Staying The Course

By Bob Socci – Originally posted on navysports.com on August, 19, 2011.

Pats on the back couldn’t cure the pain in Jarred Shannon’s shoulders, but they sure helped to ease his mind.

Well before playing his way to the top of Navy’s depth chart at outside linebacker, labrum tears in both shoulders — first the left, a year later the right — left him wondering whether football was worth it.

Navy linebacker Jarred Shannon.

Shannon had his moments, like his blocked punt resulting in a touchdown against Temple.  But that was one of just four games played as a sophomore.  That fall and the following spring, there were too many hours recovering and rehabbing from surgery.

“I had to lean on a lot of teammates and family members to keep going,” Shannon said in the wake of Wednesday’s practice.  “I’ve got that fire (within me), but after a while, injury after injury, you start to second-guess yourself and doubt yourself.  But everyone was supportive of me.”

Including head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

“Coach Niumat’ was very supportive and very encouraging,” Shannon says.  “Every day in practice, he was always checking on me, seeing how I was doing and asking how my shoulder was doing.  He gave me everything I needed to get through it.”

Confronting any doubts, he could also confide in his father.  James Shannon was a talented fullback whose career was cut short by injuries.

“He understood where I was,” Jarred recalled.  “He said, `Son, this is one of those decisions I can’t (make for you)…I did what I did, but this is your opportunity.  This is something different for you.  This is your call, but whatever you do, I’m behind you.'”
To say that Shannon made the right decision to keep playing only begins to tell the rest of the story.

He returned from surgery two months earlier than expected, and held up well enough in last year’s preseason camp to earn a place on the Mids’ special teams unit.  Appearing in all 13 games, Shannon also adjusted to a full-time position change, as a former safety.

A year later, he’s in good stead to start the season opener vs. Delaware on Sept. 3.

“There’s a kid who stayed the course,” Niumatalolo says.  “(Jarred’s) a guy we were hoping would play more but because of injuries hasn’t been on the field much.  But the guy has not said a word.  He’s had two bad shoulders, and he’s just toughed it out.”

“It’s pretty much what I’ve been working for these last four years,” Shannon reflects.  “Hopefully I’ll be able to show it this year, to make plays, and when Coach (Buddy) Green puts me in different situations be able to capitalize.”

The way Green utilizes outside linebackers as Navy’s defensive coordinator, there will be no shortage of opportunities.  Shannon currently mans the Striker position, opposite fellow outside linebacker Mason Graham, a.k.a. the Raider.

“When we go against conventional offenses, my job is to deal less with linemen and more with receivers,” Shannon explains.  “We’re more coverage linebackers.”

Though not exclusively.  Green often sends the Striker on blitzes.  Therefore, Shannon is expected to be well-rounded, taking over a position responsible for a lot of game-turning plays in recent years.

In 2008 Ram Vela produced five takeaways, including three interceptions.  Last season Aaron McCauley made 10.5 tackles for loss.

As a former defensive back, Shannon has the athleticism to enjoy similar numbers.  He’s also proven himself a heavy hitter.

This is his last chance to do the former and be the latter, injury free.

“You know that all you need is one shot,” he says.

“He’s healthy now and he’s been focused and businesslike,” Niumatalolo says.  “I’m very happy for him.  I’ve been so very, very impressed with Jarred Shannon.”

SOFT SPOT FOR A HARD WORKER

There are times when Niumatalolo can be hard on the Midshipmen; namely when they lack the effort expected of them.  But really, he’s got a soft spot for his entire team, especially those for whom success doesn’t come easy and often comes late.

Of course, naming all the names of such players might make Niumatalolo sound like Deion Sanders, who thanked more than 100 people during his recent Hall of Fame induction speech.  Besides, there’s only so much space on this webpage.

Senior slot back Mike Stukel.

Nonetheless, during a recent conversation, Niumatalolo talked at length about one player he’s taken a rooting interest in this season: senior Mike Stukel.

Early in his career, Stukel rotated back and forth between slot back and quarterback.  In the spring of ’09, he was strongly considered for backing up Ricky Dobbs, only to get edged out by Kriss Proctor.

With Stukel relocated to slot, Proctor injured his knee the following fall.  Stukel briefly returned to quarterback, until Proctor recovered.  He then switched out his shoulder pads one last time.

Stukel figured to have a prominent role as a junior.  He opened with four carries vs. Maryland, had four more at Louisiana Tech, including his first career touchdown, and two at Air Force.  Four games into the season, he didn’t touch the ball again in 2010.

