2015 CFB Preview – Navy

    Navy MidshipmenGo to Team Page MidshipmenGo to Selection Page           After well over a century of independence, Navy has

    July 2, 2015

    MidshipmenGo to Team Page
    MidshipmenGo to Selection Page


    After well over a century of independence, Navy has finally relented and joined a conference.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    Having the Midshipmen in the American will mean many things to the academy and to the league. With a home, Navy now has an opportunity to win titles, compete for a New Year’s Six bowl game and extend its football footprint, particularly to Florida and Texas. For the American, the Midshipmen represent an important piece of the realignment puzzle. The conference, which was torn apart by fleeing members in recent years, has located stability in the form of two six-team divisions, with the Mids residing in the West.

    The Navy brand is all about the stability, discipline and consistency that’s expected from a service academy. The Midshipmen, naturally, aren’t ever going to sign today’s best high school athletes, yet they’ve remarkably won at least eight games in 11 of the last 12 years. For perspective, the Mids won eight or more just once in the 22 seasons prior to Paul Johnson’s breakout 2003 campaign. The formula? Outstanding coaching, an unrelenting commitment to an old-school option offense and a collection of players who now expect bowling and beating Army to be perennial December activities.

    QB Keenan Reynolds returns for one final season, which means Navy will have a shot in every game, including the high-profile Oct. 10 trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame. Reynolds operates as if born to execute Ken Niumatalolo’s offense, and he’ll get plenty of help from his skill guys, namely FB Chris Swain, SB DeBrandon Sanders and WR Jamir Tillman. Where the Mids could get in trouble this season is on defense. Navy had major issues at the line of scrimmage in 2014, and now must replace three starting linebackers. While the team won’t necessarily win with D, improvement from Buddy Green’s unit would help make the academy markedly tougher to handle in 2015.

    It’s the dawn of a new era in Annapolis, as Navy readies to enjoy all of the trappings of conference affiliation—league title contention, all-conference teams and a broadening of the brand to new territories. The Midshipmen are prepared for the challenge. Whether the rest of the American is ready for Reynolds and Niumatalolo’s time-tested offensive attack is a question that starts being answered this September.

    What you need to know about the offense: The triple-option has been around forever, but no amount of familiarity has helped opponents stop the Naval Academy’s relentless ground game. The Mids were not only third nationally with 338 rushing yards per game, but they averaged more than six yards per carry for the first time in the Ken Niumatalolo era. And with record-setting QB Keenan Reynolds back for his senior season, Navy should be as potent as ever between the tackles. The new statistical stars of the backfield will be FB Chris Swain and SB DeBrandon Sanders, with the fullbacks expected to be more assertive than in 2014. Reynolds has thrown 23 career touchdown passes, and 6-4 Jamir Tillman will once again be his preferred target on those infrequent passing attempts. If there’s a concern for the ultra-efficient Midshipmen attack, it revolves around an offensive line breaking in three new starters. Navy not only needs Ben Tamburello, Blaze Ryder and Blake Copeland to seize starting roles, but the backups must step up as well.

    What you need to know about the defense: Statistically speaking, the Midshipmen are coming off their worst year since 2011. A recovery will depend on how well the team plays in the front seven. Navy was awful at the point of attack in 2014, yielding almost five yards per carry and notching a mere eight sacks over 13 games. The encouraging news is that NG Bernard Sarra, DE Will Anthony and LB Daniel Gonzales are returning anchors on the first two levels. But more help from the likes of DE Sean Reaver, Striker William Tuider and Raider D.J. Palmore is needed for appreciable change to occur this fall. And with even a little support, the secondary has a chance to compete, despite the loss of S Parrish Gaines. CB Quincy Adams and Rover Kwazel Bertrand headline an experienced defensive backfield that too often was forced to shut down opposing quarterbacks who had all day to survey the field for an open man.

    What to watch for on offense: The new horses of the running game. Last year’s top back Noah Copeland has graduated, but the Mids have plenty of options to complement QB Keenan Reynolds. For starters, Navy is going to be a lot more assertive at fullback than it was a year ago. Leading man Chris Swain and backups Quinton Ezell and Shawn White are all at least 240 pounds, with the leg drive to drag tacklers. And at slotback, jackrabbit DeBrandon Sanders is ready for an expanded role after averaging eight yards a carry the past two years. Swain, in particular, could be in store for a monster year in 2015.

    What to watch for on defense: New-look linebackers. A season after yielding almost five yards a carry, the Midshipmen will enter 2015 unproven at the second level of the D. Three quality linebackers exhausted their eligibility, leaving strongside linebacker Daniel Gonzales as the lone returning starter. Junior William Tuider started five games at Raider last fall, but lost the job. However, he’s a playmaker being counted on to fill the void at Striker. The biggest question marks are in the middle and at Raider, with sophomores Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore in the early lead to capture jobs.

