Slot­back depth re­mains a strength

Se­niors Gul­ley, Romine and Cass lead a tal­ented group com­pet­ing for play­ing time

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Bill Wag­ner

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.”

JERRY JACK­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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.

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN MEDIA GROUP

MARK HUMPHREY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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