Midway through this preseason camp, Stukel’s last, six other names fill Navy’s first three strings.  Yet, he’s someone Niumatalolo holds in high esteem.  And has high hopes for.

“I’m pulling for that kid.  He’s worked hard, he’s stayed the course, he doesn’t complain,” Niumatalolo says.  “He just comes to work everyday with a businesslike approach and is a pleasant young man to be around.  He’s nothing but positive for a team.

“It could have easily gone the other way.  Here’s a guy who at one point was the backup quarterback; he was actually competing with Proctor for that spot.  We moved him, but he never complained.  He just accepted his role and has continued to work hard.  Guys like that I pull for.  I just hope he has a great year, because he’s such a great kid.”

WHAT’S BREWIN’

Matt Brewer is another Midshipman who’s gladly paid his dues to the program.

That he’s competing for a starter’s job is both remarkable and still somewhat unsurprising at the same time.  The other three players currently listed at first- and second-string inside linebacker all have starting experience.

Last season Max Blue made five starts, Caleb King started four times and Matt Warrick was a starter against Army and San Diego State.  Meanwhile, Brewer was mainly a special teamer, totaling four tackles.

Still, he made a lasting impression that’s continued throughout the 2011 preseason.

“(Matt) was one of our best special teams players last year,” Niumatalolo said.  “He’s probably our most physical kid.  We’ve got three guys (inside) who’ve played a lot, and the one guy who didn’t is probably our most physical linebacker.”

BACK TO RETURN

Niumatalolo confirmed Thursday that sophomore speedster Marcus Thomas, a reserve slot back, will return kicks for the second straight year.  In that role the last eight games of 2010, Thomas flashed potential of becoming Navy’s most lethal return threat since Reggie Campbell took two kicks back for scores in 2007.

“No doubt,” Niumatalolo replied earlier this month, when asked if Thomas is on the verge of becoming a game breaker.  “He’s probably one of the fastest guys on our team.  He’s a guy who continues to get better.  I thought he did a great job on kickoff returns last year.”

Thomas is a product of Catholic High School, a track & field powerhouse in his native Baton Rouge, La.  Since 2002, the Bears have won five outdoor and six indoor state titles.  Contributing to five of those championships, Thomas was a member of Catholic’s All-America 4 x 100-meter relay team.

Individually, according to Louisiana Running, he posted personal bests of 10.06 seconds in the 100 meters and 6.56 seconds in the 55-meter dash.

Speed alone, however, doesn’t make a returner dangerous.

“I don’t care how fast you are, I don’t care how elusive you are or how strong you are, you’ve got to be fearless,” Niumatalolo says.  “You’ve got to hit it, you’ve got to run and you can’t dance.”

By season’s end, Thomas increasingly showed the willingness to quickly take the ball upfield in search of a seam.  Overall, he averaged 21.7 yards per runback, including a season-long 38-yarder to open the Army-Navy game.

Niumatalolo also confirmed that Gary Myers will be utilized again on punt returns.  A senior safety converted from wide receiver, Myers was the lone Mid to handle a punt last season, averaging 5.4 yards on 13 returns.  He retains his role thanks to sure hands, more than quick feet.

“Ultimately, we want a guy back there who, first and foremost, can catch the football,” Niumatalolo says.  “That’s your number one priority.  Gary did a great job last year.”

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visitwww.bobsocci.com.


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From Special Teams to the A-Team Defense

‘Guys who get on the field for Navy are the guys who persevere,’ just like Mason Graham.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on August 18, 2011.

Ken Niumatalolo has seen it before.  How often is hard to say.  It invariably happens every fall.  Some years more than once.

A senior who spent his first three seasons as an understudy, refusing to give in to circumstance or give up on himself, will finally ascend the depth chart, saving his best for last.

“That definitely has been a trademark of our team,” says Niumatalolo, now in his 14th year overall at the Naval Academy and his fourth as its head football coach.  “Another coach here, a while back, said the guys who get on the field for Navy are the guys who persevere.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

Two years ago he watched as Craig Schaefer, who previously toiled mostly in the near anonymity of special teams, made a name for himself at outside linebacker.  Last fall was Jerry Hauburger’s time for transformation, ironically enough as Schaefer’s successor.

No one on the 2009 Midshipmen had more tackles for loss (8.5) than Schaefer.  His team-high six sacks included the game-deciding safety in a 23-21 win at Notre Dame.  From beginning to end of 2010, Hauburger was Navy’s most improved defender.  In addition to 5.5 tackles for loss, he forced three fumbles.

