Hav­ing to fol­low a tough act

Mid­ship­men must start fresh after win­ningest sea­son in pro­gram his­tory

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Bill Wag­ner

How do you top the great­est sea­son in pro­gram his­tory?

That’s the chal­lenge fac­ing the 2016 Navy foot­ball team, which has a hard act to fol­low. Cap­tains Keenan Reynolds and Bernie Sarra led the way as Navy set a sin­gle­sea­son school record with 11 wins, de­feated Air Force and Army to win the Com­man­der- i nChief’s Tro­phy, and beat Pitts­burgh in the Mil­i­tary Bowl. “It’s go­ing to be tough. We ac­com­plished a lot of great things last year,” coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “For­tu­nately, a lot of this year’s play­ers were on the team that was the most suc­cess­ful ever. That’s a pos­i­tive. They’ve seen the blue­print. They know what it takes to be suc­cess­ful, all the lit­tle things that go into it.”

Se­nior co-cap­tains To­neo Gul­ley and Daniel Gon­za­les played prom­i­nent roles in last year’s suc­cess. Gul­ley con­trib­uted 303 to­tal Fri­day: Mary­land On­line: Johns Hop­kins, Mor­gan State, Tow­son To­neo Gul­ley, be­ing tack­led by East Carolina last sea­son, gained 303 to­tal yards of of­fense as a backup slot­back last sea­son and is now a se­nior co-cap­tain.

yards of of­fense as a backup slot­back while Gon­za­les ranked fourth on the team with 65 tack­les de­spite miss­ing two games as a start­ing in­side line­backer.

Gon­za­les thinks the lead­er­ship pro­vided by the se­nior class was cru­cial in 2015.

“I think you look at last sea­son as a stan­dard. A lot of play­ers on this team went through it and un­der­stand what it takes to get to that point,” Gon­za­les said. “This year’s se­niors know the lead­er­ship that we had last year was top-notch. Bernie and Keenan set a high bar and we want to build off that.”

Reynolds and Sarra adopted “1-0” as a sea­son slo­gan, send­ing a mes­sage that next week’s game was the most im­por­tant. Gul­ley and Gon­za­les came up with “We Will” as a motto in mem­ory of for­mer class­mate and team­mate Will McKamey, who died dur­ing plebe year after suf­fer­ing a cat­a­strophic brain in­jury dur­ing a spring prac­tice. Gul­ley said the 1-0 men­tal­ity re­mains. “We just have to come ready to work ev­ery day and take one game at a time like we did last year,” Gul­ley said. “We told ev­ery­one to re­mem­ber what the [2015] se­niors taught you. They’re gone now and it’s on us. We took notes and learned from what they did last year and ap­plied it to this year.”

One ma­jor goal eluded Navy a year ago: A loss to Houston on Nov. 27 kept it from rep­re­sent­ing the West Di­vi­sion in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game. The Cougars are fa­vored to re­peat as con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons, with the Mid­ship­men picked for sec­ond in the West.

“Yes, that was a goal last year and we didn’t ac­com­plish it. It’s a goal again this year and that’s one we would def­i­nitely like to have,” Gul­ley said.

Navy took the AAC by storm in its in­au­gu­ral sea­son, go­ing 7-1 and av­er­ag­ing more than 38 points per game. The Daniel Gon­za­les (58), also a se­nior co-cap­tain, ranked fourth on the team with 65 tack­les last sea­son de­spite miss­ing two games as a start­ing in­side line­backer. Mid­ship­men also held ev­ery AACop­po­nent ex­cept Houston to 11 points or fewer. Ev­ery­one knows the Mids will no longer be sur­pris­ing any league mem­bers.

“Peo­ple in the league def­i­nitely know who we are and what we’re about now,” Gon­za­les said. “That be­ing said, I still think we have an of­fense that is very hard to fig­ure out, very dif­fi­cult to scheme for. We have a de­fense that will pop you in the mouth and never back down.”

Navy opens Satur­day in Annapolis against Ford­ham and all eyes will be on quar­ter­back Tago Smith, who must suc­ceed a leg­end. Smith, Ni­u­mat­alolo and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ivin Jasper have spent the en­tire off­sea­son an­swer­ing ques­tions about los­ing the record-set­ting Reynolds, a six­thround draft pick of the Ravens.

“My goal when Keenan grad­u­ated was to let Tago know this is his show. I try not to men­tion Keenan’s name or any­thing he did,” said Jasper, also the quar­ter­backs coach. “Keenan was a great player, but he’s gone now. Tago is our guy. We be­lieve in him, we have com­plete faith in him. I think Tago is go­ing to have a great year.”

Through­out pre­sea­son camp, Ni­u­mat­alolo has talked quite a bit about build­ing the Navy foot­ball cul­ture, which has pro­duced win­ning records in 12 of the past 13 sea­sons.

“Ev­ery year you start over again. You can’t carry any wins over from the pre­vi­ous sea­son,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “The process each year is the same. You al­ways start from scratch and build from ground zero. We have to in­still in our play­ers an un­der­stand­ing that the only way Navy can win is by be­ing smarter, tougher and work­ing harder than our op­po­nents.”

Con­ti­nu­ity on the coach­ing staff has been a big rea­son for Navy’s suc­cess. Jasper is be­gin­ning his 15th sea­son as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor. Dale Pehrson, pro­moted to de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor last spring, has spent 21 years in Annapolis. Six other as­sis­tants have been at Navy for nine years or more.

“Our staff has been to­gether for a long time and we’ve been through a lot. We’ve done so much to­gether that I knew who they are, they know who I am and we all un­der­stand the ex­pec­ta­tions,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “As a staff, we know what we’re try­ing to cre­ate and what we’re try­ing to build. It def­i­nitely gives me a great sense of com­fort that we have coaches work­ing di­rectly with our play­ers who know how to get the job done.”

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BALTIMORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BALTIMORE SUN

Rookie Keenan Reynolds (Navy) has strug­gled as a re­turner and re­ceiver and could be cut.

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BALTIMORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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