and keep their eyes right, we should be pretty good.”
For the second straight season, Navy will have a first-time starter at quarterback directing the triple option. Junior Trey Miller appeared in six games with one start last season in relief of starter Kriss Proctor. After a spring and summer of running the first team in practice, Miller has developed as a leader and gained a better understanding of how to read defenses.
“Trey has all the tools and I like his mentality. He’s a tough kid who works hard and wants to learn,” Niumatalolo said. “Every day, I see him becoming more confident, more assertive.”
Navy can only hope Miller stays healthy. Neither backup, sophomore John Hendrick and freshman Keenan Reynolds, has taken a varsity snap. The Midshipmen have not had a quarterback start every game of the season since Lamar Owens did so in 2005.
Although Navy makes a living off its ground game, the Irish also will be wary of the pass.
“Certainly they’re still difficult to defend. They’re always going to have some new wrinkles,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “The quarterback they have this year, there’s going to be the opportunity to throw the ball more effectively.”
Navy will have an inexperienced first-year starter at fullback, the centerpiece of the offense. Sophomore Noah Copeland played on special teams in 2011, but carried the ball just twice.
At 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, the Texas native is the smallest starting fullback during a triple-option era that began years under coach Paul Johnson.
“We’re really excited about Noah. He’s fast, elusive and a lot stronger than he looks,” Niumatalolo said.
Senior slotback Gee Gee Greene is the most proven weapon, having totaled 507 yards rushing and 165 yards receiving with seven touchdowns in 2011. Senior Brandon Turner led the team in receiving with 14 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Right guard Josh Cabral, a three-year starter, will anchor an offensive line that will feature three new starters.
Navy struggled to stop opponents in 2011, ranking 86th nationally in total defense (414 yards allowed per game) and 78th in scoring defense (29 points per game). But players such as free safety Chris Ferguson and cornerback Parrish Gaines grew up quickly after starting as freshmen.
Inside linebacker Matt Warrick and strong safety Tra’ves Bush return after leading the team in tackles with 103 and 93, respectively.
“Navy’s defense is very unique,” Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike Golic Jr. said. “They’re obviously a group that is not as large in size as everyone else, but they’re good at what they do. They like to move around a lot and they give offenses trouble because of that.”
Navy has a contract to appear in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco if it wins six games. Returning to the postseason is a priority, but the Midshipmen are more concerned with reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy that Air Force has held for the last two years.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)