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American Conference Football Preview: Navy Midshipmen

We begin going through the conference schedule to preview UConn Football's upcoming opponents.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first in a running series where we will be breaking down each conference opponent in the order which UConn Football will face them in the 2016 season.

Navy

Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (68-37, 8 seasons)

2015 Result: Navy 28, UConn 18 - specifically due to the masterful running of Keenan Reynolds and the Midshipmen offensive line.

2016 Game: September 10 - @ Annapolis

Navy's Strengths: Navy is a very solid running team, and even with Reynolds and running back Chris Swaim gone their system will never change. Dishan Romine averaged 10.5 yards per carry last year and will serve as the star wingback. The Midshipmen also have a legitimate deep threat in Jamir Tillman, who averaged 13.3 yards per target last year and has great high, at 6-foot-4.

Navy also has a deep back seven, with talented linebackers Micah Thomas and Daniel Gonzales leading the way. The Midshipmen were able to get to quarterback Bryant Shirreffs with exotic stunts in last year's matchup, and they have the explosion to do the same thing this time around.

Navy's Weaknesses: Navy lost most of  its best players from 2015. Reynolds, Swaim, their entire starting offensive line, leading tackler Lorentez Barbour, and top pass rusher Will Anthony are all gone. Senior Tago Brown looks to have the upper hand in Navy's quarterback battle, but he has very limited experience at the position. Navy is going to have to figure out a way to manufacture offense as they maneuver all of these moving parts.

How They Match Up Against UConn: Last year, the Midshipmen may well have had more talent than the Huskies. However, this year, there is no excuse. UConn has the intermediate talent to make some plays on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive physicality to stifle any attempt Navy may make at running the ball. This game takes place very early in the season, which also plays well for UConn. Look for this to be a low scoring faceoff, but one that the Huskies can eke out as long as they do not make any stupid mistakes.

Q&A

We were also able to speak with Justin Mears, who covers Navy for SB Nation's Underdog Dynasty, to get some more clarity on what this upcoming Navy team will look like.

1) How are you feeling about life in a conference after one year?

Year one in the AAC went about as well as Navy fans could possibly have hoped for.  Last year's team was the winningest in Navy football history at 11-2.  We ended up tied for first place in the West Division with Houston, losing the head to head matchup with the Cougars and a shot at the inaugural AAC Championship Game late in November.  I honestly can't remember a more exciting season in my time as a Navy fan.  We had Keenan Reynolds breaking records left and right and ending up fifth place in the Heisman voting, we beat a Memphis team that was at the time top 15 in the country, played Houston with a berth in the AAC title game on the line, beat Army for a 14th consecutive season, beat Pitt in the Military Bowl, and ended the season ranked in the top 25.  That's a pretty good year one in the conference if you ask me.


2) Who is looking like the early favorite to replace Keenan Reynolds under center?

There isn't an early favorite, it is Tago Smith's job next season.  As soon as the Military Bowl was over, Keenan told Tago in the locker room that this was his team now.  Replacing Keenan Reynolds is no easy task, but I think the media in general underestimates the success Tago will have leading the Navy offense next season.  He will be a senior starter who has already played in a bunch of games in his career.  Some of that was in blowout wins, yes, but he filled in multiple times as the starter his sophomore season when Keenan went down with an injury.  As long as he can avoid putting too much pressure on himself to replace one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history, I think he will be successful in the fall.

3) Are there any other key losses due to graduation?

Although everyone focuses on the loss of record setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, Navy loses a bunch of key players on both sides of the ball this year.  All five starters along the offensive line are being replaced, although several of the presumptive replacements saw significant snaps last year, including right tackle Robert Lindsey and left tackle Andrew Wood.  The one two punch of Chris Swain and Quinton Ezell must be replaced at fullback with Shawn White getting the nod this year.  DeBrandon Sanders and Demond Brown are also gone at slotback, but seniors Dishan Romine, offensive team captain Toneo Gulley, and Calvin Cass were all an integral part of that rotation last year.  Jamir Tillman is the lone returning starter for the offense, and the senior wide receiver will be counted on to help ease the transition from Reynolds to Smith.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are fewer starters to replace, but one big area of concern will be the defensive line, with team captain Bernie Sarra and stalwart Will Anthony graduating.  All of Navy's projected starting linebackers and players in the secondary saw significant action last year and should be a strength for this team, making the loss of Lorentez Barbour at the free safety position a little easier to handle.  Depth could prove to be the biggest issue on the defensive side of the ball.

4) Has recruiting received a bump after joining a conference and having a really good season?

Any other takeaways from the class of 2016?Trying to get a beat on service academy recruiting has always been a challenge.  Navy hasn't even announced this year's incoming class, and won't do so until July when the freshmen show up for their Plebe Summer.  In addition, because around 75% of the incoming class attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School last year, they will have actually been a part of the "standard" recruiting cycle two years ago. Service Academies typically have much larger recruiting classes since the minimum number of players requirement is waived for them.

With all of that being said, Navy had 11 recruits for the 2016 recruiting class who were composite three star players on 247 sports.  In the last five years, the next closest number to that was 5.  They also came in at 87th according to the same site, with the highest in the last five years being 104th.  So, to answer your question in as long a way as possible, yes, I believe both the success and exposure of the Navy football team during an 11-2 season with a quarterback who was all over the media landscape has helped give Navy a recruiting boost.  In addition, just being a member of the AAC has helped recruiting as well.  Knowing we are playing at least every other year in states like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida has no doubt helped along the recruiting trail.

5) How are Navy fans taking/discussing the pending conference realignment/Big 12 expansion news?

I would say we are just taking it in stride.  I think it would be less than ideal for the AAC to potentially lose multiple members to the Big 12 this quickly after we joined the conference, but the ever revolving door of conference realignment won't really affect what we do at Navy too much.  I think that Navy is 100% content in the AAC, and even as schools such as UConn, Memphis, Houston, UCF, and USF state their cases for Big 12 expansion, Navy will remain committed to whatever the AAC looks like when the dust is settled.

6) Navy is one of the more reachable games for UConn fans on the AAC road schedule. Any advice for Husky fans making the trip to Annapolis?

Well, my first piece of advice is that all Husky fans should make it a point to try and come down to Annapolis if they can.  The game experience at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is unique with the march on, flyovers, and other pageantries.  You won't regret spending a weekend in Annapolis either.  If you make the trip, breakfast at Iron Rooster in Downtown Annapolis is a must.  Since we all know that football and crab cakes is what we do down here, there are several great seafood restaurants over in Eastport that would be a "When in Rome" type experience for any fan making the trip.  Otherwise, the best thing to do is to spend your evening walking around Downtown Annapolis on Main Street and West Street.  There are too many great restaurants and bars to name in this area, and it is generally packed on home game weekends.  Finally, take a stroll through the Naval Academy campus as well.  It's a beautiful setting right on the Severn River, and a must see while you are in town.