To those on the outside, it would appear that much has changed for Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and the Midshipmen over the past year.
After averaging nine wins a season in his first three years as Paul Johnson's successor, Niumatalolo had his first losing record as a head coach.
Navy also announced plans last winter that it would be joining the Big East Conference beginning in 2015.
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Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 550 Taylor Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401, USA
It would seem that their first losing season in a decade and their decision to join a league has put a different kind of spotlight on the Midshipmen when they open practice Wednesday for the 2012 season.
But Niumatalolo doesn't see it that way.
"I think all of us — the players, the coaches — are excited to start again," Niumatalolo said one afternoon last week, sitting in his office. "That's [one of] the great things about sports; when the season's over, it's over. Nothing carries over. You kind of move on."
That doesn't mean Niumatalolo is complacent. The competitor who still gets upset when he loses in tennis against his assistants or in pickup basketball games doesn't like the 5-7 record that was added to what is now a career mark of 32-21.
"I just look at it from the standpoint that we have to challenge ourselves and we just have to work harder," Niumatalolo said. "You've got to step back and look at the totality of things and look at everything. We went 5-7, which is not good. We lost to Air Force, which is not good. But we lost five games by 11 points. So we know we're not far off, but we're still off."
Here are five keys to look at as the Midshipmen open practice.
Competition at placekicker: Though Jon Teague ended his Navy career by making a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in a 27-21 season-ending victory over Army at FedEx Field, his erratic performance last season contributed to several of the close losses. The Midshipmen need to have someone who can get their kicks off faster and higher than Teague did, as well as improve on their protection. Niumatalolo will try out no fewer than seven players for the job in camp, leading him to joke, "There's no doubt we have the most in the country." It could come down to two freshmen coming directly from high school, David Reisner or Gavin Jernigan.
Development of Trey Miller at quarterback: The junior from outside Atlanta showed some promise when Kriss Proctor was injured against East Carolina last season, but Miller is the most inexperienced quarterback to start a season since Niumatalolo took over. Miller reminds some of Ricky Dobbs because of his ability to throw, and he will have a good set of receivers in Brandon Turner and Matt Aiken. He also has a strong group of slotbacks led by Gee Gee Greene and John Howell. But given the inexperience at fullback as well as with some on the offensive line, particularly with new center Bradyn Heap an untested sophomore, Miller will have to be sharper with his reads than Dobbs was in running the triple option.
The influence of new defensive line coach Shaun Nua: Navy finished 112th (out of 120) in the country in sacks last season and lost one of the best defensive linemen in school history in Jabaree Tuani. Jamel Dobbs, who started for the part of the 2011 season, left the academy after the season and Joshua Jones, who replaced Dobbs, decided to forego his senior year to concentrate on finishing the requirements needed to graduate. Nua, who played four years in the NFL and earned a Super Bowl ring as a rookie with the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers, has an inexperienced group to work with in trying to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Wes Henderson, the most experienced in the bunch, will not have the luxury of opposing offensive linemen double-teaming Tuani. Collin Sturdivant and Barry Dabney barely got on the field last season and Travis Bridges has been moved over from the offensive line.
Production at fullback: It might not always be the most important position in the triple option, but the Midshipmen have been blessed with a string of powerful fullbacks. While Navy fullbacks have become progressively smaller from the likes of Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard and Eric Kettani, this year's group is the smallest to line up in the triple option. Niumatalolo was pleased with what Noah Copeland did to win the starting job in the spring. At 5-11 and 204 pounds, Copeland is only is only a dozen pounds lighter than his predecessor, Alexander Teich, but Teich was known for his extraordinary toughness and being able to take a pounding. Backup Prentice Christian is not that much bigger than Copleand.
How Navy comes out of its first two games: The Midshipmen open with a trip to Dublin, Ireland to play Notre Dame and then, after an open week, play at Penn State. The Fighting Irish demolished Navy in South Bend last season, but the unfamiliar, neutral setting (not to mention the jet lag) could even the playing field a bit for the Midshipmen. There are a lot of unknowns surrounding the Nittany Lions in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions that might impact the kind of team Navy will face. It will also be Penn State's third game under new coach Bill O'Brien. Though the schedule gets decidely easier after the first two, this is the most challenging start Navy has had in awhile. A pair of one-sided losses or a few early-season injuries could make it tougher for the Midshipmen to become bowl-eligible by season's end.