Their career arcs were nearly identical.  Each slowly rose from junior varsity as a plebe to part-time duty the next two years — mainly specializing in covering kickoffs — to a full-time impact in his final go-around.

Now it’s Mason Graham’s turn.  That same path, from obscurity to the outside linebacker also known as the Mids’ Raider, is about to be completed again.  It’s something Niumatalolo never tires of seeing.

“Schaefer and Hauburger were primarily special teams guys,” Niumatalolo said.  “Schaefer came in and had a great year, and then Hauburger did basically the same thing, came in and had a great year.  Mason has been one of our best special teams players, and I’m hoping it holds true for him.””That’s kind of been the mold at outside linebacker for a long time, especially at the Raider side,” says the senior Graham; he of 18 varsity appearances as a collegian.  “When I was a young gun, I remember watching (Schaefer and Hauburger) on film, always looking at their hands on pass rush and the effort that they gave.

“Whenever I got out there (in practice), whether it was with the B’s or C’s when I was younger, I would always try to model (myself) after their effort and performance.  Hopefully, it will serve me well this year.”

Graham has become an A-teamer by separating himself in a wide-open competition, stretching from April’s spring practice to August’s preseason camp.

“I looked at it like, I’m going to do everything I can,” Graham said of his offseason attitude.  “I’m going to watch film of guys in the past, whether it’s Craig or Jerry, and I’m going to do all I can in the weight room during the spring and summer.  I’m going to go a hundred miles an hour on the field, and I’m going to let the chips fall where they will.  I can’t worry about the rest, I just have to play the best I can.”

At Raider, Schaefer and Hauburger essentially enabled the Mids to vary their defensive front.  Both set up at times in a three-point stance, but also were positioned upright on the line of scrimmage.  On pass plays, they were flexible enough to rush the quarterback or drop back in coverage.

“Raider’s a position where you have to be versatile,” says Graham, a high school teammate of defensive captain Jubaree Tuani at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy.  “You’ve got to be able to run, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to hold your own against a 300-pound offensive lineman.”

Senior Mason Graham.

That’s exactly the rational Graham used to craft his offseason regimen.

“I was trying to gain a little bit of weight, but not too much because I wanted to keep my speed,” he says, after adding roughly 10 pounds to what was a 6-foot, 205-pound frame.  “I’ve gotten stronger than I was in the spring.  I’ve (also) got to work on my footwork, and being physical at the point of attack.”

Though Graham’s special teams experience fostered the mindset of a linebacker, he must now physically adjust to the difference between appearing occasionally and playing down after down after down.

“Especially kickoffs, it’s the same mentality as linebacker,” Graham explains, metaphorically.  “You’ve got to get hyped up and go out there with an attitude that you’re going to take somebody’s head off every time you step on the field.  At linebacker, the only difference is that you’ve got to do it play after play after play.

“I’m trying to work on my stamina and stay tough, so I can take a beating at linebacker and come back to the line of scrimmage and have that same mentality that I had on special teams last year, play after play.”

Of course, it’s been done before.  And Graham, like Niumatalolo, has seen it with his own two eyes.

“This has been a recipe that has been (working) at inside and outside backer for a long time,” says Graham, a couple of weeks away from Navy’s Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware.  “Craig Schaefer had a great senior year, and he didn’t play very much until his senior year, except special teams.  Jerry Hauburger, same thing.  So, we’re pretty confident.  I guess we’ll find out here pretty soon.”

MORE NEW RULES

Of all the individuals associated with the NCAA, it’s hard to determine who had a busier summer: investigators probing into allegations of off-field improprieties or panel members empowered to amend on-field playing rules.

The gumshoes hit the ground in Atlanta, Auburn, Columbus and Eugene, before heading for Coral Gables.  Meanwhile, rules makers did more rewrites than a room full of lawyers and politicians editing each other’s perception of reality.

As addressed in this space the last two weeks, what is officially known as the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel stiffened the penalty for taunting and redefined when blocking below the waist is permissible.  Included among other measures regarding the definition and/or enforcement of infractions:

  • The defensive team will be penalized five yards if three or more players try to overwhelm a single blocker on field goals and extra points.  Essentially, it prevents `ganging up’ to knock kicks down.
  • When an offense is flagged during the final minute of a half, it can lose yardage and an additional 10 seconds off the game clock.  However, the opponent has the option of moving the offense back but declining the time runoff.  If, for example, the trailing team is on defense, it could elect to preserve those precious seconds.
  • Quarterbacks are afforded more leeway to avoid intentional grounding.  In the past, a receiver needed to have a “reasonable opportunity” to catch a pass that fell incomplete to avoid penalty.  Now, a receiver must simply be “in the area” of a throw that lands untouched.

