The 2014 Naval Academy football team ultimately rides or dies with junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds. While rushing for 31 touchdowns last season - an NCAA record for quarterbacks and a school record for any position - he successfully made himself the face that casual college football fans can pair with the Midshipmen. He's been named to pre-season watch lists for the Maxwell and O'Brien awards and some consider him an under-the-radar candidate to win this year's Heisman trophy.
To have a chance at winning any of those awards, Reynolds will have to have a great showing against big teams on big stages this year; Ohio State, Notre Dame and a game against Rutgers are key opportunities. But he won't get there alone; he's going to need some help. Football is a team sport after all and while Reynolds is going to be the leader and the star of this team, there are others on the field who are just as important to Navy's success.
Senior and team Co-Captain Noah Copeland will once again be lined up behind Reynolds as the starting fullback this season in Navy's double wing-like triple option offense. Copeland battled a few injuries last season and missed four games, but still rushed for 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry to go with three receptions for 43 yards and another score.
His sophomore season of 738 yards and five touchdowns (4.6 ypc) is more representative of his ability, but he's a solid blocker at the fullback position and even a better leader, which is why his teammates elected him as captain this year. Those are just as important as stats.
A lot of what Navy does on offense is letting Reynolds work his magic, but with his high profile this season teams will be planning for him all week. If Reynolds is contained, the coaching staff could turn to Copeland to carry the load on the ground as they have before. He rushed for a 153 yards on 28 attempts in Navy's 45-44 double-overtime loss to Toledo last season. In 2012, he recorded four games in which he had over 17 carries or more, all of which Navy won.
Copeland has it all; size, speed, elusiveness and vision. The fullback dive is a play that gets everything going in Navy's triple option; it puts the defense on their heels and often makes them key in on the man in the middle of the backfield, opening up opportunities for sweeps to the outside and play action for Reynolds and company on the perimeter.
While Navy's fullback is often chosen by committee, look for Copeland to be the number one option this year as a blocker for Reynolds and the other backs, as well as a guy who can be a workhorse, soften the defense up, catch passes out of the backfield and be one of Navy's best overall weapons on offense.
Like Copeland, Gaines is a senior and a Co-Captain that brings a ton of experience and veteran leadership to this Navy team. Before switching to safety last season, Gaines had started 24 straight games at cornerback and has five career interceptions.
In addition to being solid in coverage, Gaines is also good at closing in on ball carriers and bringing them down, recording 65 total tackles last season, two of those for a loss. Gaines has a reputation of showing up in big games too, like in 2012 against Notre Dame; he recorded 12 tackles and picked off the first pass of his career when he intercepted Everett Golson. Last season, in the Mids' bowl game, he was a big piece of the Navy defense that held Middle Tennessee State to just six points as well.
One area where Gaines could improve this season as a safety is coming downfield more and closing in on ball carriers near the line of scrimmage instead of chasing them down from behind. If Gaines can make that jump, he will make for a lethal defender in the Mids' secondary.
The stats are there for Jordan Drake; 43 tackles, three sacks, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 2013. But that was last season, when Drake was playing outside linebacker.
Coming into this season the Mids' are shorthanded at the middle linebacker positions, as they graduated two starters and recently lost senior Maika Polamalu, as he was forced to retire due to medical reasons. Inside-linebacker could pan out, but last season he buttered his bread with his ability to reach the quarterback from the outside rushing off the edge.
Drake is one of the best linebackers that Navy has had in recent years, but his transition inside will be something to watch. Maybe he'll excel at it , or maybe he'll shift back to the outside. Whatever happens, Drake is a necessity to have on the field if Navy wants to succeed on defense this season; no matter what position.
His listed position on Navy's website is swing back, but in this triple option offense it will not be uncommon to see the junior line up at running back, on the wing or out wide as a traditional wide receiver. Outside of Reynolds, Sanders is Navy's most electrifying offensive player.
Listed at just 5-7 and 160 pounds, Sanders did a nice job last season doubling as an explosive weapon out of the backfield as well as becoming one of Reynolds' favorite targets on the receiving end. The pint-sized player notched 340 yards on 42 carries and a touchdown on the ground while also catching 13 passes for 223 yards and a score.
Sanders will once again likely to be a part of a rotation in the backfield, but with his production last season on so few touches it's hard to not envision his role expanding in the Mids' offense. Outside of Reynolds and Copeland, he may be the most irreplaceable.