Navy slotback Toneo Gulley got behind the Fordham defense, caught a pass over his shoulder from backup quarterback Will Worth and ran 57 yards for a touchdown to help the Midshipmen to a 52-16 home win during the season opener Sept. 3.
The senior is going to need to make those types of big plays this season to keep Navy in the hunt for a trip to the American Athletic Conference title game.
Gulley is well-respected by his peers and was named co-captain this season. He is poised to play a big role in the offense and wants to make sure his senior season is one to remember.
"It means everything to me," Gulley said about his final year at the academy. "I've been playing since I was 7, and everything leads up to the season. The game-time butterflies, it's all the same, but just a little more intense now. The offense is looking pretty good. We still have to iron a few things out, and we'll be ready."
Last season, Gulley played in 12 games and carried the ball 12 times for 189 yards with three touchdowns after battling some injuries. However, he is capable of reeling off a big play each time he touches the ball. In an AAC game against Tulsa, Gulley took off for a 70-yard touchdown on his only carry -- the longest run by a Navy player since 2012.
Gulley is also a versatile player who makes an impact on special teams and is an effective blocker for his teammates.
"Toneo is the consummate team guy. He is not a stat sheet stuffer. You can't look at the box score and [say] he did this or that," Danny O'Rourke, Navy assistant coach/slot backs/special teams coordinator, said. "Sometimes, the only people that know Toneo played well are the coaches watching the film on Sunday. He goes in the game and does whatever is asked."
Gulley's willingness to put the team first was a big reason he was selected as a co-captain with linebacker Daniel Gonzales. The two players set the example for the younger players on the field and the classroom.
Both Gulley and Gonzalez embody the quintessential student-athlete and were honored for those efforts.
"Being elected team captain at the Naval Academy is one of the highest honors you can receive at an institution that prides itself on producing great leaders," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Toneo and Daniel are not only outstanding football players, but they are great leaders in the locker room and in Bancroft Hall, and I have no doubt that they will be great captains for us."
Gulley and Gonzales also helped come up with this year's rallying cry, "We Will" to honor Will McKamey, a former player who died in 2014 after collapsing at spring practice. This year's seniors were teammates with McKamey when they were freshman. Gulley and Gonzalez, along with the rest of the Midshipmen, wanted to make sure he was remembered.
But that is just one way Gulley provides guidance to some of the younger players. He fully understands rising through the ranks and earning playing time is the culmination of years of hard work. He tells Navy's freshmen they have to work hard for a bright future, but they can't forget the work previous players have done to make Navy's football program one of the most successful in the nation.
"It's an honor to play for the guys who have gone before us and paid the price," Gulley said. "I just let them know to take it all in. It's still the same game back when they were playing when they were 6 years old. It's the same game. Play between the white lines and have fun."
Being named senior captain marked a steady rise for Gulley, a 2012 graduate of Tremper High School in Wisconsin. Gulley was a standout player, earning First-Team All-State, All-City and All-County selections in his junior and senior years. He was also named the Milwaukee Player of the Year his senior season.
After spending 2012-13 at Naval Academy Prep School, Gulley appeared in 10 games in his first year in Annapolis, Md., primarily as a member of the Midshipmen's special teams. He finished with eight tackles and impressed coaches with his work ethic.
In 2014, he became a bigger part of the offense -- a highly disciplined group that ranked No. 1 nationally in fewest penalties per game (2.54) and fewest penalty yards per game (24.77). Gulley played in all 13 games that season and ran for 77 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown. He also continued to make an impact on special teams and began to show the type of leadership qualities that make him a role model.
Gulley credits his coaches, especially O'Rourke, with providing players with the insight and tools to succeed. It's all about establishing Navy's culture, which embodies such traits as selflessness, discipline, hard work, toughness and humility.
"Coach [O'Rourke] does a great job of pulling up film from years ago so guys can see the tenacity, the unselfishness, just the culture of our position," Gulley said. "Our young guys see it on the film and the seniors reinforce that on the field."
This year, Navy's offense has a new look without record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was picked by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round of the NFL Draft and is on the team's practice squad. The Midshipmen will spread the ball around more to get more players involved.
One thing they hope will not change is their dominance at home. With the win against Fordham, the Midshipmen extended their winning streak to 11 games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium -- the longest streak since 1953-64 when the Mids reeled off 21 straight wins on their home turf. (Navy played many home games at other locations, such as Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium.)
"We definitely take pride in that," Gulley said. "Protect our house, that is what we always say when we are at home. That's what we want to do."
Issue 225: September 2016