by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ve gotten so used to seeing Navy teams in bowl games that it came as a surprise when the Mids missed out on the postseason a year ago for the first time since 2002, which happened to be Paul Johnson’s debut campaign as head coach in Annapolis. Of course, Johnson proceeded to prop up the program nicely before eventually departing for Georgia Tech, and Navy hardly skipped a beat when Johnson disciple Ken Niumatalolo was promoted to the top spot prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl vs. Utah.

Bowl trips continued uninterrupted for “Coach Ken” until a year ago, when Navy slipped to a hard-luck 5-7. And we’ll get to the prospects for a 2012 bounce-back in just a moment. But for those of us who recall the mid-to-late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the thought of bowl-less Midshipmen seems about as normal as the sunrise.

Yet, in truth, that decade-long, dry gridiron patch between 1964-74 was something of an anomaly for the Annapolis branch of the service academies. For most of the past 60 years, Navy has fielded representative football teams, and was indeed among the nation’s power teams when THE GOLD SHEET first began to publish in 1957.

In fact, that 1957 edition of the Mids might have been the best in Annapolis history. Which might surprise many casual and non-casual college football enthusiasts who can be excused for believing that Navy had one bright shining moment when Roger Staubach (right) won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 and took that Mids edition all of the way to a showdown for the national title at the Cotton Bowl, where Texas eventually prevailed. But there was a lot of quality football played by Navy prior to Staubach’s arrival, even though gridiron history, as written by the ESPN generation, hardly recognizes some of the powerhouse Midshipmen teams that preceded "Roger the Dodger" in Annapolis.

Interestingly, after a period of decline at both Army and Navy, the reintroduction of single-platoon football in 1953 proved a boon to the service academies. Eliminating the use of separate offensive and defensive units meant players had to condition themselves for long, unrelieved spells both offensively and defensively, which better suited the military school recruits. And the academies were still able to attract their share of top-shelf athletes in those days, aided by a more-lenient set of rules for gridiron warriors regarding future service commitments.

Navy would certainly take advantage under colorful coach Eddie Erdelatz, who in his playing days was a product of Slip Madigan’s memorable Saint Mary’s (California) squads of the early 1930s. Erdelatz’ first two Midshipmen sides had losing records but indicated that better things were to come when punishing an unbeaten Army side, 14-2, in the 1950 renewal of the annual grudge match. Soon Navy began to win consistently, and by 1954 the Mids were good enough to earn a bowl invitation for the first time in 31 years, throttling a powerful Johnny Vaught-coached Ole Miss side, 21-0, in the Sugar. At QB for Navy that day in New Orleans was future head coach George Welsh, as the Mids physically manhandled the Rebs, outgaining them 450-121 in total yardage. A junior end, Ron Beagle, was named the winner of that year’s Maxwell Trophy.

Erdelatz had hoped his 1955 side, led by returnees Welsh & Beagle, could get invited to the Cotton Bowl, but after spending much of the season ranked in the top ten, Navy lost the Army grudge match and received no bowl invitation. The following year in 1956, Erdelatz fielded another powerhouse side, but again Army proved tricky, battling to a season-ending 7-7 stalemate and prompting Annapolis rear Admiral and Superintendent W.R. Smedberg to actually turn down a coveted Cotton Bowl bid despite the Mids’ sparking 6-1-2 record.

Erdelatz never forgot the Rear Admiral’s bowl snub and reportedly decided then and there that his days of working in the Annapolis environment would probably be coming to an end soon. Dealing with the unique job pressure, a rough schedule, and a Superintendent prone to rejecting bowl bids was hardly conducive to a coach’s good health.

Erdelatz, however, stayed a couple of more seasons in Annapolis, including coaching the aforementioned 1957 side (in TGS’s debut season) that bludgeoned foes en route to a 9-1-1 mark and Cotton Bowl domination over Rice by a 20-7 count. That Navy side routinely punished the opposition while delivering fierce physical beatings, paced by All-Americans at tackle (Bob Reifsnyder) and in the backfield (Tom Forrestal), while rugged backs Harry Hurst and Ned Oldham paced a battering-ram Midshipmen infantry.

