The life of a Navy football player usually reflects the regimented daily grind of a typical midshipman. There is one major difference: on the field, the route taken by many of Ken Niumatalolo's players is not always like an early morning march, a ramrod straight line from Point A to Point B.
Shawn Lynch's path to Saturday's game at Penn State is not unusual. The soft-spoken junior has Ping-Ponged from offense to defense and back again. Lynch climbed the depth chart to become a starter at safety last season, only to disappear amid a blur of blue and gold uniforms on the sideline.
Returning to his natural position at wide receiver this spring, Lynch has ascended again. Benefitting from the absence of Navy's two projected starters and his improved work ethic, Lynch finally made a noteworthy contribution for the Midshipmen.
Even then, after catching four passes for 87 yards and Navy's only touchdown in a 50-10 season-opening loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland, it didn't mean that much. At least not to Lynch, whose receptions were his first since high school in Pelham, Ala.
"It's kind of hard to take satisfaction when you lose," Lynch said last week after a practice in Annapolis. "I guess the bright side for personal reasons is that I played a decent game, but it's hard to look at the bright side."
With junior Matt Aiken sidelined by a knee injury suffered in the preseason, and senior Brandon Turner remaining at the academy after being suspended for the opener, Lynch made his first start since starting the first five games in 2011 at safety.
In a season when defensive coordinator Buddy Green made several changes, Lynch was one of the first to lose his starting job. It came after the Midshipmen were blown out by Southern Mississippi, 63-35, and Lynch watched as quarterback Austin Davis completed 21 of 23 passes for 283 yards — including a 77-yard pass on which Lynch was beaten badly — and two touchdowns.
Lynch played sparingly the rest of the season.
In the spring, Niumatalolo asked Lynch if he wanted to return to offense.
"I think it's tough, but it shows you the character of these kids," Niumatalolo said last week. "He didn't sulk, he didn't complain. We moved him to defense, we moved him back to offense. Just with the emergence of Chris Ferguson, I didn't want him sitting him on the bench. He had a great camp and obviously he had a very good first game."
Said offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper: "He was reborn. He's home, he's where he wants to be. He played fast, he played confident, he played physical. "
Shawn Gregory, Lynch's father, said that he wasn't surprised that his son has adjusted to the changes so well.
Gregory, a former record-setting quarterback at Jackson State who coaches high school football in Columbus, Miss., said of Lynch: "He's a coach's son who understands his role. The game is about being competitive, it doesn't matter what position. Shawn is one of the most competitive kids you'll find."
Lynch said that playing defense for a year enabled him to become a more physical player, a trait that has helped him at a position in the triple option where players are required to block far more than they are asked to catch.
"It's probably the hardest part, the part I needed to improve on a lot," said Lynch, who at 6 feet, 190 pounds is among the lightest of Navy's receivers. "It's kind of like playing safety; you've got to impose your will on the defensive back. Playing defense helped me a lot, knowing what they're going to do."
Getting a chance to catch the ball is clearly not a given at Navy, considering that Turner led the Midshipmen with 14 receptions last season and Navy quarterbacks completed only 64 passes. But faced with a 27-3 deficit to the Fighting Irish at halftime, junior quarterback Trey Miller came out throwing.
The element of surprise was short-lived.
Navy's 75-yard scoring drive on three plays, all of them passes, the last a 25-yarder to Lynch, was the highlight of a long afternoon a long way from home. But it could get Lynch another start this Saturday, and give something for the Nittany Lions to keep in mind Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
"It does give us a little more confidence in the passing game because it's not something we usually do. We're a rushing team," said Lynch, who caught a 41-yard pass in the first half to set up a late field goal. "It definitely makes me happy that we can throw the ball."
Mick Yokitis, who coached Lynch at the Navy prep school and is now is in his second year in charge of the Navy wide receivers, said that he was "thrilled" to have Lynch back on offense.
"I think he brings a lot to the table with the wide receiver group," Yokitis said. "He's a guy who can stretch the field for us, a guy who plays with confidence. I think he feels at home being back at wide receiver. I knew he had it in him."
Former Navy fullback Eric Kettani has signed with the Redskins practice squad, according to his agent. Kettani was on the New England Patriots practice squad before he was released at the end of August. The lieutenant junior grade was granted early release from his active duty obligations in April, which enabled him to pursue a full-time career in the NFL.
Gene Wang, The Washington PostCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun