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Pep talk has Navy's fullbacks running in the right direction

Noah Copeland and Chris Swain were stretching together during a practice early last week when Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo approached his top two fullbacks with a little pep talk.

"Coach Niumat kind of called us out, told us we need to show up," Copeland recalled this week. "We kind of talked about that in the hotel [on Friday before facing Toledo], that we need to ball this game, and they're going to probably need us. We went out there with a different mentality. We just kept running and doing what we could do."

By the time Copeland and Swain were finished, they had combined for more yards in a game than any pair of Navy fullbacks in three seasons.

Copeland, a 5-foot-10, 214-pound junior from San Antonio, rushed for a career-high 153 yards on a career-high 28 attempts in Navy's 45-44 double-overtime loss at Toledo, while also catching one pass for a 20-yard touchdown. Swain, a 5-11, 232-pound sophomore from Macon, Ga., added 62 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

It marked the first time that a pair of Navy fullbacks combined for more than 200 yards since Alexander Teich and Vince Murray gained 225 yards — 157 by Teich — in a 76-35 win at East Carolina in 2010.

"I thought they both played well," said Niumatalolo, whose team still lost by a point after sophomore Nick Sloan missed an extra-point attempt in the second overtime period. "Noah played better. I thought the line blocked better, but it wasn't good enough."

After watching tape of the game with his teammates and coaches, Copeland acknowledged that his performance was far from perfect.

"I missed a lot of reads," he said. "I didn't play as well as I thought I did. Numbers can say a lot of things, but I know I didn't play as well."

The fullbacks, along with the rest of the Midshipmen, hope to improve Saturday when Navy (3-3) tries to end its two-game losing streak. Navy plays Pittsburgh (4-2) in a 1 p.m. homecoming game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Mike Judge, who is in his sixth season coaching Navy's fullbacks, agreed with Copeland's assessment of last week's performance. He wasn't about to give his "B" backs, as the fullbacks are called, anything close to an A.

"We played hard. We didn't play well. We left a lot of yards left out there," Judge said. "We didn't do a good job blocking on the perimeter. We didn't have a lot of knockdowns. We were asked to do a lot of perimeter blockin,g and we didn't do a good job. It could be a quarterback block or a slotback block."

Since the early years of what is now Navy's trademark triple-option, the responsibilities of the fullback have changed, as have the skill set of the fullbacks themselves.

"I don't know if guys in the past could do what we ask them to do now," Judge said.

Judge said that after having a production line of beefy fullbacks with some breakaway speed such as Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard and Eric Kettani — each of whom led the Midshipmen in rushing over a four-year period — Navy tried to recruit lighter, shiftier players such as Copeland to play the position.

Swain is something of a throwback, though he's probably more athletic than many of his predecessors.

"Noah sees things way better than Chris right now, but Chris is also a year behind him in experience," Judge said. "Chris does bring more of a power element, but we're still working on some things, getting to run with more power and keep his pad staying lower to the ground. Noah is going to know where to fit, so that he can hit the soft spot and squirt through and get those extra yards after contact."

After finishing second on the team in rushing (738 yards on 162 carries) last season behind senior slotback Gee Gee Greene (877 yards on 120 attempts), Copeland put on 10 pounds of muscle.

But he started the 2013 season backing up Swain, who finished his freshman year with a career-high 93 yards in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. In the 62-28 loss to Arizona State, Swain had the team highlight — a 46-yard touchdown run.

Still, neither had produced much this season until Saturday at Toledo.

In the first five games, Copeland had managed just 66 yards on 25 carries. Swain gained just 140 yards on 45 carries over the first four games but started to show improvement when he rushed for 61 yards on 13 carries in a 35-7 loss at Duke on Oct. 12.

"I expected a lot from myself, too," Swain said. "I haven't been like I thought I would, but I'm still working at it, trying to get better every day. I feel like the last two weeks gave me a little confidence, and hopefully I can build on that."

Swain admitted that moving up so quickly on the depth has been somewhat "overwhelming" in terms of forcing him to perfect his technique in running and blocking as well as reading what the defense gives him.

"Hopefully I'll break out one of these games," he said.

As a result of Copeland's performance last week, Niumatalolo said the junior will start against Pittsburgh. Copeland said that doesn't matter.

"Honestly, you just want to go out there and get the 'W,'" he said. Who has a better game, if Chris has the game I had or what, I wouldn't care, as long as we get the 'W.'"

Copeland hopes Pittsburgh's defense doesn't key on the fullback as others have this season — but Toledo didn't do last week.

"I like running around," he said. "It was kind of fun."

don.markus@baltsun.com

 

Pittsburgh (4-2) @ Navy (3-3)

When: Saturday 1 p.m.

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

TV: CBS

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: Pitt leads, 22-13-3

Last meeting: Pitt won, 27-14, on Sept. 19, 2009

Navy offense vs. Pitt defense: The Midshipmen finally got their triple-option running game going in last week's 45-44 double overtime loss at Toledo. Junior fullback Noah Copeland rushed for a career-high 153 yards of the team's 419, Navy's second-highest total this season. Just as impressive was the fact that Navy ran a season-high 93 plays. But sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds was held in check for the second straight game, with just 37 yards on 29 carries. Reynolds did help the Midshipmen score all eight times they were in the red zone, including seven TDs. The Panthers allow opponents more than 28 points per game. Excluding a 14-3 win over Virginia and a 19-9 loss at Virginia Tech, the Panthers are giving up 38 points per game. Senior tackle Aaron Donald leads the country in sacks per game (1.33) and tackles for loss per game (2.08).

Navy defense vs. Pitt offense: The Midshipmen have been shredded the past two weeks, giving up huge chunks of yards (more than 415 per game) and big plays both in the air against Duke and on the ground at Toledo. Navy did a better job definsively on third down last week (allowing conversion on six of 12) than it did the previous week (10 of 16), but the Midshipmen still rank near the bottom (118) on the Football Bowl Subdivision in that category. Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, who transferred after playing two years at Rutgers, has two quick-strike receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd (31 catches, 491 yards, 4 TDs) and senior Devin Street (26 catches for 549 yards and 3 TDs), who needs just two receptions to become the school's all-time leading receiver.

Don Markus

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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