Navy slotbacks coach Danny O'Rourke insists there are no specific starters at his position.
Senior captain Darryl Bonner and precocious sophomore Malcolm Perry may be listed atop the depth chart going into Friday night's season opener at Florida Atlantic, but O'Rourke said there are four other slotbacks he has complete faith in.
"I tell them they're all pretty much starters. I mean, the next two guys are probably going to come in by the third play of the game," O'Rourke said. "I treat them all like starters. I expect them all to execute like starters."
That is true to some extent because the Midshipmen constantly rotate the slots, but the reality is the top two will wind up getting the most touches by season's end. Last year, starters Dishan Romine and Toneo Gulley received 48 and 43 carries, respectively. Bonner and Calvin Cass Jr., the primary backups, ran the ball 29 and 31 times.
Bonner is the lone returning slot to have posted any production to speak of in 2016, emerging five games into the campaign as a result of multiple injuries. The North Carolina native earned the nickname "Big Play Bonner" by averaging almost 13 yards per touch. The 5-foot-7, 178-pounder was a real revelation as a receiver, ranking second on the squad with 10 catches for 278 yards.
"Darryl is very good with the ball in his hands. He has some shake and can make people miss. He also has really good hands and runs good routes," O'Rourke said. "What's funny is that he doesn't catch the ball all that well in practice, but when you turn on the lights he seems to catch everything thrown his way."
Bonner turned a short reception into a 64-yard touchdown in the Armed Forces Bowl and raced 44 yards with a pitchout versus Southern Methodist. It seemed that Bonner picked up a first down every time he handled the ball and Navy fans can only wonder what he can do with more opportunities.
"Darryl has answered the call. He's been out there in pressure situations and made plays," O'Rourke said. "We don't need Darryl to be anything different than he was last year. We just need him to be the same guy and do the exact same things he did last year."
There is considerable buzz about Perry, who may be the most dynamic ball-carrier on the roster. The Tennessee resident played both quarterback and slotback as a plebe and showed he could be special.
Perry was pressed into duty during the Armed Forces Bowl after starting quarterback Zach Abey went down with an injury and immediately broke loose for a 30-yard touchdown on his first play from scrimmage.
"Malcolm has a different gear than the other guys with the ball in his hands. He can really do some things out in space," O'Rourke said. "I think Malcolm can be a special player. It's on us as coaches to get him the ball."
Perry did not begin practicing full-time at slotback until spring camp and even then was still taking some repetitions at quarterback. Slotbacks are crucial blockers in Navy's triple-option, required to take out defensive backs when leading each other or to seal linebackers on other plays.
The Midshipmen won't know for sure if Perry can be an effective blocker until he does so in a regular season game and he's also unproven as a receiver.
"I think Malcolm can be a good blocker. He hasn't been in a game and seen (a defender) come at him full-speed," O'Rourke said. "What I like is that Malcolm wants to be good and works extremely hard. He's a high character kid."
Perry, who played quarterback at Kenwood High, was a two-time All-State selection and was twice named Most Valuable Player in Clarksville-Montgomery County. Bonner has seen Perry perform in practice and said the hype is warranted.
"Malcolm has a lot of talent. He's very fast and explosive. There aren't many things he can't do with the ball in his hands," Bonner said.
Senior Josh Brown and junior Tre Walker are currently listed No. 2 on the depth chart, but O'Rourke said there is really no difference between them and seniors Jahmaal Daniel and John Brown III. One thing those four slots have in common is that none played a whole lot of meaningful minutes in games a year ago.
"We've got some guys that haven't played yet that I've seen perform in practice for three years. I think they're going to be pretty good players. Just no one else knows about them," O'Rourke said. "I'm excited about giving Josh Brown, John Brown and Jamahl Daniel a chance to play. I think we have a bunch of guys with a big chip on their shoulder because they haven't played much and have a lot to prove. Now is their time."
Walker probably saw the most action of the group, rushing for 71 yards on 14 carries while also averaging 23 yards as a kickoff returner. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound product of Texarkana, Texas is one of Navy's bigger, stronger slots and has earned a reputation as a solid blocker.
Everyone is rooting for Daniel to have a breakthrough senior season as he's been beset by injuries The 5-foot-6, 160-pounder, who is the fastest player on the entire team, missed all of 2015 with a foot injury and only played in four games a year ago due to various ailments.
Bonner attended Terry Sanford High in Fayetteville, North Carolina along with Daniel, who was a New Balance All-American as a sprinter in track and field. He captured a total of nine individual state championships in various sprints and hurdles events.
O'Rourke said Daniel has practiced extremely well this summer and is competing at the top of his game. Bonner believes this is the year his hometown friend shows up in games.
"I think it will translate over to the field," Bonner said of Daniel's practice habits. "Jamahl has game-breaking speed. If he gets the edge on somebody, I don't think there are many people that can catch him."
Navy will likely travel just six slotbacks to Boca Raton for the opener, but O'Rourke said there are others fighting to get into the mix. A pair of plebes – Keoni-Kordell Makekau (Ewa Beach, Hawaii and Myles Fells (Bigelow, Arkansas) have shown flashes.
"If we travel a freshman it would be Keoni. He's been doing a good job. Fortunately, we've been able to bring him along slowly," O'Rourke said.
In Navy triple-option lingo, the slots are called A backs and live by the slogan "A's make plays." Bonner, the leader of the pack, said O'Rourke is serious when he talks about having six starters.
"Coach O'Rourke has a lot of trust in every guy that's going to play. All of us have the same amount of abilities – we all can run, we all can catch, we all can block," Bonner said. "We're all interchangeable and we can all make plays."