Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus breaks down five things to watch as Navy football opens spring practice Monday in Annapolis. The Midshipmen have higher expectations than last season, when they finished 9-4 and beat Air Force and Army.
1. Will Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper open the offense more for quarterback Keenan Reynolds?
A year ago, Niumatalolo and Jasper promised that the Midshipmen would take advantage of Reynolds' ability as a passer. An early season injury that affected Reynolds' throwing and an offensive line that struggled with pass protection changed the approach, as did Reynolds showing improvement as a runner. Reynolds wound up throwing just 20 more passes as a sophomore last year (128 compared to 108 as a freshman) and having a similar touchdown-to-interception ratio (8-2 compared to 9-2).
2. If the Midshipmen throw the ball more, who could emerge as Reynolds' go-to receiver?
With the graduation of seniors Matt Aiken, Casey Bolena and Shawn Lynch, Niumatalolo and Jasper have been busy retooling their wideout rotation. What Reynolds missed last season was a big receiver such as 6-foot-4 Brandon Turner, who evolved into the role when Reynolds was a freshman. Jamir Tillman, a 6-3, 190-pound sophomore, might be that big-play receiver because of his athleticism. But given how Jasper likes to go to his slotbacks out of the backfield, it could also be sophomore DeBrandon Sanders, who caught a team-high 13 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown.
3. Who's going to take over for Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti at inside linebacker?
Peterson led the Midshipmen with 142 tackles, and Sargenti, who was converted from quarterback to outside linebacker, finished second with 110, including a team-high seven tackles for losses. Niumatalolo said recently that this could be the most wide-open competition going into spring practice. Senior James Britton, a converted safety, and junior Don Pearson, who began his Navy career as a wide receiver, are listed as the starters. Among those competing for playing time and a possible starting job is senior Maika Polamalu, the nephew of Pittsburgh Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu.
4. What is the biggest weakness as a team that Navy has to address?
It's hard to find fault with a team coming off a 9-4 season, but the Midshipmen might have been able to get another win or two had they been a little more efficient in their third-down defense. The Midshipmen ranked 109th out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and had the best record of any team ranked 100 or below. Navy improved in this area toward the end of the season, holding South Alabama to 5 of 15, Army to 2 of 11 and Middle Tennessee State to 2 of 8 in the bowl game. The maturation of players such as freshman cornerback Brendon Clements contributed to helping get opposing offenses off the field.
5. Will the Midshipmen start game-planning for their 2014 season-opener against Ohio State at M&T Bank Stadium?
Though the Aug. 30 game is still more than five months away, don't be surprised if Niumatalolo at least starts talking about the Buckeyes. Given that Navy nearly beat Ohio State at The Horseshoe to open the 2009 season when star quarterback Ricky Dobbs was a junior, there's already a buzz about the game in Baltimore. Just as the Buckeyes will probably spend part of its spring practice getting familiar with the triple-option offense, it won't be a shock if the Midshipmen do the same during their 15 spring workouts.