    The team will be far better if… the defense plays a more essential role this season. While the Midshipmen weren’t awful in 2014, when the D sagged it usually dragged the rest of the team down with it. Stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback were problems, and at least 30 points were allowed in all five losses. Buddy Green’s unit won’t be stout, especially with the turnover at linebacker, but more backfield heat and fewer second-half collapses could swing a couple of the nail-biters into the win column.

    The Schedule:
    – The Midshipmen are the only team in the American with two off weeks this season, getting a break on Sept. 12 and Oct. 17.
    – After 134 years as a football independent, Navy’s maiden voyage as a member of the American takes place on Sept. 19 with a visit from East Carolina.
    – Army and Navy will once again be the only teams in the FBS to play a regular season game after championship weekend on Dec. 5. The academies will continue their rivalry in Philadelphia on Dec. 12.
    – Emotions will be running high in October for the Mids, who host Air Force and visit Notre Dame on back-to-back weekends.
    – The regular season slate is back-loaded with long road trips, including excursions to play Memphis, Tulsa and Houston in November.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane could be a feisty opponent by the time Navy sees it on Nov. 21. Tulsa is a veteran team, and new coach Philip Montgomery’s systems should be fully installed by this stage of the season.

    Best offensive player: Senior QB Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds is much more than just a prolific quarterback who meshes perfectly within the Navy triple-option offense. He’s a winner, with the experience level and the leadership skills to guide his teammates through the toughest legs of a game and a season. The co-captain, who’s on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats in academy history, has won 21 games as a starter, and has engineered six fourth-quarter wins during his decorated career.

    Best defensive player: Senior DE Will Anthony. The Midshipmen are desperate for more pressure after ranking next to last nationally with just eight sacks. The Mids are desperate for a few more players like Anthony. The Jacksonville, Fla. native has great speed off the edge, combined with a hot motor that forces opponents to put their best blocker on him. Anthony is the one defender Navy can rely upon to get off the snap, beat blocks and disrupt. And for that reason, he’s extremely valuable in Annapolis.

    Key players to a successful season: The offensive linemen. Sure, the D needs a lot of work. But the option makes this program churn, and it’s the rebuilt O-line that’s been such a focal point this offseason. While LG E.K. Binns and RT Joey Gaston are returning starters, voids must be filled at the other three positions. Ben Tamburello is the likely successor to ultra-steady Jake Zuzek at right guard, while Blaze Ryder and Blake Copeland get first crack at center and left tackle, respectively. It’s imperative that this unit builds off the spring by continuing to gel in the summer.

    The season will be a success if … Navy reaches nine wins for the second time in the last three seasons. The Midshipmen have become a machine of consistency under Ken Niumatalolo, and previously Paul Johnson. And there’s nothing about the upcoming schedule that signals a sudden shift in direction. Only one opponent, Notre Dame, is expected to contend of the Top 25, and UCF and Cincinnati are missed on the American portion of the schedule. With Keenan Reynolds back for one final year, pointing to at least nine wins is not unreasonable.

    Key game: Dec. 12 vs. Army. Just because the Midshipmen have won an unprecedented 13 straight in this storied rivalry does not mean any of the intensity or passion has dipped. In fact, relative to the rest of the schedule, this is still the only game that truly matters to the Naval Academy. The Oct. 10 trip to South Bend will be huge, and could even be an audition for a longshot New Year’s Six bowl bid. But a loss to the Cadets changes the entire tenor of the offseason, regardless of what happens before or after the clash in Philadelphia.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Rushing yards per game: Navy 338.1 – Opponents 198.6
    – Yards per catch: Navy 17.1 – Opponents 10.8
    – Fumbles lost: Navy 17 – Opponents 5

    Players You Need To Know

    1. QB Keenan Reynolds, Sr.
    Reynolds is one of the most decorated players in Navy history … and he still has a season of eligibility left in Annapolis. The quintessential point guard of the triple-option is flush in intangibles, as well as the athleticism to vex defenses with his feet and his arm. The 5-11, 195-pound face of the program experienced a dip in output last year, yet still rushed for 1,191 yards and 23 scores, while completing 52-of-111 passes for 843 yards, six touchdowns and three picks. Reynolds has rushed for more touchdowns, 64, than any quarterback in NCAA history, and he’s within reach of Denard Robinson’s mark for most rushing yards by a quarterback.

