Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo hasn't to worried about Navy's kickoff return specialist for a while. Marcus Thomas handled that role quite capably for the past four years, setting a new standard along the way.
Thomas graduated as Navy's all-time leader with 2,338 kickoff return yards during his career. The tiny (5-7, 165) speedster also set the program record with 104 career returns and posted a superb average of 22.4 yards.
Now Navy must identify a replacement for Thomas, who consistently set the offense up with good field position. Demond Brown, who served as the up man on kickoff returns last season, is currently the top candidate to take over the critical role.
"Demond does a good job hitting it up there. He gets north and south," Niumatalolo said. "Demond is a fast, strong, tough kid so we feel good about him."
Asked what Navy is looking for in a kickoff return specialist, Niumatalolo said the primary asset is fearlessness. In order to be effective, the returner cannot hesitate, dance or run east-west. An added bonus is a player with superb speed and the ability to make would-be tacklers miss.
Niumatalolo said Brown, who averaged 22.2 yards on five returns in 2013, has displayed all of those attributes during practice.
Brown did to return kicks or punts at Old Mill High, too valuable as the star running back to risk injury on special teams. The 5-foot-9, 201-pound speedster learned some of the intricacies of the unique job from Thomas after taking over as the off returner last season.
"I learned a lot from Marcus Thomas last year when I was back there with him for the second half of the season," Brown said. "I'm ready to step in and hopefully take over."
Thomas is serving as a graduate assistant with the team while on temporary assignment duty at the Naval Academy and thus is able to offer advice. Brown showed he has the ability to be a game-breaker with a 45-yard kickoff return against South Alabama in 2013.
"Just being patient and waiting for your blocks to develop. When they do develop, just hit it. Don't think too much, just hit it," Brown said when asked the key to returning kickoffs.
Obviously, the first order of business is to catch the football and Brown said he learned that skill rather quickly. Running full speed upfield knowing that 11 men are converging with the intent of doing you harm requires nerves of steel. The Glen Burnie resident and Annapolis native was asked if he worries about getting clocked.
"It's always in the back of my mind, but I trust my blockers on the return team," said Brown, who also is likely to see considerable action at slotback this season.
Slotback Dishan Romine, the fastest player on the team based off testing last spring, is listed as the off returner (up man) on the current depth chart. Niumatalolo said slots Geoffrey Whiteside and Toneo Gulley have also auditioned for the role.
DEPTH CHART CHANGES: Navy issued an updated depth chart last Monday and there were a few changes from the preseason edition.
First and foremost, three freshmen have entered the depth chart. Wide receiver Brandon Colon, outside linebacker Kevin McCoy and cornerback Elijah Merchant are all listed third at their respective positions.
Colon supplanted sophomore Derek Mann at one wide receiver spot. The only other offensive changes come along the offensive line where sophomore Blake Copeland has overtaken junior Blake Benjamin as the backup right tackle and sophomore Adam West has replaced senior Kyle Cregge as the third string right guard.
On defense, outside linebackers Ted Colburn and Nick Martinez have both fallen off the depth chart after being listed No. 2 and No. 3 at the Raider spot going into preseason camp. Sophomore William Tuider and senior Obi Uzoma are now even atop the depth chart at Raider with sophomore Mike Kelly entering the depth at No. 3.
There has also been a shakeup at the outside linebacker spot known as Striker with sophomore Josiah Powell now listed as the bakup and McCoy debuting at No. 3.
Senior Joe Worth, who served as Regimental Commander for Plebe Summer, has moved into the depth as the third string SAM inside linebacker. Tyler Goble has moved from No. 3 to No. 2 at that spot.
Junior Don Pearson opened camp as the starter at the MIKE inside linebacker position, but is now No. 2 there. Senior Jimmy Britton and sophomore Daniel Gonzales are listed even atop the depth at that spot.
Junior Kwazel Bertrand is now the starter at Rover, having moved to that position from cornerback. Juniors Quincy Adams and Myer Krah are battling to replace Bertrand as the starting right corner. Merchant and sophomore Cameron Bryant are No. 2 and No. 3 at right corner after not being on the preseason depth chart.
Niumatalolo said media and fans should not attribute much to how the depth chart stands in mid-August and said some things are done to motivate players. "Depth charts change. They're magnets on our board. We can change people around to try to stir up some competition. Nothing is set in stone," he said.
INJURY REPORT: Starting guards Jake Zuzek and E.K. Binns were both wearing green jerseys (no contact) during practice on Thursday morning. Niumatalolo said neither has a serious injury and attributed the day off from contact as the normal wear-and-tear of training camp.
Senior Nate Otto and junior Ben Tamburello were working with the starting unit in the absence of Zuzek and Otto. Niumatalolo said backup center Blaze Ryder can also play guard if necessary.
Niumatalolo demurred when asked which player is setting the pace and having the best preseason among the offensive line.
"It's Day 15. We've been grinding and will continue to do so," he said. "There is no patting people on the back right now. Guys have to keep their heads down and keep working."
INSIDE BACKER BATTLE: Defensive coordinator Buddy Green basically said on Thursday that Jordan Drake will start at one of two inside linebacker positions. Drake started 26 straight games at outside linebacker over the previous two seasons and Green said he did not move the standout performer inside to be a backup.
Drake is listed at the strong-side spot (SAM), which Green said has more responsibility in coverage than the other inside linebacker.
Senior Jimmy Britton (6-2, 223) and sophomore Daniel Gonzales (6-2, 229) are waging a good battle for the starting job on the weak-side (MIKE), Green said. Junior Don Pearson (6-3, 214), who entered preseason as the starter, seems to have fallen off the pace.
Navy must replace both starters at inside linebacker as recent graduates Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti led the team with 142 and 110 tackles, respectively.
GRAD ASSISTANTS: Navy has the services of six graduate assistants during the season. Wave Ryder, Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti are able to help out with the defense during practice while Matt Aiken, Marcus Thomas and Eric Mauler assist with the offense.
Those six former players and 2014 graduates also handle a myriad of additional duties such as putting together cutups for film study, helping out with recruiting responsibilities and charting plays during practice. They work closely with Director of Football Operations Bryce McDonald, Director of Player Personnel Sean Magee and Director of Player Development Maj. Robert Green.
It is a tradition for the football team to have a group of graduate assistants comprised of former players on temporary assignment duty at the academy and Niumatalolo
"Those guys all do a phenomenal job. There are so many things behind-the-scenes that they do," he said. "Over the years, those guys have been invaluable."
Perhaps the most important role the grad assistants play is that of mentor to current players. Having made it through four years at the academy, they are well-suited to providing advice about how to balance the academic, athletic and military responsibilities.
"They've been through everything, they know the ups and downs. They can tell guys to hang in there, that there is light at the end of the tunnel," Niumatalolo said.
Navy vs. Ohio State
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
Aug. 30, noon
TV: CBSSN RADIO: 1430-AM