Shawn White broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, got spun around, then backpedaled into the end zone while carrying five South Alabama defenders.
The 7-yard touchdown by the 6-foot-1, 255-pound fullback was one of the more impressive scores of the 2013 Navy football season.
But White, who was pressed into the backup role that day because of multiple injuries, will be lucky to see mop-up action this season. That's because the talented sophomore is stuck behind three more experienced fullbacks who have all proved they deserve to play.
Navy is loaded at the fullback position with seniors Noah Copeland and Quinton Singleton along with junior Chris Swain, who all started multiple games a year ago. Those three teamed to rush for 1,129 yards in 2013. That leaves promising reserves such as White and junior Quinten Ezell on the outside looking in.
"It's a great problem to have. We have five guys who have taken meaningful snaps on offense in a varsity game," fullbacks coach Mike Judge said. "We're in a really good position. We have a lot of talent there. Now we have to figure out a way to get them all on the field."
Copeland started as a sophomore and was the Midshipmen's second-leading rusher with 738 yards on 162 carries, which tied for the team lead. However, Swain opened the coaching staff's eyes with his performance in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, in which he showed an impressive combination of speed and power on runs of 36 and 46 yards against Arizona State.
Swain started six straight games to begin last season and was not very productive, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and being held to 32 yards or fewer in three contests. Copeland regained the top job with a strong effort at Toledo, establishing career highs with 28 carries for 153 yards. However, the muscular, 5-10, 214-pound San Antonio native suffered a foot injury against Pittsburgh the following Saturday and missed the next four games.
Swain started the following weekend at Notre Dame and turned in his best outing of the season, rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown. However, the 6-1, 245-pound Georgia native suffered a hamstring injury that opened the door for Singleton, who started three consecutive games and acquitted himself well. The South Carolina native, who had seen minimal action to that point, ran for 93 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in a home victory over Hawaii.
"We've had a one-two punch at fullback in past years. We have a one-two-three punch this year," said Copeland, the offensive team captain.
Over the course of the 2013 season, Judge realized that each of the fullbacks brings something different to the table. He described Swain as a big, physical runner with breakaway speed while terming Singleton more of a finesse runner able to make defenders miss with subtle cuts or stop-and-go moves. Copeland is a combination of the two, blessed with power, speed, vision and elusiveness.
It's incumbent upon Judge, in his seventh season overseeing the unit, to put each of the fullbacks in position to succeed.
"We have to do a good job of rotating them all in there and making sure we maximize what each does best," he said. "If Chris is good at one thing, we have to make sure he's doing that. If there is a specific situation in which Noah excels, we need to make sure he's in the game at that time. I need to have the right guy in the game at the right time based off the play calls."
The fullback dive is the bread-and-butter play of Navy's triple-option offense because it softens the defense and opens opportunities for other elements. Many opponents focus on stopping the fullback, which usually enables the Mids to enjoy success on the perimeter.
"I can't control how many carries each fullback gets. The quarterback does that based off reading the defense. For me, it's more about balancing the snaps and making sure we have a good distribution there," Judge said. "If we can spread the snaps out, maybe we can wear teams down and make sure we have fresh fullbacks in the fourth quarter."
Dividing the snaps among three proven veterans should pay dividends down the stretch of a 12-game season.
"I think using three guys helped us last year. We went into the Army game and none of them had to take more than three snaps in a row. We always had fresh legs running the football when the fullback's number was called," Judge said.
After carefully reviewing film from last season, Judge and head coach Ken Niumatalolo determined that Copeland was the team's best all-around fullback in terms of toting the football, executing blocks and catching passes out of the backfield.
"I think when you started to see what Noah did play in and play out, he was probably our most consistent performer," Judge said. "Noah is also very cerebral. He can digest the play and the game while it's going on. That's ultimately what separated him from Chris and Quinton."
Swain, humbled by some of his struggles last season, said he is focused on starting plays more powerfully and eliminating fumbles.
"I have to become more consistent in all areas. I have to get better at taking care of the football. I think I need to work on my explosion coming out of my stance," said Swain, who said he has no problem sharing repetitions with Copeland and Singleton.
"Fullback is a very tough position, and we know it's going to take more than one of us to get the job done. Whenever our number is called, we have to do whatever we can," Swain said.
White showed against South Alabama that he can be effective, while Ezell excelled in goal-line situations last season. Those two will mostly be relegated to special teams as Navy will likely travel with five fullbacks for road games. Copeland, who has played special teams his entire career, said all five fullbacks get along well.
"Competition brings out the best in everybody. We're all brothers who push each other and feed off one another," Copeland said. "We all know the game, we all know our roles, we all know what to do and where to go. We leave it up to the coaches to determine the playing time. Our main goal is to just win games."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun