There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not a plebe is capable of playing football at the Naval Academy.
Plebe summer sometimes wipes out certain incoming midshipmen, causing them to lose weight or otherwise be physically weakened.
Of course, the academic and military demands of the academy are often overwhelming for a freshman. Factor in the daily rigors of football and they simply cannot handle it all.
It has been proven over the years that recruits who spend a year at the Naval Academy Prep School tend to arrive in Annapolis much more prepared to play than those that come in direct.
Perhaps the most important factor that determines whether a plebe plays for the Midshipmen is opportunity. If there are openings available on the depth chart, a freshman might be given a chance to earn a spot.
Mychal Cooper and Diego Fagot are products of the prep school who were physically prepared to play as plebes and have gotten an opportunity to do so because of need. Navy’s depth chart was depleted at both wide receiver and the outside linebacker position known as “raider,” prompting the coaching staff to give some rookies a look.
Fagot was moved from inside linebacker to raider three days into August training camp after defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson was impressed by his size and instincts.
“We graduated three players at this position so there was an opportunity to get on the field. Diego came over and immediately earned his reps with the way he performed those first few days,” said assistant coach Justin Davis, who works specifically with the raiders.
One week before Navy departs for the season opener at Hawaii, Fagot is fighting to be the backup behind Nizaire Cromartie at that hybrid position. In just over three weeks, the Florida native has overtaken several veterans.
“I am surprised to be in the mix. I’m humbled the coaches have given me some looks,” Fagot said during an interview on Monday. “I haven’t been here that long and have not proven myself in games. So I am sort of surprised that I have been getting the reps I have and I feel so blessed that God has given me this opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Cooper appears solidly entrenched as part of the wide receiver rotation and figures to see the field in the opener. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder has ideal size for the position and has shown he can do all that is asked of a wideout in Navy’s triple-option offense.
“I knew coming in there were a lot of seniors leaving and there would be opportunities. I knew I had to come into camp and just ball out,” Cooper said. “I feel blessed to even get the chance to show what I can do, to prove I can compete at this level.”
IMPRESSIVE CROP OF ROOKIE RECEIVERS
Navy actually has three freshmen wide receivers the coaching staff is high on. Marcell Gleaton and Collins Woods III could also find their way onto the depth chart before all is said and done.
“They’re talented, they’re working hard, they all have a long way to go,” Navy wide receivers coach Mick Yokitis said of the three plebes. “We have eight practices left and they need every one of them. They’re trending in the right direction.”
Blocking ability is the No. 1 attribute required to play wide receiver in the triple-option. Yokitis believes Cooper, Gleaton (6-3, 216) and Woods (6-3, 195) all have the ability to do the job.
“They’re physical enough and they’re strong enough so now it’s just a matter of technique,” he said.
Cooper is ahead of his classmates for now because he brings more to the table. The Texas native is the biggest of the three and has also shown the skills to get open and catch the ball.
“I think Cooper is the most versatile of the three. He can do everything,” Yokitis said. “He’s a big guy so he can do our down blocking and is also able to run routes. I’m really excited about Mychal.”
Yokitis, who played wide receiver for Navy from 2003 through 2005, also provided short, concise assessments of Gleaton and Woods.
“Marcell is super talented, too. He just needs to get into his playbook some more, which he will,” Yokitis said. “Collins is probably the fastest of the three of them, but he still has a long way to go.”
Cooper is an excitable, bubbly sort of youngster who seems to relish every aspect of playing college football. The San Antonio resident is enjoying the current day-to-day competition with Gleaton and Woods, and is looking forward to continuing that rivalry for the next four years.
“Honestly, I love it. There is real competition among the plebes. Me, Marcell and Collins are always trying to out-do each other,” Cooper said. “You have to go out there every day and be the best you can be because at any moment someone is trying to take your spot. Both of those guys are really good and I feel like I’m getting better every day because I’m trying to be better than them.”
Cooper, who starred in both football and track and field at Taft High, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and boasts a 34-inch vertical leap, according to his recruiting profile. Taft employed a spread offense that was run-oriented, but Cooper recorded 36 receptions as a senior.
Nevada and New Mexico were in the mix, but Cooper ultimately picked Navy over service academy rival Air Force.
“My parents were really responsible for getting me to consider the Naval Academy. When I got that offer, I really didn’t know what the academy was all about,” Cooper said. “My dad was in the Army so he knew how prestigious this place was. Out of all the choices I had, I knew Navy was going to set me up the best for my future.”
Cooper was not deterred in the least by the fact Navy employed the triple-option and wide receivers are asked to block on almost every play. Last season, Tyler Carmona led the Midshipmen in receiving with just 14 catches for 381 yards.
“To me, football is a team sport so you do whatever helps the team win. We ran the ball a lot in high school so I was used to blocking,” Cooper said.
Playing football at the Naval Academy Prep School gave Cooper a primer on playing wide receiver in the triple option. He has learned a whole lot more since August training camp began.
“At NAPS the coaches did a really good job of introducing everybody to the triple-option,” he said. “I felt like I understood it, but coming here I found there is way more stuff to the offense than I imagined.”
Cooper has been trying to spend as much time as possible with senior Taylor Jackson, the only Navy wide receiver with any game experience.
“T Jack came into our room and quizzed us freshmen on signals and plays. He’s just a good teammate,” Cooper said. “There have been practices when I’ll drop a ball or run the wrong route and T Jack will come over and pick me up.”
A RARE 250-POUND FRESHMAN
Similarly, Fagot has been learning about the raider position from juniors Nizaire Cromartie and Carter Bankston, who entered preseason practice listed one and two on the depth chart. Cromartie is the clear-cut starter, but Bankston is now battling Fagot for the backup job.
“It’s been a blessing to have upperclassmen willing to help me out. Cromartie and Bankston have been really helpful with teaching me the raider role in the defense,” Fagot said. “It’s a lot to learn as far as assignments, alignments and things like that. I’m catching up pretty quickly.”
Davis is ultimately responsible for training Fagot how to to effectively play the position, which combines pass rushing, run stopping and coverage dropping.
“It was a challenge early on learning what is expected out of that position,” Fagot said. “What I understand my job to be, first and foremost, is a pass rusher. I’m basically a defensive end on most downs, but I do sometimes have the responsibility of dropping into pass coverage on certain plays. I also have to stop the run as best I can.”
Fagot was a middle linebacker in a 4-3 alignment at Calvary Christian Academy, basically running sideline-to-sideline to track down the ball-carrier. He does not have that type of freedom in Navy’s 3-4 scheme as the raider is often asked to set the edge.
“I’m boxing things. That’s what we call it. I box the play and try to keep contain,” Fagot said. “I was fortunate to have very good coaches at Calvary and they taught me the defensive end position, thinking maybe in college I might turn into one. In reality I have caught on more quickly because of that initial training I got in high school.”
Fagot, who was home schooled while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a four-year letterman in football at Calvary Christian – earning All-State selection three times. He was named the Broward-Dade County Male Athlete of the Year in both football and track and field as a senior. He captured consecutive Class 2A state championships in the shot put and also found time to play baseball.
Several Power Five schools such as Pittsburgh and Illinois showed interest in Fagot, who came close to committing to nearby Central Florida. He is the son of a former Army man and has always harbored a desire to serve in the military.
“I wanted to challenge myself so I was immediately attracted to the Naval Academy. I’d say what really led me to this place was the coaching staff,” said Fagot, noting the stability Navy has enjoyed in that department. “Last but not least was the academics. Getting that great education is huge and was the main reason I chose to come here.”
Fagot was recruited as an inside linebacker and played that position at the prep school. Davis took one look at the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder and saw the prototypical raider.
“Diego is the rare freshman who is 250 pounds. He is very powerful, very strong and understands the game. We knew he would be a huge presence on the edge. He brings some power off the edge,” Davis said. “A college package is a lot more involved than a high school one. That will be his biggest hurdle to get over. He is still figuring out what we’re doing on defense and where everything fits.”
There are several freshmen in the secondary that could see action before the season ends. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo mentioned Mitch West, Kevin Brennan, Chike Otaluka and Michael McMorris as plebes who are in the mix on the back end.
“A lot of it has to do with the depth at various positions. We feel those guys are able to step in because there is a need at those positions,” Niumatalolo said. “We have some good freshmen at other positions, but we have good players there already so it would be hard for them to step in there.”