Slotback depth remains a strength
Seniors Gulley, Romine and Cass lead a talented group competing for playing time
During Navy’s media day, coach Ken Niumatalolo said slotback was the deepest position on the team, with talented players well down the depth chart.
“It’s always been a deep position. There’s a lot of guys that can play, which means you need to come every day in practice ready to compete,” senior offensive captain Toneo Gulley said.
Navy has 16 slotbacks on the roster, and position coach Danny O’Rourke says all have potential. The Midshipmen have three returning slots with significant experience in seniors Gulley, Dishan Romine and Calvin Cass Jr.
“They’re the three hardest workers of the group. They could easily have come back and said ‘I have a spot.’ None of them have approached i t that way,” O’Rourke said. “They’ve all taken the approach that this is my senior year, and it’s all on us. I couldn’t be prouder of them with Season opener the way they’ve prepared.”
Navy usually dresses seven or eight slotbacks, and all play on special teams in some capacity. Junior Josh Walker fit that mold last season, appearing in all 12 games and making four tackles on the kickoff unit. Walker, senior Kendrick Mouton and junior Darryl Bonner received minimal action as slotbacks at the end of games that had been decided.
“We try to create a lot of depth by playing a lot of guys. We have a lot of people who have played in games and a lot Sept. 3, noon TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Navy senior slotback Calvin Cass Jr. “provides a huge lift in the passing game, but he’s also a really good runner,” position coach Danny O’Rourke said.
of young guys who have worked hard enough to get that shot,” O’Rourke said.
With just over a week remaining before the season opener against Fordham, the battle among slotbacks to make the travel squad is intense. O’Rourke said sophomore Tre Walker is the No. 4 slot, but there is little separation among the next four.
“There’s not much difference between the fourth guy and the last guy to get on the bus. That’s why competition is high in practice. If they don’t practice hard, they’re going to lose their spot,” O’Rourke said. “The competition aspect of the position is what makes everyone better. To build depth, you need to have guys pushing each other and holding each other accountable.”
Bonner and sophomore Josh Brown are listed third on the depth chart. Mouton, Josh Walker and junior Jahmaal Daniel are fighting for the final spots on the travel squad with their ability to play on special teams the determining factor.
“If you travel and are going to dress, you’ve got to be ready to play. I’m not traveling anybody that’s not going to at least play on special teams,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t want anyone to prepare like a backup. I treat them all like starters. That’s how they need to treat themselves.”
Romine is the most dangerous rushing threat among the slotbacks, averaging more than10 yards per carry during his career. He led the slots with 378 yards on 36 attempts last season.
“Dishan is a special young man, just the total package. We’re at a school with a lot of high-character people and he’s in the top Dishan Romine led Navy slotbacks with 378 yards on 36 attempts last season, distinguished himself as a kickoff returner and has averaged more than 10 yards per carry. 10 percent,” O’Rourke said. “He’s also one heck of a football player, and we’re lucky to have him.”
Romine, the fastest player at Navy in recent memory, also distinguished himself as a kickoff returner in 2015. His average of 27.3 yards was third-best in program history and earned first-team All-East honors. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound player broke a 90-yard return against Tulsa.
In Navy’s triple-option offense, slotbacks routinely serve as lead blockers for one another. Gulley is a tenacious blocker, upholding a Navy tradition established by slots such as Zerb Singleton and Bo Snelson. The 5-8, 196-pound player sprung fellow slots for big gains last season by taking out corners and safeties trying to fill the hole.
“Toneo is the consummate team guy,” O’Rourke said. “He goes in the game and does whatever is asked.”
Gulley gained 189 yards on 12 pitches last season, broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown at Tulsa and averaged nearly 16 yards per attempt.
Cass is a weapon in the passing game. The offense contains several pass plays designed for the slots, who routinely get open on the go route down the middle or the wheel route along the sideline.
“Calvin is very talented catching the ball. He’s a good route runner with excellent hands,” O’Rourke said. “He provides a huge lift in the passing game, but he’s also a really good runner.”
O’Rourke, who came to Navy along with coach Paul Johnson from Georgia Southern in 2002, has been coaching the slotbacks for the past six years. He also serves as special teams coordinator.
“Coach O’Rourke is very high-energy, very intense. He gets after you. He just wants you to be the best,” Gulley said.
O’Rourke often shows videotape of such outstanding Navy slotbacks as Reggie Campbell and Shun White to teach those who have followed how to play the position.
“Coach does a great job of pulling up film from years ago so guys can see the tenacity, the unselfishness, just the culture of our position,” Gulley said. “Our young guys see it on the film and the seniors reinforce that on the field.”
Joe Flacco tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee Nov. 22 when James Hurst was pushed into his leg in a game against the Rams. He had knee surgery Dec. 8.