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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Navy Midshipmen

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Notre Dame will face the triple option for the second time in 4 weeks.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NAVY MIDSHIPMEN

2014 Record: 8-5

F/+ Rank: 44

Wins: Temple, Texas State, VMI, San Jose State, Georgia Southern, South Alabama, Army, San Diego State

Losses: Ohio State, Rutgers, Western Kentucky, Air Force, Notre Dame

~~~

Season Recap

Navy was within 3 against Ohio State in the 4th quarter but gave up a couple touchdowns to lose 34-17. After a couple road wins at Temple and Texas State, the Middies went into a funk losing 3 straight to Rutgers, WKU, and Air Force and didn't score more than 27 points in any of the defeats.

However, Navy bounced back winning 6 out of their last 7 games with the only loss coming to Notre Dame. In the first 5 games after the AFA loss they averaged 45 points per game prior to grinding out wins over Army and San Diego State. After re-gaining the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the 2012-13 seasons, Navy had to give it back to Air Force for 2014.

Series: 75-12-1 Notre Dame

Although it certainly doesn't feel like it, the Irish have won 4 straight in the rivalry since the last defeat in Kelly's first season at Notre Dame. That feeling is mostly due to just 10 and 4-point victories over the last 2 seasons.

Coach Resume: Ken Niumatalolo (57-35, 8th Year)

Taking over for Paul Johnson wasn't going to be easy but Niumatalolo pretty much has Navy on cruise control at this point. He's won at least 8 games in 6 out of his first 7 seasons and brought home 3 bowl victories since becoming head coach. In addition, he's added a few victories of major conference opponents including 2 in back-to-back years against the Irish from 2009-10.

Although he hasn't put up a 10+ win season since 2009 the Niumatalolo era is showing no signs of slowing down. He just turned 50 in May and could easily be in Annapolis for another decade.

Returning Starters: 11 Total (5 Offense, 6 Defense)

Navy has to fill gaps on the offensive line and linebacker but otherwise is in solid shape heading into 2015.

Linemen Situation: Decent

Three members of the offensive line need to be replaced: Left tackle Bradyn Heap, center Tanner Fleming, and right guard Jake Zuzek. The Middies welcome back senior left guard E.K. Binns (12 starts) and senior right tackle Joey Gaston (13 starts).

Junior Blake Copeland looks to take over at left tackle after making 1 start there in 2014. Senior Blaze Ryder also started one game last year and looks to be the new center. Senior Ben Tamburello started 1 game at left guard last fall and is expected to start at right guard in 2015.

Navy's small rotation in their 3-4 defense only loses defensive end Paul Quessenberry (38 tackles, 8.5 TFL) but senior nose guard Benard Sarra (38 tackles, 1.5 TFL) and senior defensive end Will Anthony (67 tackles, 11 TFL) are both back.

Senior A.K. Akpunku played a little bit last year and might win the starting job at defensive end. With Sarra and junior Patrick Forrestal, Navy will have two experienced players to clog the middle plus massive offensive lineman Trenton Noeller (6-4, 325) has switched sides of the ball.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Keenan Reynolds enters his senior season with tons of production already in his career: 712 rushing attempts, 3,186 rushing yards, 2,798 passing yards, and 87 total touchdowns.

His 64 career rushing touchdowns is the best in school history and already the most by a quarterback in NCAA history. Reynolds will need 14 rushing scores in 2015 to break former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball's NCAA record 77 rushing touchdowns.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Finding New Linebackers

Strong-side linebacker Jordan Drake led the team in tackles (109) and has graduated. Raider linebacker Obi Uzoma (52 tackles, 2.5 TFL) made the last 10 starts and is gone. Star linebacker Chris Johnson (70 tackles, 5 TFL) started all but one game in 2014 and is also gone. Additionally, James Britton (24 tackles) provided depth and need to be replaced, while Anthony Lewis (4 tackles), Joe Worth (3 tackles), and Maika Polamalu (2 tackles) also saw the field and have moved on.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Reynolds at Quarterback

When he's healthy there's no one more important for Navy's entire team. The Middies do lose fullback Noah Copeland (952 yards) but Chris Swain (693 yards) was basically a co-starter at the position and returns. Slot-back Geoffrey Whiteside is gone after making 13 starts in 2014 and leading his position with 365 yards. Just two major losses among ball carriers is nothing for Navy to overcome with a senior quarterback at the helm.

