Depth at slotback could help Navy overcome Santiago's injury

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo had a number of concerns going into the 2011 season, but depth at slotback wasn't one of them. While none of those playing one of the key skill positions for the Midshipmen in their triple-option offense was an established star, several had moments when they stood out.

The depth chart changed last week in a 40-14 win at Western Kentucky, though the mindset about slotback remains the same as Navy (2-0) prepares for its trip to play 11th-ranked South Carolina (2-0) at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night.

On the same day that senior Aaron Santiago broke his left arm in two places trying to brace himself as he fell in the second quarter against the Hilltoppers, junior John Howell had a breakout performance, with touchdown runs of 50 and 57 yards. Santiago's injury, which required surgery Monday and will likely keep him out until the Army game in December, left Niumatalolo in tears at his post-game news conference.

"The way I felt about Aaron had nothing to do football-wise. That's probably our deepest position," Niumatalolo said after practice Monday in Annapolis. "It was great to see John do well. We've still got Gee Gee [Greene] and Bo [Snelson]. You don't care who gets the ball … you have faith in all of them. "

As is typical of Navy players, Howell deflects the praise for his two long touchdown runs to the reads made by senior quarterback Kriss Proctor and the blocking of his veteran offensive line and those on the perimeter.

"I think it's the product of the offense. Anyone of us can do that," said Howell, whose 113 yards on three carries was 11 yards more than he gained last season, his first after being the junior varsity's MVP as a freshman. "By the time [Proctor] pitches it, there's nothing there but wide-open grass and you've just got to take it to the house."

Howell said that at halftime, Niumatalolo gathered the slotbacks together in the locker room to tell them of the severity of Santiago's injury.

"He was a great player, a great leader on and off the field, and Coach said we should do this for Santiago. We all rallied on that," Howell said. "It goes to show how much depth we have."

Howell will start in Santiago's place against the Gamecocks. At 5-8, he is built along the same lines, but is a little bigger (180 pounds to Santiago's 167) and even before last Saturday showed an ability to make a big play. As a sophomore last season, Howell caught a 77-yard touchdown pass against Army.

"Being from Philadelphia, going home and catching that pass last year was definitely my No. 1 highlight," said Howell, a junior from Hatfield, Pa.

Just as Howell had a happy homecoming last season in Philadelphia against Army, Greene hopes to do the same this week. It will be a monumental task, given that the Midshipmen are nearly three-touchdown underdogs.

"It's always been a dream come true for me to play in that stadium. It's an honor," said Greene, who grew up in Columbia, S.C. rooting for South Carolina.

An all-state player as a senior in high school, Greene played against a number of current Gamecocks and played with some of them in the state's senior all-star game, the Shrine Bowl.

"It is a bit of a confidence [boost] to know some of your opponents beforehand," Greene said.

Over his career, Greene has averaged nearly seven yards a carry and more than 15 yards a reception, yet he has run the ball only 121 times in 29 games — starting 17 of them — while catching 19 passes, all but one last season. He has eight carries for 85 yards and no receptions this season. He has never carried the ball more than nine times in a game.

Greene doesn't think the amount of carries or passes he receives out of the backfield will change much in light of Santiago's injury.

"We don't base plays for Aaron, or for any of the 'A's because we feel all of us have the ability to do the same thing," he said. "Last few games, Iago (Santiago's nickname) has been in position to make those plays. It could have been anyone's call."

Considered one of a handful of Navy players who can compete athletically with a team such as South Carolina, Greene can recall watching former Navy star Reggie Campbell during an Army game a few years back and later, after being recruited to play for the Midshipmen, watched Shun White.

Niumatalolo said of Greene, "He's as athletic as anyone we've had. I think his production speaks for itself. Against everybody we've played, Gee Gee has produced."

Told of Niumatalolo's assessment, Greene said, "I'm surprised Coach would say that, but that's a big statement coming from him. Reggie Campbell and Shun made a lot of big plays. That's a high honor for Coach to say that."

An earlier version of this article gave the wrong score for Navy's victory over Western Kentucky. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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