Navy would only allow two teams to score double digits that 1957 season in a defensive display that was almost commonplace for the Erdelatz Mids, who had also allowed foes to reach double-digit scoring in just two games per season in each of the preceding four years. Erdelatz, still stung by the academy bowl rejection in 1956, resigned after the subsequent 1958 season, but his expected high-profile job offers did not materialize. Eventually, Erdelatz settled on the fledgling American Football League, where he was named the first head coach in the history of the Oakland Raiders (who, for their first year, didn’t even play in Oakland, instead calling San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium as their home base).

Successor Wayne Hardin assumed Erdelatz’ job in 1959 and proceeded to not only keep the Mids afloat, but coach a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Staubach and RB Joe Bellino, who won the award in 1960. That 1960 Mids team finished its season fourth-ranked nationally and at 9-1 before losing honorably to fifth-ranked Missouri, 21-14, in the Orange Bowl in front of President-elect John F. Kennedy. Hardin’s 1963 team featured the great Staubach and an explosive offense and was in position to win the national title before losing to Texas, 28-6, at the Cotton Bowl.

But Navy subsequently embarked upon a decade of decline that began with Staubach’s injury-riddled senior season in 1964, when the Mids finished just 3-6-1 and when Hardin decided to call it quits. Not until the aforementioned George Welsh, who took over from Rick Forzano after the 1972 season, did Navy begin to resurface. Welsh’s first team, in 1973, certainly served notice on rival Army by humiliating the Black Knights, 51-0, in the season finale. Welsh got the Mids back above .500 by 1975 (7-4), but Navy didn’t go “bowling” again until 1978.

Football-wise, the downturn in the ‘60s coincided not only with the return of two-platoon football earlier in the decade, but also with the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the growing unpopularity of that conflict. Rather than seek the academies, many qualified young men were avoiding West Point and Annapolis as well as the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which had also surfaced as a new football power in the late ‘50s. The ‘60s slump eventually hit the Force as well, although Falcon coach Ben Martin was still able to field some winning sides into the early '70s, including a swashbuckling 1970 outfit led by WR Ernie Jennings, QB Bob Parker, and RB Brian “The Muscle” Bream, parlaying a deception-laded “Winking I” offense all of the way to a Sugar Bowl berth vs. Tennessee. By the mid ‘70s, however, Martin’s magic touch had deserted him, and the Falcs were losing big, too.

For the Mids, the post-Staubach years mostly wreaked, with both Bill Elias (hired from Virginia) and Rick Forzano unable to jump-start the gridiron program. Navy was also slow to integrate; long considered the most-hostile of the service branches to minorities, the Class of 1968 that entered Annapolis in fall of 1964 was part of a Brigade that included just a handful of blacks, including three seniors, no juniors, two sophomores, and seven plebes, one of them Navy’s first black football recruit, juco back Calvin Huey, in 1964. The city of Annapolis was hardly a tolerant clime, either; its schools remained segregated until 1966, more than a decade after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Indeed, few blacks wore Midshipmen jerseys well into the 1970s.

Welsh’s hire, however, resurrected football at Navy and suggested that the Mids could not only compete, but win again, under the right set of circumstances. Although it took Johnson’s arrival, and subsequent successes of Niumatalolo, for the Mids to sustain their excellence over a several-year period for the first time since the days of Erdelatz and Hardin. Regional onlookers noted an improved quality of Mid recruits shortly after the arrival of Johnson, whose exciting teams regularly fielded more speed than any in the history of the Navy program.

But the road back to respectability appears to be fraught with perils this fall.

That’s partly because Niumatalolo is looking at extensive reloading along both of his lines and replacement of other key weapons from a year ago, when the Mids agonizingly lost five games by three points or fewer. Overall, only 11 starters return from a year ago, and a return to bowl eligibility (which this year would land the Mids in San Francisco’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, if eligible, vs. a Pac-12 foe) might not be as automatic and some seem to believe.

