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Navy slotbacks becoming cornerstone of offense

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo doesn't have a predetermined profile for his prospective slotbacks to fit, yet they all seem to be about the same height and weight, with two common traits: patience and a bit of a chip on their shoulders.

The patience is needed to wait their turn, in what has become a production line of talented players who can run, block and catch swing passes out of the backfield in the trademark triple-option offense. As with most of their teammates, the chip comes with them from high school.

Since Niumatalolo took over from Paul Johnson in 2008, the slotback has become a more vital position, evidenced by Shun White, who led the Midshipmen in rushing in Niumatalolo's first season and Gee Gee Greene led Navy in rushing last year.

Based on numbers, the slotback position might reach the height of its productivity for Navy in 2013.

"People are concerned when you lose John Howell, Bo [Snelson] and obviously Gee Gee, but you don't know these other guys," Niumatalolo said Tuesday after practice in Annapolis. "It's probably the deepest position we've got on our team."

With Indiana trying to take away fullbacks Chris Swain and Noah Copeland last week in Bloomington while also attempting to keep quarterback Keenan Reynolds from running outside, Navy's slotbacks took advantage of the holes that were being opened on the edge after they were pitched the football.

Senior Darius Staten, who had gained a total of 258 yards on 29 carries the past two seasons, finished with 106 yards on nine carries in a 41-35 season-opening victory over the Hoosiers.

Junior Geoffrey Whiteside, who had gained 111 yards on 16 carries last season, added 97 yards on nine attempts and also caught a 24-yard pass. Sophomore DeBrandon Sanders helped out with 68 yards on five carries.

Navy (1-0) will add junior Ryan Williams-Jenkins to the mix Saturday when the Midshipmen play Delaware (2-0) in the home opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Williams-Jenkins, who scored a 33-yard touchdown on his first rushing attempt last season against East Carolina, is coming back after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice.

"It's kind of like a group thing, competition breeds success," Whiteside said Tuesday. "As long as we're doing good as a group, it's fine by me."

Said Niumatalolo: "There's a lot of competition, hopefully we're playing the right guys."

Whiteside set the tone against the Hoosiers, ripping off a 31-yard run on Navy's first play from scrimmage and an 18-yard run on his second carry. A 13-yard run by Staten later set up the first of three touchdown runs by Reynolds, who finished with a team-high 127 yards on 32 carries.

Navy finished with 444 yards on 70 carries and leads the country in rushing yards per game.

"Just the first series, watching them block, watching them catch the pitch and just their pitch relationship [to Reynolds], everything was perfect," Niumatalolo said. "The timing was really good. These guys worked hard in camp, but obviously they spent time in the summer with Keenan. The operation was really smooth."

Danny O'Rourke, who has coached the Navy slotbacks since 2011 and is in his 12th year on the team's coaching staff, wasn't shocked at how well the group played.

"To be honest, they played exactly the way I expected them to play, I even expected them to play a little better, there were a lot of mistakes we made," O'Rourke said. "My mom and dad called and said, 'You guys played good.' I'm like, 'You don't know about this and this and this.' But they played hard. Every day we meet, every we practice, before the game, I tell them, 'All I want from you is play hard.' 'You know what to do, turn it loose, go play.' It was good to see them have some success."

O'Rourke also does his part to make sure the chip on their respective shoulders gets a little bigger each week.

"The reason I love coaching those guys is that they all got a chip on their shoulder — they're something wrong with all of them. That's what I tell them," O'Rourke said. " They're either too short or a step too slow or their hands aren't big enough, but they're all good players. We watched them on high school tape. They were all good, they all did this in high school. They slipped through the cracks. They have a chance to shine on a big stage."

Staten sees similarities in running style and physical stature to Greene, whose 7.3-yards-per-carry average last season was second only to Shun White's record of 8.3 yards set in 2008. Green's 7.1 yards per play on total career offense is also second to White's record 8.9 yards.

"The guys who played this position might have been short, but they had a lot of heart and I have a lot of heart," said Staten, who played behind former Navy slotback Marcus Curry in high school in Texas. "A lot of colleges overlook that. Coach Niumat gave me a chance and I was going to embrace the opportunity."

Staten said that what he did last week against the Hoosiers wasn't a surprise.

"I always had confidence in myself and I knew that my teammates had confidence in me," Staten said. "I knew when I got my opportunity, I had to go into full speed."

As the slotbacks sat around after practice Tuesday, Niumatalolo joked about how hard it was to tell them apart.

"Look at that group right there," Niumatalolo said. "They're 5-7, 180 pounds, they all can run. Maybe too small for other programs, they say 'We want 5-11, 6-feet guys.' We feel like there's enough guys to fit our system, they can do what we ask them to do."

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