This year, Navy has struck on The Hill at the academy, according to some photos sent to me by a loyal blog reader. Here is one of them …
Note: This is Part III of “Enemy Lines,” a series in which I trade e-mails with Christian Swezey, one of my good friends and a fellow sportswriter who has covered Navy for many years. The initial portions of our exchange are in the posts below.
I think there’s no question there’s a talent gap between Navy and Air Force, especially at the skill positions. For now.
Recruiting efforts had broken down significantly during the final years of the Fisher DeBerry Era, as evidenced by this alarming stat: Of the 55 official visit recruits brought to Air Force early in 2005 prior to signing day, only five were with the program as of signing day in 2008. And only three were in the Falcons’ two-deep during the 2007 season. That’s poor retention but also poor evaluation.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is trying to change that. Revamping recruiting was one of his biggest projects upon taking over for DeBerry. He’s changed the whole approach, as I wrote about extensively last year, and given his assistants much more time during the year to concentrate on evaluation.
Air Force got things on track a bit with Calhoun’s first class (which, admittedly was thrown together), and with the current freshmen (the first true recruiting class of this coaching staff). Check this out – 18 of Air Force’s 44 first- and second-string offensive and defensive players are freshmen or sophomores.
So I think Air Force is closing the talent gap, but the Navy seniors are really good. Calhoun has been raving about them, specifically the skill guys you mentioned. “Four years ago,” he said of the Navy coaching staff, “they did a great job of recruiting.”
And you make a good point about Rembert. They have tried him on offense (admittedly not as much lately) because they don’t have very many game-breakers. Not really sure there’s anybody on the Air Force offense that keeps opposing coordinators up at night. Lots of solid players, but – for instance – when I was thinking who the offensive MVP would be through four games … I couldn’t really think of one.
Now, that changes a bit with seniors Travis Dekker and Ty Paffett returning to the lineup. Dekker is a big body and has sure hands (he made two great catches in Monday’s practice) and will help the Falcons’ inexperienced quarterbacks. Paffett, meantime, has something most Air Force skill guys lack – true straight-ahead speed. Perhaps he can stretch the field.
As for your other questions, the fullback still will be the defense’s “initial priority,” according to Calhoun, but he warned of the other weapons the Midshipmen possess. Not sure the game plan changes too much if it’s Kaipo or Bryant. Calhoun said he thought Bryant might have quicker feet but Kaipo has more experience.
I talked to Ken Niumatalolo Monday, and he downplayed Navy’s five-game winning streak as a big advantage. But I’ve got to believe it really helps the Midshipmen. I feel like they just have to believe a bit more when the games are tight late. What’s your take on that?
Also, the Navy defense keyed the win over Wake, it seemed. How much has that unit improved from last year?
Note: This is Part II of “Enemy Lines,” in which I trade e-mails with Christian Swezey, one of my good friends and a fellow sportswriter who has covered Navy for many years. The first part of our exchange is in the post below.
Jake! Thank you for the very kind words in your intro. The only way your readers will learn more from me than you this week is if their questions are about lacrosse. And even then it will be close.
Though it should be noted Navy is 3-2; a winning percentage not as good as Blog Dog’s last year but still pretty good.
Couple quick takes on the game.
1. The teams could not be entering in more different physical condition.
Navy played a very physical game in beating Wake Forest, 24-17, on Saturday. Wake is not a typical ACC team; it relies more on size and strength than finesse and speed.
Air Force, meantime, is coming off a bye week.
2. Among the service academies in the past few years, Navy has had a tremendous edge in talent. Shun White is probably the best SA running back; Eric Kettani is the best fullback; Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is the best QB.
So the first thing in analyzing this game is whether AF has closed the talent gap?
3. In 90 percent (at least) of its games, AF has a coaching advantage over its opponent. Not sure that edge exists this week or, if it does, it’s very miniscule.
