ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- "We will."
That is the rallying cry for the Navy football team heading into the 2016 season.
The story behind the new call to battle is two-fold.
For one, the team wants to honor Will McKamey, a former player who died in 2014 after collapsing at spring practice. This year's seniors, who were teammates with McKamey when they were freshman, want to ensure their fallen comrade is not forgotten.
Secondly, the Midshipmen are determined to show the nation they have a thriving program and will remain competitive despite the loss of record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Navy opens
the season at home against Fordham Sept. 3.
"We are just embodying his whole spirit as a person and a player and everything he stood for as a player," said linebacker Daniel Gonzales, who was named co-captain with senior slotback Toneo Gulley. "When we say, ‘We will,' we will be everything that he was and do everything for him."
Navy was picked to finish second in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference behind Houston. The Midshipmen are coming off one of their most successful seasons in program history, finishing 11-2 and knocking off Pittsburgh, 44-28, in the Military Bowl.
While many new players have come in, the blueprint is in place to continue that success.
Navy should be strong defensively, as it returns six starters. Last season, the Midshipmen held 10 of their 13 opponents to 21 points or fewer, while racking huge chucks of yardage with the triple-option. Navy has focused on putting more pressure on the quarterback this season -- an area where it struggled during parts of last year.
"We have to get to the quarterback," said defensive end Amos Mason, who started all 13 games last season.
Gonzales is also expected to be a force on defense. He finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles, including four for a loss last season.
Perhaps no other player will be under more scrutiny than quarterback Tago Smith, who spent the past three years backing up Reynolds. Smith has already been asked numerous times about replacing an already legendary quarterback. However, he is taking the comparisons in stride.
"He had so much success here, so I can't blame them," Smith said. "I don't think it will be that hard of a transition. I've seen him have success here. It's just a matter of taking those keys and seeing what he's done, and then making the transfer over to my game and just executing."
Smith originally came to Navy as a slotback, so he is perfectly suited for the triple-option. He played in eight games last season, running for 126 yards with a touchdown on 27 carries. During the prior two seasons, Smith completed 12-of-17 attempts for 245 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
He will be helped on offense by wide receiver Jamir Tillman, who is the team's top playmaker. Tillman made the most of his opportunities on offense in 2015, catching 29 passes for 597 yards and five touchdowns. He became the first receiver in program history to catch a touchdown pass in four consecutive games.
"I am not going to fall back on what we did last year, because we're a new team with new players," Tillman said. "When we came in the spring, we had a mindset of this is our year as a senior class to lead the younger guys. Nothing I did last year is relevant, so I've been working as hard as I can. Tago has been working as hard as he can. The whole team has been working as hard as they can to prove ourselves and who we were last year."
Gulley will also help take some of the pressure off Smith as one of the team's most versatile players. Last season, he carried the ball 12 times for 189 yards with three touchdowns. Gulley also caught two passes for 30 yards and was explosive on special teams as a returner and on coverage.
"We're in the championship mindset," Gulley said. "We will honor [McKamey's] life and take care of business on the field."
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo likes what he has seen from his team during preseason practices, and he lauded the work of his assistant coaches. Niumatalolo has also been impressed with depth at each position and joked the program might need a bigger plane to make sure all of the impact players can make the road trips.
Overall, Niumatalolo is confident the Midshipmen can overcome the loss of Reynolds this season and once again compete for a conference championship.
"Obviously, Keenan was a really good football player and a big part of our program," Niumatalolo said. "We're excited about Tago. He's been in our program for many years. We had many staff discussions on whether we move him to another position. He could have played slotback; he could have played [defensive back] or wide receiver. He's one of our better athletes. I just made the decision. He was too valuable to move to another position.
"People who have seen him play over the past couple of years recognize he is a really good football player. We're excited. He's waited his turn. He's played behind a really good quarterback, but it's his time. He's paid the price, and we're excited about him."
Niumatalolo said joining the AAC has helped the Midshipmen recruit with a national footprint. The Midshipmen spent 134 years as an independent and finished 7-1 in their inaugural year in a conference.
"It definitely helped in recruiting," Niumatalolo said. "Being in the AAC, it's a great conference. [It had] four teams at one point in the Top 25 [last year]. Really competitive league. Games were on TV. It was really great exposure for our football team."
Niumatalolo has proven to be one of the best college football coaches in the nation. During nine seasons, he compiled a 68-37 record and advanced to a bowl game in eight of those seasons. The Midshipmen have a recipe for success, and this year they are likely to be no different, even with a different cast of players.
"I am excited about our group," Niumatalolo said. "The guys in our program understand our culture."
Issue 224: August 2016