Generally speaking, a team coming off a 2-10 season has few reasons to use the phrase "embarrassment of riches," but Navy's football team has one at fullback, where three players are vying to start.
With the returning starter, junior Kyle Eckel, and the challengers, junior Michael Brimage and senior Bronston Carroll, the Midshipmen should be stable at fullback, which, in coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, is the lone set back.
Through early practices, competition among the three has been spirited but friendly.
"It's a competition, but at the same time we're teammates," Brimage said. "We're all competitors."
Brimage, a 5-foot-7, 220-pound native of Birmingham, Ala., could be the favorite. In five games in 2002, he ran for 291 yards and averaged 7.5 yards a carry.
He moved up from the Navy JV midway through the season because of injuries to Eckel and Bryce McDonald and served notice that he would be an important cog this year. His 171 rushing yards against Wake Forest in a 30-27 loss were the most by a non-quarterback at the Naval Academy in 16 seasons, and he capped the year with an 84-yard performance in the 58-12 romp over Army.
Brimage, slowed with a right ankle sprain from practice last Friday, said he'll be ready for the opener against VMI in two weeks.
Eckel, who opened last season as the starter, performed well in nine games, running for 510 yards and four touchdowns, two against North Carolina State. But then a knee injury, the first for the 5-11, 235-pound back, against Notre Dame ended his season. He has regained trust in himself and his ability to run and cut on the knee.
"Trusting's not a problem," said Eckel, who's from Haverford, Pa. "I've trusted it for a while now. It gets a little sore after practice, and I put some ice on it. It's not a problem."
Carroll, meanwhile, is the newcomer, having shifted over from slotback to fullback for this season. The Katy, Texas, native moved quickly up the fullback ranks with a solid spring practice, running for 76 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown in the spring game. Carroll said he gained 10 pounds to 198 to make the move and is ready to challenge Brimage and Eckel to start, or at least to get into the mix.
"It's definitely a competition," Carroll said. "It keeps everyone on their toes and wanting to get better every day. I think it's going to make all of us rise to the next level. I look forward to coming out to practice every day and trying to get better."
Johnson seems less than pleased with the team's performance through the first full week of practice.
"We look like a team that's practiced for one week," Johnson said. "Certainly, we have some individuals that have improved themselves over the summer and gotten better. We just have to maintain our focus for two hours when we're out here at practice. That seems to be a struggle. We need to continue to work to get better. We're not where we need to be."
Johnson, who starts his second season as coach, wouldn't allow the Midshipmen to use the crutch of wanting to face real opposition rather than butting heads against each other in practice.
"We've only had the pads on for [a few] days," Johnson said. "If anything, that ought to help you as far as knowing where to go and who to take and all those kind of things. It's just a question of being focused and dialed in."
The team will practice and scrimmage at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Candeto flies high
Quarterback Craig Candeto's seven-touchdown performance (six rushing, one passing) against Army last season continues to pay dividends.
It seems that his breakout game, during which the Midshipmen set the Army-Navy scoring record with 58 points, got him fan mail and e-mails from all over the country, a concept that Candeto called "humbling," as well as a reminder of how big the Army-Navy game is.
Even better was the fact that an F-18 squadron out of Oceana, Va., named a plane "Candeto's Ride" after Candeto, an aspiring fighter pilot, wore the patch of the VFA-83 Rampagers on his jersey during the Army-Navy game. The squadron invited him to the base just before Christmas, and he got to see his name on the plane.
"It was pretty neat," Candeto said on the Navy Web site. "I didn't expect it at all. I got to talk to the commanding officer of the squadron and presented him with a football and got to see my name on the side of a plane. Hopefully, one day my name will be on my own jet."