In terms of Navy this year vs. last year…Navy has a ton of experience back on offense. So the year when Navy was going to struggle, if it does at all, was always going to be next year. As in, after Kaipo, Shun, Kettani, etc., leave.
Ken Niumatalolo has done a very good job thus far. There have been a few bumps in the road. Navy’s two losses turned on failed fourth down plays. Navy ran the same play both times, and both times it appeared Navy made the wrong read. Calling that play twice seemed stubborn to me.
Overall, though, it’s obvious Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper paid close attention to Paul Johnson’s coaching methods in their years with him. In the bowl game, Navy got really gimmicky. That has not happened this year, at least not yet. The play calling has been astute, and they haven’t “showed” very much to upcoming opponents on film in terms of trick plays.
In other words, they’ve been very patient in play-calling. If something is working, they are using it until it gets stopped (or doesn’t get stopped). That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
In terms of misspelling Kaipo’s name…let’s just say my stories have always been very well edited!! For you, though, I’m going with the over on misspellings.
Anyway…What’s your take on the talent gap between AF and Navy? Does it exist and, if so, is it large?
Is Rembert going both ways because AF lacks gamebreakers on offense? Rembert nearly went to Navy, correct?
The game last year turned on Hunter Altman’s missed read on an option that Kaipo took to the house. Altman was focused on the fullback. Is Kettani the focus of AF’s defensive game plan again? Will their defense be different if Kaipo is at QB or if Jarod Bryant is at QB?
For the second season in a row, I’ll be trading Navy v. Air Force-related e-mails with my good friend Christian Swezey and posting them here.
Sweze covered Navy for years while with The Washington Post. He left The Post in the summer when he was offered a columnist position at Inside Lacrosse, but he still covers the Midshipmen for GoMids.com. He has terrific insight about Navy and is an incredible historical source for college football in general and service academy football in particular.
In other words, you’ll learn a lot more from him than me this week when I post the e-mails we trade on the blog.
So enjoy. And if there are any questions you’d like me to ask Sweze, please leave them in the comments section.
Yo Sweze –
So Navy is 2-2 on the season.
A few quick questions for you:
-Navy looked like it might be down after starting 1-2. But the Midshipmen have recorded two straight big wins, including Saturday against then-No. 16 Wake. How good is this Navy team compared to last season?
-How is first-year coach Ken Niumatalolo doing in his first season? He had some enormous shoes to fill.
-I know the return of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was a huge shot in the arm for Navy, but he got hurt again against Wake. Will he play against Air Force? If not, how much does that hurt the Midshipmen?
-Have you ever mis-spelled “Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada” in print? And have you ever covered a team that had a prominent player with a more difficult name to type? Over-under on times I blow the spelling this week is 2.5.
Some readers of the blog asked I check in with the Air Force junior varsity squad from time to time. Your wish is my command.
Here’s the first edition of The JV Report:
This season, for the first time, Air Force coaches are spending extra time with their junior varsity players at practice.
For a half hour before varsity players take the field (and the junior varsity becomes a de facto scout team), the junior varsity players work with all the academy coaches.
“We take six minutes doing individual position fundamentals, then we do six minutes of some kind of one-on-one competitive drill, and then we go 15 minutes of running team on both sides of the ball – offense versus defense, just so they learn our base stuff,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Then what we do is kick field goals at the end. That’s been good because we’ve been able to work with younger guys. Certainly it helps to have a smaller squad, because there’s a lot more one-on-one that occurs and then the other thing about it is everyone gets involved because there’s a lot more action, too.”
Calhoun called this season’s junior varsity “a good group,” and he praised the team for its 38-36 victory last Friday over Ellsworth Community College, which is ranked in the National Junior College Athletic Association Top 20.
“That’s a super victory for those guys,” he said.
One player who was moved to the varsity recently is 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker Brady Amack of Pleasanton, Calif.
