Full plate

The Baltimore Sun

For most college football teams, being the fullback on offense is about as glamorous as playing nose guard on defense. Except at Navy, where the case can be made that the fullback should get equal billing with the quarterback and slotback.

Since then-coach Paul Johnson brought the triple-option offense to Navy from Georgia Southern in 2002, the fullback has been the team's leading rusher four times, and in 2003 and 2004, Kyle Eckel gained more yards rushing than quarterbacks Craig Candeto and Aaron Polanco did passing.

"Everybody comes in with a plan of how to take away the fullback," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said after practice Monday. "Make the quarterback beat you if they feel he's not a great runner. It's a combination of a lot of things, but our main thing every game is that we have to establish the fullback."

Former Army coach Bobby Ross said: "The starting point for the success of their offense is the fullback."

In Eric Kettani, a 6-foot-1, 233-pound senior, the Midshipmen have the prototype for the position. But according to first-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, Kettani has yet to reach his potential despite being bigger, faster and stronger than his predecessors.

"You've got to do it on the field," Niumatalolo said. "You can run all the numbers, have all these weight-room numbers, how strong you are, how fast you are. He saw what he could do last year. We need for him to be more productive."

After leading Navy in rushing last season with 880 yards on 152 carries and scoring 10 touchdowns, Kettani has, like the offense at times, not quite gotten cranked up this season.

With Towson double-teaming him in the season opener, Kettani had just 33 yards on nine carries as slotback Shun White broke the school record with 348 yards. In the second game, with Ball State trying to slow White, Kettani had 92 yards on 11 carries, including a 45-yard burst to set up a touchdown.

On Saturday at Duke, Kettani's first carry, on Navy's third play from scrimmage, resulted in a 2-yard run and a first down, but also a strained hip that forced Kettani out for the rest of what turned into a 41-31 defeat for the Midshipmen (1-2).

Kettani, who sat out the first days of practice this week but remains hopeful of playing Saturday at home against Rutgers, knows he could be doing more.

"Compared to last year, I'm not really doing anything," Kettani said. "I have to get my plays, and when I get my plays I have to make them big."

Kettani acknowledges that sharing the load last season with Adam Ballard, a senior who finished third in rushing with 665 yards and five touchdowns, made things easier, keeping his legs fresher and defenses a bit off balance.

The situation this year is different. Kevin Campbell, a junior, came into the season with just three career carries. Alex Teich, a freshman, came to Navy as a slotback and is in the process of learning the fullback position in this system.

The way teams are playing the Midshipmen defensively has also changed.

"It seems like they're coming down more and more, taking the fullback and the quarterback away and leaving the ball open for the A-backs, for Shun," Kettani said.

That could change Saturday. The Scarlet Knights, desperate for their first victory, might try to make someone other than White, the nation's leading rusher, beat them. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said stopping the fullback is a key.

"We are going to swarm, so we have as many possible tacklers at the point of attack. But they're very good at what they do," Schiano said. "The thing about this team is that they run their offense every play at practice and every play in games, but we only face it once a year. That's their calling card."

For Kettani, it was also a recruiting tool. Though he said he had other offers from Division I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision) schools, including Indiana, West Virginia and several in the Mid-American Conference, most wanted him to play outside linebacker.

Navy saw him as a fullback.

"I came to a Vanderbilt game when Eckel was playing and I kept seeing him breaking these runs, and I thought, 'Why not?' " Kettani recalled. "I wanted to run the ball."

Kettani has followed in that tradition set by players such as Eckel, who was re-signed this week by the New England Patriots, as well as Ballard, who led the team in rushing in 2006.

Kettani has raised the bar. During the spring at Navy's "Pro Day" for NFL scouts, Kettani ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds. He has bench-pressed nearly 400 pounds and has a 32-inch vertical leap.

"Eric has the potential to be as good as we've had," Niumatalolo said. "He's got all the physical tools. Whether he does it or not remains to be seen."

by the numbers

How Navy fullbacks fared in the triple option the previous six seasons:

Year Player Carries Yards

2002 Kyle Eckel 144 510

2003 Kyle Eckel 236 1,249*

2004 Kyle Eckel 235 1,147*

2005 Adam Ballard 109 668

2006 Adam Ballard 154 792*

2007 Eric Kettani (above) 152 880*

* Led team

RUTGERS @NAVY

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS College Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Rutgers

by 6

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