‘No­body re­ally gave us much of a chance’

Class of’ ’17, over­shad­owed by last year’s se­niors, looks proudly at its achieve­ments

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Bill Wagner

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.

NICK WASS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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