The first 10 days of preseason practice were not easy for Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Niumatalolo questioned his team's work ethic, at one point last week stopping a morning workout to praise the commitment of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. He got upset with sophomore offensive guard Jake Zuzek for talking back to senior slotback Gee Gee Greene and was infuriated when sophomore linebacker Chris Johnson delivered a hard hit to junior quarterback Trey Miller, who was supposed to be off-limits.
But the Midshipmen went into Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage relatively free of injuries.
They didn't come out of it that way. Senior wide receiver Matt Aiken was helped off the field with an apparent right knee injury after blocking on an end around. Though Aiken took the ice wrap off the knee by the end of the nearly two-hour scrimmage, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said they were "concerned" about Aiken's condition.
"He's one of our best players, he's a starting wideout, he's a punt returner … hopefully it's not too bad," Niumatalolo said.
The potential loss of Aiken — three weeks before the team's 2012 season opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland — could be disastrous for the Midshipmen, who are already without the team's other projected starting receiver. Senior Brandon Turner, the team's leading receiver in 2011, failed the conditioning test prior to the start of camp and is not eligible to take the test again until Aug. 20.
Without Aiken, the Midshipmen will have to rely on junior wide receiver Casey Bolena, who caught four passes for 53 yards last season. Jasper has been using a combination of seniors John O'Boyle and Jonathan Gazaille, as well as junior Shawn Lynch, to replace Turner.
"Guys got to step up, it's next man up," Jasper said. "It's happened to us before, we've lost some good players [to injuries]. I'm sure they know that somebody has to step up big-time to fill that void."
Kicking woes continue
Navy lost five games by a combined 11 points last season, in large part due to the late-game inconsistencies of senior placekicker Jon Teague. Junior Stephen Picchini struggled in the spring game, and Niumatalolo opened the competition to as many as seven kickers — including four freshmen.
There were no answers Saturday. In fact, there might be more questions. The kickers were a combined four of 15 from outside 30 yards, with only junior Brynmor Hughes and freshman Nick Sloan making field goals from the prescribed 47 yards. Sloan appeared to have the strongest leg.
"We'll continue to kick those guys every day," Niumatalolo said. "I think it's good to kick out here because they've been kicking a lot better at the Academy, but there's nobody watching them. Unfortunately, there's going to be people watching them, so this is good work for them."
Who's No. 2 (QB)?
It appears Miller, whose only college start came in place of an injured Kriss Proctor in last season's 56-14 loss at Notre Dame, will open the 2012 season at quarterback. But the backup job is "wide open," according to Jasper.
If anything, freshman Keenan Reynolds seemed to get the edge on the No. 2 position Saturday over sophomore John Hendrick.
Reynolds, who had offers to walk-on at Georgia Tech and be a slot receiver at Vanderbilt, made a couple of nice throws, including a 30-yarder over the middle through a tight space to sophomore slotback Geoffrey Whiteside. He later nearly got intercepted by cornerback Cody West.
"He did some good things, he's a young kid, but he has a presence about him," Jasper said. "He wants to learn, he wants to be good, he wants to be the best guy out there. He's in a good spot to push the next guy [Hendrick], he wants to push Trey."
Niumatalolo said that Reynolds might be the most accurate passer of the three on the depth chart. Jasper said that he told Hendrick in the spring that he wanted him to be the No. 2 quarterback, but that Reynolds is now in the picture.
"John has not separated himself at all from Keenan, he's still making some of the same mistakes," Jasper said. "I just think Keenan is just way more consistent. In the option game, John did some pretty good things in the spring, but Keenan has caught up to him, I think."