Calhoun said none of the other junior varsity players have shown enough quite yet to earn a promotion. But he said several have done “some good things,” specifically naming cornerback Josh Hall (6-0, 175 pounds, from Atlanta), quarterback Connor Dietz (6-0, 185 pounds from Columbus, Ohio) and offensive lineman Jeff Benson 6-0, 265, Hoover, Ala.).
Quick varsity note: Senior tight end Travis Dekker and senior Z receiver Ty Paffett both participated and were active in practice on Thursday.
Air Force senior Ty Paffett watched a preseason scrimmage in mid-August in shorts and a t-shirt and then walked off the field gingerly – as if trying to avoid pain with each step.
So it was pretty incredible to see Paffett on Wednesday participating in his first contact practice of the 2008 season and at one point throwing an effective cut block. There he was, the guy who seemingly could barely walk a month ago, getting his torso parallel to the ground while running and then diving toward the legs of a scout team player to spring a running back. And then bouncing right back to his feet.
Take it from a guy with a bad back – it was pretty impressive for a guy who had two offseason back surgeries.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was cautious in his assessment of Paffett.
“He struggled,” Calhoun said. “It’s his first day back in contact. But you can tell he needs a lot of WD-40 on his knees and his joints and the whole bit. But it’s just good for him to be out here.”
For Paffett to return to game action soon – possibly by the Falcons’ next contest, Oct. 4 against service academy rival Navy – he’ll have to continue to work hard in practice. And show his back can take the contact he absorbed Wednesday.
“You want to see just physically, and it’s not just today, but when he wakes up in the morning, if he can say ‘I’m fine,’ and ‘I can go,’” Calhoun said. “If he does that, then mentally he’ll be better off too.”
We’ll know a lot more by the middle of next week. But today was a big first step. …
In other injury news, senior tight end Travis Dekker, who fractured his right ankle in the preseason, worked out on his own Wednesday. According to Calhoun, a fitted brace for Dekker’s injured ankle will arrive at the academy tomorrow morning. That should help him. …
Has either of the Falcons’ freshman quarterbacks (Tim Jefferson or Asher Clark) progressed to the point where Calhoun might use him for a few series in a game? I asked Calhoun Wednesday.
“I don’t know if they’re there yet,” Calhoun said. “They’re both progressing, but they aren’t quite to that point. … Without rushing them, I want to get them to a spot where they’re able to do that, too. At least one of them.”
Sophomore cornerback Reggie Rembert did not participate in today’s practice because of a “slight twinge” in his hamstring, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. Calhoun said Rembert should be able to practice Wednesday. Senior corner Kevin Rivers also did not practice Monday because he was sick. …
Senior Z receiver Ty Paffett practiced on Monday and will attempt to go through his first contact practice of the season on Wednesday. Paffett, who had a pair of back surgeries in the offseason, hopes to return for the Falcons’ game Oct. 4 against Navy.
“I think he’s got to have (contact) this week and next week if he’s going to play next Saturday,” Calhoun said. “He’s convinced that he will. I think we’ll see. I think Wednesday will be a little bit of a step for him. I don’t think it tells you he’s ready, but I think for him it at least gets him over a little bit of a hump.” …
Only two changes on the two-deep chart released Monday – both at X receiver. With Spencer Armstrong (fractured fibula) out indefinitely, sophomore Kevin Fogler moved up to the top spot at that position, while junior Josh Cousins now is listed as the backup. Check out tomorrow’s edition of The Gazette for a story on Cousins.
Air Force has finalized a contract to play Division I-AA Nichols State in its 2012 season opener.
But next season’s first opponent is uncertain. Air Force had been planning to play host to Division I-AA Northern Colorado on Sept. 5, but the Bears never signed the contract the academy had prepared and opted to play at Kansas on that date.
Air Force likely will look for a different Division I-AA opponent for next season’s opener as coach Troy Calhoun wants to open seasons at home against a team from the lower-tier division or a lower-caliber Division I-A squad.
The Falcons also are looking for an opponent for their 2010 opener after taking Houston off that schedule.