‘Nobody really gave us much of a chance’
Class of’ ’17, overshadowed by last year’s seniors, looks proudly at its achievements
Linebacker D.J. Palmore talked passionately about the Navy football seniors during the postgame news conference after Saturday’s upset of Notre Dame.
Becoming just the fourth Navy team since 1963 to knock off the Fighting Irish was another notch in the belts of this senior class, which was not all that highly regarded going into this season.
“Every one of these seniors has a story. Whether it’s Will Worth being third string for three years or Josiah Powell almost getting cut as a sophomore,” said Palmore, a junior.
Worth, of course, has been thrust into the starting quarterback role because of an injury suffered by classmate Tago Smith, and he has excelled. Powell, who struggled so much his first two seasons that it appeared he could not play for Navy, has blossomed into a starter and key contributor.
Defensive captain Daniel Gonzales finds himself in the same boat as Smith, having suffered a season-ending injury. Smith went down with a torn ACL in the opener while Gonzales was lost to a Lisfranc injury against Air Force on Oct. 1.
There are several players, such as nose tackle Patrick Forrestal or offensive guard Adam West, who had to wait until they were seniors to become starters. D.J. Grant-Johnson was expected to be the starting kicker as a senior but suffered a leg injury during preseason practice and lost the job to sophomore Bennett Moehring.
Defensive end Nnamdi Uzoma was deep on the depth chart for three seasons before emerging as a senior as a pass-rush specialist.
Some members of the Class of 2017, such as wide receiver Jamir Tillman and defensive end Amos Mason, have become stars.
Then there are seniors such as fullback Jalen Wade, slotback Kendrick Mouton and offensive lineman Jeremiah Robbins, who have stuck it out despite never earning any meaningful minutes.
“You could definitely argue that every single senior does have his own unique story,” said Forrestal, who backed up standout nose tackle Bernie Sarra as a sophomore and junior.
Navy will honor its 31 seniors before Saturday’s game against Tulsa at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Offensive captain Toneo Gulley said playing their final home game is beginning to set in for the seniors.
“Every one of these guys means a lot to me. Just the struggle we all had to go through. Linebacker Josiah Powell, a starter who was nearly cut as a sophomore, is an example of the struggles faced by Navy’s seniors, who will be honored at Saturday’s game. Some of us started at the prep school, so to get to this point is a really big deal,” Gulley said. “It’s surreal. We never thought this day would come and now it’s finally here. We all know how emotional it is and we’re starting to feel that now.”
Gulley has experienced a Senior Day ceremony, having been there when his older brother, Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley, was honored. Navy’s Gulley played on special teams and was a backup slot before starting as a senior.
“It kind of did hit me yesterday. I try not to think about it because emotions run high. I think about how I was on the field with my brother for his Senior Night at Syracuse. Now it’s my turn and he’ll be right next to me on the field,” Gulley said.
Gulley will always remember his first career tackle against Hawaii as a freshman on the kickoff coverage unit. He will never forget beating Air Force as a junior.
“Just so many great memories that run through my mind. Probably the best is being with all the brothers in the locker room after games,” said Gulley, who never imagined he would be voted captain.
Unfortunately for the 2016 football seniors, they had to follow the most accomplished class in Navy history. Sarra and record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds were captains of a 32-player class that set the single-season school record for victories (11) and won the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the East, among other things.
“You had a senior class last year that accomplished things that had never been done before at the Naval Academy. This senior class wasn’t given much respect. They kind of lived in the shadows of the seniors from last year,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
Tillman, Mason, Palmore, Gonzales and safety Daiquan Thomasson were the only returning starters within the senior class. Outsiders saw a bunch of career backups having to move into prominent roles and assumed this would be a rebuilding year for the Midshipmen.
“Nobody really gave us much of a chance this offseason. In that locker room, we knew what we had and knew what we were willing to commit,” said West, who, because of an injury, started only one game as a junior.
The 2016 seniors have a chance to accomplish a few things the 2015 group did not. Navy is on pace to represent the West Division in the American Athletic Conference championship. A late-season loss to Houston prevented Reynolds, Sarra and company from doing that.
“What this senior class is doing right now is exactly who we are. We were overshadowed Saturday, noon TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Tulsa by 1 by the success of last year’s senior class. I think this year’s senior class took that as a challenge. We were going to prove who we are and what we’re about,” Gonzales said.
The Class of 2016 tied the Class of 1909 for most career wins at Navy, 36. Now the Class of 2017, which has a 35-13 record, needs one win to tie that mark with five games left this season.
“If we do wind up passing them, I’m sure I’ll call Joey Gaston sometime this spring and remind him that we one-upped his class,” said West, referring to the starting left tackle on last year’s team.
Gonzales, Gulley, Powell, Smith, Thomasson, Uzoma, starting punter Alex Barta, special teams standout Ryan Harris, thirdstring fullback Myles Swain and backup fullback Shawn White all began at the Naval Academy Prep School.
They arrived in June 2013 and were joined by direct-entry recruits such as starting long snapper Josh Antol, second-string slotback Calvin Cass Jr., starting right tackle Blake Copeland, backup inside linebacker Mike Kelly, Forrestal, Tillman and Worth.
“We came in four years ago not knowing each other at all, and it’s funny to see how far we’ve come and how great these friendships are that we’ve made,” Forrestal said.
These seniors can also take pride in setting a record for most consecutive victories at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy could make it 15 in a row and go undefeated at home for the second straight season by beating Tulsa on Saturday. The Midshipmen have not lost on Senior Day since 2002.
“That means a lot to us,” West said of the home winning streak. “The torch was passed to us from last year and we wanted to keep it going. There is something very special about winning at that stadium.”
Niumatalolo talked after the Notre Dame game about the lack of respect given this senior class. Navy finished the 2015 season ranked18th in the country by both major polls. Most preseason publications had the Mids ranked 65th or lower going into this season.
Now the Class of 2017 has a chance to become the winningest in school history, the first to win an AACchampionship and the first to win four bowl games.
“Just really proud of the way this senior class has performed. They’re also doing a great job in the classroom and with their conduct stuff. Overall, they are representing our culture well,” Niumatalolo said.