The defense was solid, the offense was uneven, and the troubled kicking game was woeful in Navy’s first scrimmage of the preseason, Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.
With the front seven on the Midshipmen defense holding strong, the offense produced mixed results. Late in the scrimmage, sophomore fullback Noah Copeland (7 carries, 68 yards) broke free for a 53-yard touchdown sprint. On the ensuing series, backup fullback Prentice Christian (10 carries, 113 yards) followed with a 52-yard touchdown burst.
Those were the offensive highlights. Both of the runs came late in the scrimmage, with most of the defensive starters on the sideline. The offense finished with 389 yards on 73 rushes. (5.3 yards per rush) as coach Ken Niumatalolo substituted freely.
“We got a long ways to go in a lot of areas. But I thought it was good work,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s kind of like preseason NFL football. You want guys to get work but we also want to get to the Notre Dame game. We’ve got three weeks. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Wide receiver Matt Aiken (knee) was the only player who sustained a noticeable injury. The extent was not known immediately after the game.
In a disturbing reminder of last year when kicking woes haunted Navy, five Mids candidates went 0-for-5 from 46 yards, 2-for-5 from 47 yards, 2-for-5 from 32 yards, and 5-for-5 from 27 yards.
Junior Stephen Picchini, who is listed No. 1 on the depth chart, made his two shorter tries, but was short from 47 yards and had the other blocked, booting it low. Freshman Austin Grebe (North Stafford) made his two short tries, but was wide on his two longer attempts.
Injury-riddled junior Brynmor Hughes made a 47-yard attempt, but clanged a 32-yard try off an upright. Freshman Nick Sloan made his 47-yard attempt with distance to spare, but was wide from 32 yards.
“They’ve been kicking a lot better at [practice], but that’s with nobody watching.” Niumatalolo quipped.
Continuing a trend from last year, junior starter Trey Miller was more impressive in the passing game, completing 13 of 19 attempts for 123 yards and a touchdown, but less productive in the rushing game (13 carries, 32 yards, TD).
Miller was poised and resourceful when pressured, turning a few potential losses into gains with his legs and arm. In running the triple-option offense, however, his decision-making was spotty as he ran some keepers and made some fullback hand-offs that went nowhere.
True freshman Keenan Reynolds (4 of 9, 40 yards), who has received high marks so far from Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, flashed a strong arm, out-playing sophomore John Hendrick (1 of 6, 8 yards). Reynolds, who is new to the option, carried six times for just four yards, but made some good decisions. On two occasions, he pitched to slotbacks an instant before getting hit, producing major gains.
“John has not separated himself at all in camp, still making some of the same mistakes,” Jasper said. “Keenan is way more consistent. John has a strong arm … Keenan is very accurate, puts it where it needs do go. In the option game, John did pretty good this spring, but Keenan has kind of caught up to him.”
Niumatalolo protected his senior starters, but they still produced. Gee Green had a 10-yard touchdown run on his lone carry. John Howell had a 26-yard touchdown reception from Miller, adjusting nicely while the ball was in the air. The most impressive of the reserves was sophomore Geoffrey Whiteside, who carried four times for 34 yards and caught a pass for 21 yards.
The Midshipmen blockers failed to pave the way for consistent gains inside. When quarterbacks and slotbacks got outside, however, they had much more success. Pass blocking was spotty, especially when Navy ran the shotgun, roughly a dozen times. Sophomore Bradyn Heap, who was moved from tackle to center in the spring, got some work at his old position to make room for rapidly-developing sophomore center Tanner Fleming.
Senior linebackers John Nurthen (7 tackes, TFL, sack) and Matt Warrick (7 tackles) were solid inside. But defensive coordinator Buddy Green was most pleased with with the work of his inexperienced down linemen.
At end, senior Paul Quessenberry (6 tckles, TFL, sack), a converted linebacker, and sophomores Aaron Davis (4 tackles, TFL, sack), Danny Ring (3 tackles) and Evan Palelei (2 tackles, TFL) were disruptive. At nose guard, juniors Barry Dabney (5 tackles, TFL) and Travis Bridges, and freshman Bernard Sarra plugged the middle.
“The three guys at nose did a decent job at times,” Green said. “Some of the younger guys up front – by younger [I mean] don’t have playing experience — I think those guys impressed me more than anything.”
The unit forced only one turnover, a fumble, recovered by junior defensive end Michael Huf.