When Paul Johnson came to Annapolis two years ago, the program had nowhere to go but up. Inheriting a team that had gone 1-20 the previous two seasons, Johnson built a foundation in 2002 and last year led the Midshipmen to an 8-5 record and their first bowl since 1996.
Now, he faces an altogether different challenge, but one that could be tougher — managing expectations. Navy won't be sneaking up on anybody anymore.
"The expectation level has changed," Johnson said. "That will be the key to this season. Does this group have the desire? We aren't going to be bigger or faster than any team we play.
"What you have to be is mentally tougher, in better shape, and play together as a team. I think last year's group of seniors was sick and tired of getting beat, and that's what it takes."
OffenseAny coach will tell you it's just as important for his quarterback to make the right decisions as it is for him to have a strong arm or fast legs. That's especially true in Johnson's triple-option offense, and to a large degree, it is what kept senior Aaron Polanco on the bench behind Craig Candeto the last two years. With Candeto gone, this is Polanco's job to lose.
"I think Aaron might be as good an athlete as anyone we've had here," Johnson said. "If he's able to make good decisions, I think he will be awfully good."
Navy led the nation in rushing last year and should pile up yards on the ground again in 2004 with two of the school's most prolific backs returning. Kyle Eckel gained yards in bunches last season — his 1,249 rushing yards were the sixth-best total in school history. Eric Roberts is the ideal slot back. He led the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (493) and touchdown receptions (5), and placed third on the team in rushing yards (630).
The Midshipmen return senior starters at both wide receiver spots, and look at the gaudy numbers they posted last year: Amir Jenkins led all wideouts with 14 receptions, and Lionel Wesley was close behind with 13. They combined for one touchdown catch.
Seven of the 12 offensive linemen who paved the way for the nation's most potent rushing attack last season return in '04.
DefenseNavy is experienced on the defensive line, with senior ends Pierre Moss and Jeff Vanak flanking senior noseguard Babatunde Akingbemi. A junior who will also compete for a job at end is Jeremy Chase, who moves up from linebacker.
While the Midshipmen return 10 of 12 linebackers from last year, the task for this unit will be to make fans forget about Eddie Carthan, a three-year starter at outside linebacker. The unit's ability to fill Carthan's shoes is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for the defense.
While seniors dominate the depth chart at just about every position, Navy does have youth — and thus question marks — in the defensive backfield. One of the veterans in the secondary, however, is senior Josh Smith, a safety the Middies are promoting for All-America honors.
SpecialistsThe kicking positions are a concern. Sophomore punter Tim Washburn will see his first action and placekicker Geoff Blumenfeld inherits the starting job after hitting just 3-of-6 field goals last year.
Speedy Jeremy McGown (kickoffs) and Jason Tomlinson (punts) are back as return men.
Final AnalysisSince arriving in Annapolis, Johnson has delivered what every hard-luck program dreams a new coach will accomplish — a quick and complete turnaround. With just three road games on the schedule, and a relatively soft home slate, the table is set for another bowl run.
The key to Navy's fortunes is the play of Polanco. If he can navigate the triple-option attack as successfully as Craig Candeto did last year, the nation's leading rushing team in '03 should be just as potent. Eckel and Roberts are two of the most productive offensive threats in Navy history. With seniors starting at every spot on the offensive line, there's no reason to believe they won't continue to pile up big numbers in '04.