There were times in recent seasons when Navy's offense would go weeks without making any huge gaffes. The snaps from center Brady DeMell to quarterbacks Ricky Dobbs and Kriss Proctor would be crisp, and thehandoffs from Dobbs and Proctor to fullbacks Vince Murray and Alexander Teich textbook.

Even if the Midshipmen did not run the true triple option, particularly with Dobbs, Navy often played mistake-free.

The rushing game was ranked in the top six in each of the last four seasons, including No. 1 in 2008. Navy was the least penalized team in the nation two of the past three years, largely due to the offensive line's discipline. The Midshipmen were typically in the top 10 for fewest turnovers.

As Navy goes through spring practice in preparation for the 2012 season, the Midshipmen can barely get through a series without fifth-year coach Ken Niumatalolo or offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper calling someone out. Up-downs, Navy's exercise for futility, have become more common than first downs.

That's to be expected when there's a rebuilt offensive line anchored by new center Brayden Heap, a new quarterback in Trey Miller and a new fullback in Noah Copeland. Niumatalolo said he can't remember having as much inexperience at those key positions.

"You always say you want your best guys in the middle, and there's some validity and truth to that," Niumatalolo said after practice Monday in Annapolis. "We like who we have there. They might not be the most experienced guys, but that's why we're playing a ton."

Things started well for the offense in last Saturday's intrascrimmage, when Miller ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run on Navy's first play and then hit wide receiver Brandon Turner for a 33-yard gain on the second.

"Then we had a couple of penalties and from there it just went downhill," said Miller, a 6-foot, 199-pound junior, who has made one career start – one more than either Heap or Copeland. "We just never could get a rhythm."

By the time the scrimmage finished, the offense had committed six turnovers, including a pair of interceptions and a couple of fumbles for Miller. Jasper, whose main responsibility this spring is getting Miller ready for the season opener Sept. 1 against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, was livid.

"Trey was awful today," Jasper told reporters afterwards. "He had a great run to start the scrimmage, but you have to keep coming back and doing good things for the next series and the next series. Consistency is the big thing we need out of him."

Miller came in for an injured Proctor in last year's game against East Carolina, botched his first handoff and then played very well, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in helping the Midshipmen back from a 10-point deficit before Navy lost, 38-35.

With Proctor out, Miller started the following week against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. After Navy fell behind 14-0, Miller hit slotback Gee Gee Greene for a 9-yard touchdown but then struggled — along with the rest of the team — in a 56-14 defeat.

Now as the clear No. 1 quarterback, Miller understands what's at stake.

"What it comes down to is that I control things, I have to make the reads, get us in the right play," Miller said Monday."It's all on me."

Unlike Heap, who played only on the scout team last season, and Copeland, who played on special teams, Miller has some experience.

"It definitely helps a lot, just because at least I was in the fire, get game experience instead of just practice," said Miller. "It helps me prepare because I know what to expect."

Copeland might have even more pressure in replacing Teich, one of the most productive fullbacks ever to run out of the triple-option.

Though he doesn't consider himself the starter — at least not yet — the 5-10, 205-pound Copeland prepared for the role after being one of Navy's top special teams players last season.

"I feel pretty good about what's going in right now, it's coming together really good with the offense we're running," said Copeland, a sophomore from San Antonio. "I knew there would be an opportunity, so I had to come out here and work hard."

A dozen pounds lighter than Teich and Murray — and more than 30 pounds lighter than Eric Kettani or Kyle Eckel — Copeland said he is used to getting hit. He credits his big brother C.J, seven years his senior, for toughening him up.

"I feel I can take the pounding, I was raised as a rough kid dealing with an older brother who used to beat me up," Copeland said with a smile. "Even in NAPs, the coaches said I couldn't get hurt. I would look past the injuries I had and just keep playing."

This marks the first opportunity Heap has had to play since NAPS. A center there and in high school in South Jordan, Utah, the 6-3, 280-pound emerged from a list of candidates to replace the 6-3, 310-pound DeMell, a two-year starter. Right guard Jake Zuzek, a sophomore, is also a first-time starter.

"I've got to work my butt off," said Heap, who played as an offensive tackle on the scout team last season. "We have a lot of new guys on the line, and the center has always got to be kind of a leader. I've got a long way to go."

In the revamped middle of Navy's offense, he has plenty of company.

NOTES: The scrimmage, which is open to the general public, begins at 10 a.m. There will be a $5 charge to park.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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