Some new faces are going to get long looks offensively, including soph FB Noah Copeland, one of the more-impressive Mids in spring work but a bit undersized (at 205 lbs.) compared to recent predecessors such as the brutish Kyle Eckel and Eric Kettani and more-recent chop-buster Alexander Teich, who has just graduated after providing the physical dimension for Navy’s patented option over the past few seasons.

As usual, expect the Mids to run the ball effectively; they were in the customary top ten in national rush stats a year ago, ranking fourth at a punishing 312 ypg. It’s hoped that Copeland will provide a long-distance threat from his fullback role, and the Mids appear well-stocked in other backfield slots, led by whippet-like, 5'8, 185-lb. sr. slotback Gee Gee Greene (right), who gained 7.8 ypc a year ago. The other returning slot, Josh Howell, “only” gained 9.7 ypc in 2011. The Mids look like they can move downfield quicker than a bullet train with all of the coast-to-coast weapons on hand.

Niumatalolo and another Paul Johnson disciple who, like Coach Ken, played collegiately at Hawaii, o.c. Ivin Jasper, experimented with some offensive wrinkles in spring, including shotgun looks that might work well for the new QB, jr. Trey Miller (left), who saw action in six games last season and brings a far-better aerial-game dimension to the attack than did predecessor Kriss Proctor. Which wouldn’t be hard, since the run-first Proctor passed for only 787 yards a year ago as the Mids ranked a poor 119th nationally in passing stats at a mere 85 ypg.

As usual, they’re talking about an upgraded aerial presence at Annapolis, but we’ll believe that when we see it.

Yet if Miller can find them, wideouts Brandon Turner (21.4 yp catch in 2011) and Matt Aiken (15.5 yp catch last year) bring downfield threats to the underutilized aerial component of the Navy option, which Niumatalolo knows could prove a lethal element to the Mid offense if it Miller can make the connection. Three starters also need replacing along the forward wall, though sr. G Josh Cabral will be a three-year starter and possible honors candidate this fall.

Longtime d.c. Buddy Green might also be working overtime with his schemes for his 3-4 defense that must replace its entire starting DL from a year ago, including DE Jabaree Tuani, who was almost completely responsible for what little pass pressure the Mids generated in 2011 when recording only 12 sacks, which ranked a poor 112th nationally. DE Wes Henderson, a 255-lb. senior who started a handful of games last season, is regarded as the best bet to fill Tuani’s large shoes.

Green’s back seven, however, is loaded with experience, with six of seven starters back in the fold from a year ago when the Mids “D” mostly held its own. Spring developments of note include sr. Tra’ves Bush moving from an OLB spot, in which he started nine games a year ago, to his more-natural position at SS. The senior ILB pair of Matt Warrick (right, who led Navy with 103 tackles in 2011) & Brye French compose the heart of the defensive operation.

Still, pressuring the opposition remains a key point for Green to make to this year’s stop unit that besides its subpar sack numbers also ranked a lowly 117th in tackles for loss (just 4.13 pg) a year ago. Navy, which ranked 78th in points allowed at over 29 ppg in 2011, has lacked the manpower to simply overwhelm the opposition as did the Erdelatz Navy teams of more than a half-century ago, with Green's clever scheming compensating for the past several years. But without the ability to consistently penetrate the enemy backfield, there is only so much Green can accomplish.

If that weren’t enough, Niumatalolo must also concern himself with the Mids’ place-kicking, which was mostly awful a year ago and hardly looked any better in spring when several new candidates were struggling.

Spread-wise, the oddsmakers seem to have caught up with Navy; after more than a decade of sparkling poitnspread marks, the Mids are only 31-31 vs. the number the past five seasons. Yet Navy continues as a positive spread force when away from Annapolis, sporting a 46-25 mark vs. the line its last 71 away from home (including 4-3 last season).

Summary...With a schedule that appears to feature several more soft spots than usual, the Mids have a decent chance to get back into the bowl mix. But making an unlikely run into the periphery of the national rankings appears very unlikely, considering some of the issues defensively (especially up front) and the fact the offense must replace a couple of its linchpins from a year ago, QB Kriss Proctor & RB Alexander Teich. If QB Miller delivers as expected, however, Navy should at least provide good entertainment once more this fall.


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