Offensive Scheme: Flexbone

We've written about Navy's offense and how Notre Dame defends it many times over the years. Read them!

Read this!

Or read this!

And this too!

4 Players to Remember

SB DeBrandon Sanders, Sr.- The top returning slot-back gained a modest 231 yards last year but did score 3 touchdowns. He should get a lot more reps and touches this fall.

WR Jamir Tillman, Jr.- His 386 receiving yards were nearly as much as the next four leading receivers combined. Tillman's 3 receiving touchdowns also led the team.

LB Daniel Gonzales, Jr.- He burst on to the scene last year and is the only returning starter among the Middie's linebacker corps. Finished 2014 with 86 tackles and 3 interceptions at middle linebacker.

CB Quincy Adams, Sr.- The senior is coming off a strong 2014 that saw him finish 3rd on the team with 74 tackles and break-up 9 passes on the season.

Special Teams: 3/4

Sanders returns as Navy's punt returner and while they lose slot-back Ryan Williams-Jenkins on kickoffs he split time with Demond Brown anyway.

Punter Pablo Beltran needs to be replaced, while placekicker Austin Grebe returns after taking the job in the middle of 2014 and nailing all 6 field goal attempts.

Uniforms: 6/10

Navy uni

Rich Barns, USA Today Sports

For years Navy's uniforms were near mirror images of Notre Dame's with the major exceptions being the collar/sleeve trim, blue facemask, and script across the chest. Towards the end of the 2000's Nike decided to spice things up and gave the Middies a new home/away uniform set that featured some serious shoulder yokes, patches galore, plus pant stripes and the addition of red into the color scheme. Nike kept the traditional uniforms around for regular use but eventually added the anchor logo to the shoulders and hip.

Over the last several years, Navy has introduced several new uniform sets. So many that I can't possibly fit them all in here. However, these white uniforms from a few years ago turned a lot of heads--the helmet now ranked among the best in college football.

In 2014, Navy switched to Under Armour and got an update to their traditional uniforms, the major change being thin horizontal stripes across the chest, new blue pants, and TV numbers on the shoulders instead of the anchor on the sleeve. UA also made their own version of the popular all-white uniform which scored high marks. Against Army and in their bowl game, the Middies went with a new flag-draped uniform. Navy has continued to wear their traditional set against Notre Dame, although they did debut the anchor logo on their normal gold helmet last year--only to take it off for the rest of the season. I'd rate them at 7/10 if they used the anchor on the helmet/jersey all the time.

What's To Like About the Matchup

Navy has to play rival Air Force the week prior. The Irish have averaged nearly 500 yards and 49 points per game over the 4-game winning steak against Navy. Can we assume VanGorder will improve in his second attempt to defend the triple option? We've won 4 straight!

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

Not only is this the 2nd flexbone team in 4 weeks but this game is sandwiched in between Clemson and USC. Huge let down factor involved. Reynolds is a super triple option quarterback.

Opponent Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 6th

This is my cut-off for possible losses in 2015. I can see the Irish losing to USC, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Texas, Stanford, or Navy. You better pray to God Notre Dame doesn't drop a game to Pittsburgh, Boston College, Virginia, Temple, Wake Forest, or UMass.

Navy as the 6th toughest opponent may seem like Notre Dame's schedule is really easy this year but I wouldn't underestimate the Middies. They did finish a respectable 44th in F/+ last year which was better than programs like Michigan, NC State, and Washington. Even still, the likes of Pitt, BC, and Virginia all finished inside the top 43 in F/+ last year although I expect these teams to take a step back in 2015, particularly the latter two.

Anyway, there's not a whole lot to predict when it comes to Navy. They don't change up their scheme, they don't have traditional recruiting, and it's a complete guess figuring out which new players are going to make an impact.

This is Navy's first year joining a conference in football as they make the jump to the AAC. Primarily because of this I wouldn't be surprised if the Middies posted their best record under Niumatalolo. Except Notre Dame, they won't be facing any Power 5 teams plus they miss likely conference champion Cincinnati in cross-division play during the regular season. With Colgate, Air Force, and Army as their other non-conference games a 10-2 season is very much in play.