Navy enters the 2015 season with only 4 returning starters on offense. However, that is misleading. While QB Keenan Reynolds, WR Jamir Tillman, and OL E.K. Binns and Joey Gaston are the only four returning "starters" from last year's offense, there is a wide range of experience set to take the stage for the Midshipmen this fall.
The offensive line returns two starters from a very successful 2014 unit that finished the season second in the country in rushing yards per game. Navy brings back LG E.K. Binns and LT Joey Gaston as starters this season, but they are hardly the only ones with experience.
Projected starters Ben Tamburello and Blaze Ryder have at least one start under their belt. While Ryder is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the spring, Brandon Greene has taken over the number two spot ahead of Maurice Morris. Greene started seven games his sophomore year at RT. Blake Copeland also has starting experience but has been supplanted by sophomore Robert Lindsey at RT with Gaston moving to LT. Sophomore Evan Martin and junior Adam West saw game action on special teams in every game last year and are backing up Tamburello and Binns this year.
Will they miss Bradyn Heap, Tanner Fleming, and Jake Zuzek? Of course, but they appear to have a two-deep across the line that they feel pretty comfortable with moving forward that has a significant amount of valuable game experience.
Coach Culton has said that "We are going to get our best five lineman out there, regardless of class or position."
With the recent shakeup along the depth chart, it is clear that this is the case, but I get the impression that the coaches like what they have seen overall from the offensive line position.
Coach Niumatalolo said at Navy Media Day that he is "really, really excited about the o-line", and QB Keenan Reynolds reiterated that the O-line has blown him away since the spring.
We all know what Keenan Reynolds has done and what he is capable of doing if he remains healthy throughout this season. He is as special as they come at understanding and running the triple option, and his decision making has always been what coach Niumatalolo says sets him apart. He is poised to have a special end to a record-breaking career at Navy.
The amount of records, not just Navy, but NCAA records that he could hold by the end of this year is astounding.
I am a Clemson fan, and when I think of what this season is going to be like watching Reynolds final campaign for the Blue and Gold, I am reminded of my mindset going into C.J. Spiller's senior season in Death Valley. Every time he touched the ball that year, I tried to soak it in.
Reynolds is one of those special players who is poised to have one of those special seasons where you sit back and try to simply enjoy each and every moment as they come closer and closer to the end.
Backup Tago Smith was forced into action last year when Reynolds was hurt and has valuable experience heading into not only this season as Reynolds' backup but next year as the potential heir to the throne. Smith and third stringer Will Worth have been banged up throughout camp, but expect them to remain two and three on the depth chart heading into and throughout the season.
One of the two positions I have the most anticipation for on the offensive side of the ball this year is the wide receiver corps.
Jamir Tillman is a player. At Navy Media Day, Coach Niumatalolo mentioned that his wife came up to him after he made several nice catches during the Army game and said "I told you. Just throw the ball to Jamir." The coaches are expecting a big year out of Tillman, and he will need to live up to the billing if Navy hopes to be successful this season.
The starter at the "X" position is no slouch either. Thomas Wilson is one of the players that has stood out to me the most as I have observed fall camp the last few weeks. He seems to make a big play each practice, and if Navy really hopes to open up the passing game a little more or at least not be afraid of passing situations, Tillman and Wilson will be counted on heavily to make that happen.
The slotbacks at Navy can sometimes seem like a plug and play position within the triple option system, but Navy loses two good ones in Geoffrey Whiteside and Ryan Williams-Jenkins.
After re-watching most of last season's games and observing a good portion of fall camp it is obvious though that they have a playmaker in DeBrandon Sanders. Watching him take that fourth down sweep at the goal line against Ohio State and make it to the corner, switching hands with the ball as he reached out to just barely graze the pylon for a touchdown gives me hope for this position this season.
Demond Brown appears ready to step into the other starter role this year and has made several big plays himself throughout fall camp.
Toneo Gulley, Calvin Cass Jr., Dishan Romine, Kendrick Mouton, and Joshua Walker all will get a chance to increase their contributions this year as well.
This is a group that each adds their own little flavor and specialty to the a-back role, and I do not see there being much of a drop-off in production as a whole this year.
This brings me to the last position group for Navy's offense, the fullback.
I believe I have more excitement and anticipation for this position group than any other going into this season.
Any triple option savant knows the importance of the fullback position to the system, and I believe this group is deep and loaded with big, strong, and fast guys who run hard and will be a nightmare for opposing defenses this year.
Chris Swain, Quinton Ezell, and Shawn White check in at an average weight of 251 and having watched them throughout fall camp, I have been impressed. They are the type of bruiser backs that make the triple option almost impossible to stop when it is being run effectively, and Navy happens to have one of the most effective option signal callers ever running the system.
So, what will prevent Navy's offense from succeeding this year? Turnovers and inefficiency on passing downs/pass protection are the biggest areas of concern that could derail the train in 2015. The players and coaching staff all know that this is the case and have made both of these areas a point of emphasis from spring ball until now and will continue to do so throughout the year.
In trying to place added emphasis on passing efficiency and the passing game as a whole, it has been pointed out that Navy could very well look to open up the playbook some this season. Coach Niumatalolo has said that Navy needs to "[try] to be more dynamic on first down and not be so predictable." He also said that "we don't need to throw the ball 30 times a game, but we need to throw the ball more and be more efficient."
Last year, Navy was the second worst team in the country as far as adjusted sack rate as calculated by Football Outsiders. While some would argue that this can be accounted for because of the fact that they are running the option and that will skew the numbers when the quarterback keeps the ball, the adjusted sack rate actually takes this into consideration by dividing sacks by pass plays (passes, sacks, and aborted snaps).By taking into account how many times the team actually passes the ball in given situations, this should be a better indication of pass protection than just sacks allowed.
Coach Jasper has made it a point to emphasize that Navy cannot be afraid of putting themselves in traditional passing down yardages. However, if this is going to continue to be a point of emphasis, they must increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the passing game and pass protection. The sack rate is one of the only metrics used by analytics gurus (of which I am not even remotely close to one) to show a correlation to turnover rate. It stands to reason then that if Navy increases their efficiency of the sack rate they may just kill two birds with one stone.
Last year, Navy turned the ball over 22 times including a whopping 17 lost fumbles. Reynolds said at Navy Media Day that he believes 85% of those turnovers should be placed directly on his shoulders. Cutting this number in half would seem like a reasonable goal for this season.
This is a Navy offense with a lot of potential across the board. There is not a position group that I would consider labeling a liability or a glaring weakness. They have a solid group with the potential to have a very successful season.
If they are able to improve their efficiency on traditional passing downs and distance and in turn cut down on the amount of turnovers this year, I believe we will be able to sit back and just enjoy watching one of the most successful players ever to come through Annapolis finish his career on a high note.
Cherish each moment this year on offense. It will come and go, you will blink, the record books will fill, and if you are not careful, you may just miss something special before you have a chance to appreciate what just happened.