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Navy uncovers a few new starters in annual Blue-Gold spring game

FootballNotre Dame Fighting IrishMike JudgeKen NiumataloloMemorial Stadium

Coming into spring football practice, Navy's Noah Copeland and Travis Bridges were relatively unknown commodities.

Copeland, a sophomore fullback, had played exclusively on special teams during his first season at the academy. Bridges, a junior noseguard, had spent his first two seasons in Annapolis trying unsuccessfully to make his way up the depth chart on an experienced and talented offensive line.

After three weeks of practice and Saturday's spring game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Copeland and Bridges are among the bright spots for a team looking to reverse course after last season's disappointing 5-7 record, the first losing mark for the Midshipmen in nine years.

As a result, Copeland and Bridges will likely be starters when Navy opens the season Sept. 1 against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland.

Copeland had 66 yards on 9 carries and Bridges had seven tackles Saturday for the Blue team, which was made up mostly of first and second-teamers and beat the Gold team, 21-0. Junior quarterback Trey Miller completed 7 of 9 passes for 104 for the Blue and rushed for two of his team's three touchdowns.

"The thing I'm encouraged about Noah is just his demeanor," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "He comes to work every day, he's hard on himself. {Assistant] coach [Mike] Judge says that [Copeland] takes meticulous notes in meetings. He's not a guy taking anything for granted."

Not even his starting position. Though Copeland earned the opportunity to succeed Alexander Teich as the starting fullback after winter workouts, he still sees competition from junior Mike Patrick (7 carries for 52 yards for the Gold team Saturday) and senior Prentice Christian (7 carries for 63 yards for the Blue team).

"As of right now, I have the starting position, but you never know what's going to happen," Copeland said. "All of us are good fullbacks, so all of us are going to work hard and progress and just get better."

Though Copeland is a lot lighter than any other fullback to have played in Navy's triple option, Niumatalolo said the 5-10, 205-pound player is a lot stronger than he looks.

"He doesn't look that strong, but then you see him dragging three guys," Niumatalolo said.

There is also a mentality that comes with playing that position at Navy.

"You've got to be a man," offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. "You're going to be hit by a guy that's unblocked. You're basically a sitting duck. You're a sacrificial lamb for a guy to read, the guy [making the tackle] has basically a free run on you."

At 6-feet, 318 pounds, Bridges looks like a noseguard — a rarity for the Midshipmen. But for all but a few snaps of his high school career in Hollywood, Fla., as well as at the Navy prep school and the academy, Bridges had been on the offensive line.

"It's a big difference, I really haven't played much defense, but I like it," he said.

Despite openings to fill on an offensive line that lost three starters, the biggest hole Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green believed Bridges could fill was on the defensive line after four-year starter Jabaree Tuani graduated and defensive ends Joshua Jones and Jamel Dobbs left the team.

"Travis Bridges has all the tools to be a successful noseguard," Niumatalolo said. "He's over 300 pounds, he's flexible, he's strong, he's explosive. It's just learning the position."

Bridges has spent most of the spring playing against Navy's option, so the learning curve will now include getting ready for "conventional offenses" such as the ones the Midshipmen will face their first two games against the Fighting Irish and then two weeks later at Penn State.

"I'm encouraged by it. I'm really excited by what we've seen from him," Niumatalolo said. "We're counting on him to have a big year for us."

NOTES: George Jamison, a sophomore safety, was named the team's most improved player in spring practice. Sophomore punter Pablo Beltran had one of the more impressive performances in the spring game. Used by both teams, Beltran punted five times for the Gold team with a 44 yard average (and a long of 52) and four more for the Blue for a 40.5 yard average (long of 50). Niamatulolo said he didn't show much of his team's offense, including a shotgun formation that Navy has been experimenting with in practice. There were also some less than impressive performances by the Midshipmen on Saturday. Placekicker Stephen Picchini, a junior who has been plagued by injuries, missed his two field goal attempts, shanking a 41-yard attempt and then hooking a 44-yard try wide. The offensive line gave up a total of 11 sacks.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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