    2. DE Will Anthony, Sr.
    Anthony is the Midshipmen’s top returning defender, a high-motor end who’ll impact both the run defense and the pass rush. While undersized for the position at 6-1 and 246 pounds, he’s heady and will outwork his man at the point of contact. Anthony led Navy’s defensive linemen with 67 stops a year ago, while also bagging a team-high 11 tackles behind the line and 2.5 sacks. He’ll be counted on to absorb blockers so that other Mids can make plays.

    3. FB Chris Swain, Sr.
    Someone is going to run for a ton of yards in this ground-based Navy offense. It might as well be Swain, who’s bided his time as a valuable backup over the past three seasons. At 6-1 and 245 pounds, he’s the kind of strong and powerful back who’ll wear down defenses and bounce off tacklers for additional yards. Swain is coming off a career year, 693 yards and four touchdowns on only 104 carries, and his production is ready to explode with an increase in activity.

    4. WR Jamir Tillman, Jr.
    To maximize its potential, every triple-option attack needs a big-play wide receiver on the outside who can take the top off the defense. Tillman is that guy in Annapolis. The Las Vegas native built on a strong spring by catching a team-high 20 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. The 6-4, 206-pound Tillman has excellent speed and hands, with the size to beat defensive backs on jump balls in the air.

    5. NG Bernard Sarra, Jr.
    Sarra will once again be one of the Mids’ most important players on defense. He provides a solid presence in the middle of the line, an immovable 6-1, 303-pounder, with the footwork to slide outside if necessary against power running teams. Sarra posted 38 tackles a year ago, while also blocking three kicks. He’s already been named a team captain for 2015, testament to his leadership and the respect he’s earned from his teammates.

    6. LB Daniel Gonzales, Jr.
    In Gonzales, the Midshipmen have located their rock at the second level for the next couple of seasons. In his debut on the field, he was an ace versus the run, finishing second on the team with 86 tackles, while picking off three passes. A member of the scout team when he arrived, Gonzales grew to 6-2 and 229 pounds, and continued to become more of a student of the game.

    7. OG E.K. Binns, Sr.
    With the graduations of three starting blockers, Binns is set to become the Midshipmen’s most experienced O-lineman for the upcoming season. The 6-3, 282-pounder has made 22 starts over the past two years, consistently creating daylight in the running game for the Navy quarterback and running backs. Binns was named Academic All-District and an ECAC All-Star for his work in the trenches a year ago.

    8. CB Quincy Adams, Sr.
    Adams will be the Mids’ veteran of the secondary this season, having started every game at cornerback a season ago. The 5-11, 195-pounder is versatile enough to play safety, tackles well in the open field and has gotten significantly stronger in the weight room. Last season, Adams posted a career-best 75 tackles and a team-high nine pass breakups, while becoming increasingly comfortable in coverage.

    9. ROV Kwazel Bertrand, Sr.
    Bertrand is back for his final season in Annapolis, bringing experience and versatility to the defensive backfield. His resume includes 23 career starts, 14 at cornerback and nine at safety. But he’s most valuable at rover, where his coverage skills and open-field tackling can be on display. The 6-0, 186-pound Bertrand started the first nine games of 2014, amassing 53 stops and a pick, but was slowed by injuries and eventually missed the final three games.

    10. CB Brendon Clements, Jr.
    Clements has enjoyed a memorable start to his Navy career. And the 5-11, 188-pounder is only at the halfway point. He’s been a starter since the beginning of his rookie year, showcasing uncommon intelligence and football IQ for such a young player. He’s a fine athlete as well, but his instincts have been at the cornerstone of his success. Clements chipped in with 58 tackles, two stops for loss and four pass breakups in 2014.

    Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo
    8th year: 57-35
    Sept. 5 Colgate
    Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
    Sept. 19 East Carolina
    Sept. 26 at Connecticut
    Oct. 3 Air Force
    Oct. 10 at Notre Dame
    Oct. 17 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 24 Tulane
    Oct. 31 South Florida
    Nov. 7 at Memphis
    Nov. 14 SMU
    Nov. 21 at Tulsa
    Nov. 28 at Houston
    Dec. 5 OPEN DATE
    Dec. 12 Army (in Phil.)
    Ten Best Navy Players
    1. QB Keenan Reynolds, Sr.
    2. DE Will Anthony, Sr.
    3. FB Chris Swain, Sr.
    4. WR Jamir Tillman, Jr.
    5. NG Bernard Sarra, Jr.
    6. LB Daniel Gonzales, Jr.
    7. OG E.K. Binns, Sr.
    8. CB Quincy Adams, Sr.
    9. ROV Kwazel Bertrand, Sr.
    10. CB Brendon Clements, Jr.


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