Navy coach Paul Johnson is facing numerous decisions - particularly about who will provide the depth on his team's offensive and defensive lines - before the season opener Aug. 30, but there is one position that is not a bit worrisome.
John Skaggs returns for his senior season with a portfolio so impressive he has already been chosen to play in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco on Jan. 10, becoming the first Navy punter ever selected for an all-star game.
"I couldn't believe it," said Skaggs, a native of Cantonment, Fla., in the state's panhandle. "I was expecting that maybe at the end of the season I'd get an invitation to something, but they sent an e-mail to Coach [Johnson], and said they already picked me. I was pleasantly surprised."
Naturally, the fewer times Skaggs has to punt, the better the Midshipmen like it because that means the offense is moving the ball well and/or scoring. But when they need his leg, they know a potent weapon is there.
As a sophomore, Skaggs averaged 44.8 yards a kick, a school record, and finished fifth in the nation. Last season, the average dropped to 41.2 (still the school's fourth-best single-season effort) and two of his punts were blocked by North Carolina State, but he retained the record for career average at 43.1.
"I think Skaggs can be a tremendous player," Johnson said. "He had a good year [in 2002], but not as good as the year before. We need to have a big senior year out of him."
"I definitely agree that I wasn't quite as good, but it was still an all-right season," Skaggs said. "I felt like I never got in that same groove, and that's something I'm working on.
"I probably had a little extra pressure because people were saying I was a one-year wonder. I have to prove the first year was not a fluke and people will then say I was the real thing."
Skaggs was a free safety and wide receiver at Tate High but came to Navy unsure of where he would fit in. "I didn't know how good I was," he said.
"When I came, they had two punters who were really lofting the ball, and I didn't think I'd start until maybe I was a senior."
Suffice it to say he found his niche a lot earlier.
Long drought at home
For three years, the Midshipmen have been winless at their home stadium, but the inspiration of ongoing renovations to the facility and a favorable schedule should change that trend.
"I can only address one year, but sure it's frustrating for the team and us [the coaches]," Johnson said.
"Last year, we had a chance against Northwestern and didn't finish it. N.C. State was just better than us and Rice beat us by seven. We played very poorly against UConn [a 38-0 loss] and we were in the game against Duke until a long touchdown pass right before the half kind of sealed it."
Skaggs said the revamped stadium will "make us feel a little more at home, more compact with the fans on top of you. In the old stadium, you couldn't pick up a ball on the sidelines and throw it in the stands."
Navy's last victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was on Nov. 13, 1999, when Tulane fell, 45-21.
With preseason practice switching to full pads yesterday, Navy's only injury is a broken hand suffered by junior linebacker Bobby McClarin, who won the Admiral Mack Award as most improved player of last spring.
"It was a freak thing. He broke it in a drill, hitting a sled," Johnson said. "He'll be held out of contact for a week, and then he should be back."
The coaching staff has made one minor position change, moving junior fullback Ryan Barry to slotback.
"We have a lot of depth at fullback and Ryan is a big guy who can run. We lost of depth at slotback and I'm just trying to get him on the field some," Johnson said.
With three weeks of practice left, Navy may shift other personnel to the slot, perhaps backup quarterbacks.
On the green side
The biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin on experience.
"We have a bunch of guys that didn't play last year who are going to have to step up and play," Johnson said.
"It's a big luxury if you can be a solid two-deep anywhere, but especially on the offensive line."