Another new rule enables coaches to make more informed choices on whether or not to seek replay reviews of on-field calls.  Press box coaches booths can now be equipped with television monitors airing the live game broadcast.  Additional editing or recording devices are not allowed.

Access to the same replays seen by viewers at home should make a big difference, particularly for road teams.  Whereas stadium video boards have long replayed controversial calls against home teams, visitors were previously at a disadvantage.

For them, there was no further review before asking the officials for one.  But this season, they’ll enjoy equal-opportunity viewing.  At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where every game is televised, TV’s will be installed in both coaches booths.

That doesn’t necessarily make the choice to challenge easy.  For starters, the head coach on the sideline has to first decide which assistants in the booth will advise him.  Will he, like some in the NFL, assign one person to be his eyes in the sky?  Or seek consensus from everyone in the booth?

We might have to find a guy, but I’m not sure right now,” Niumatalolo said.  “I don’t know if we’ll truly have the luxury of just having one guy look at it.  I know in the NFL, you can hire somebody to look at it.  It’s definitely something we’ll address as a staff.”

Either way, there’s very little time for deliberation, especially if the Mids are on defense.  Almost always, when an offense benefits from a questionable call, it will hurry to run the next play before a review can be requested by either the replay official or opposing coach.

“We have a fast procedure,” Niumatalolo says.  “We practice it all the time.”

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Dancing With The Stars

Navy junior Bo Snelson takes over Ricky Dobbs’s old number and is poised for some fancy footwork on the field.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on August 8, 2011.

Where else would one of the smallest guys on the field ask to fill the biggest jersey?

And who else could seem the perfect fit for the number called more than any other the last two years, despite barely scratching 5-foot-7 and totaling just 13 offensive touches in those same seasons?

Only at the Naval Academy. And only Bo Snelson.

In two seasons wearing Nos. 41 and 23 at slot back, Snelson had a dozen carries — one as a freshman and none as a sophomore, until the ninth game of 2010 — and one pass reception.

Navy's 5-foot-7, 180-pound junior Bo Snelson.

Meanwhile, Ricky Dobbs, as much as anyone in recent memory, made himself the face of Navy’s program by stretching the No. 4 over his shoulder pads and consistently delivering under the weight of great expectations.

In 2009, he set a record for Division I quarterbacks with 27 rushing touchdowns. In 2010, he passed for 13 scores to establish a new Academy standard. At season’s end, after concluding his career with 2,730 yards rushing and a school-record 49 TD, Dobbs hung up his uniform.

Initially, Dobbs’s old number was reassigned to sophomore cornerback Eric Graham for spring practice. But before nameplates could be sewn on this fall, Snelson sought to swap shirts.

“All through high school in the Houston, Texas area, I wore number 4,” Snelson explained last Friday. “And for various reasons, I’ve become pretty fond of it. Then I got here and it was Ricky’s number.”

Actually, Snelson has several thousand reasons for the switch. According to maxpreps.com, he gained more than 2,200 yards and scored 31 touchdowns as a junior tailback at Pasadena Memorial High School. The following fall, after moving to quarterback, he rushed for 1,900 yards and 24 scores.

Coached by his father, John, Snelson was twice named his district’s most valuable player, as well as the Old Spice `Red Zone’ Player of the Year.

If there’s any inherent pressure inheriting Dobbs’s `4′, it’s superseded by superstition.

“I asked Coached `Niumat’ if I get my old (numeral) back,” Snelson said in his Texas Twang, referring to a preseason conversation with head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “He asked if it would help me play a little better. I said, `Yes, sir, it will.’ So he let me have it.

“I feel a little more comfortable wearing number 4. There are a couple of things that I’m superstitious about. I feel like, as far as superstitions go, this is going to be a better move for me.”

It helped that Niumatalolo is more than a tad superstitious, even when judged by the extreme standards of the ritual-obsessed wide world of sports. It also didn’t hurt that whatever jersey he wears, heart alone should enable the undersized Snelson to overstuff it.

Snelson was a two-time district MVP at Pasadena Memorial High School (Houston Chronicle).
In a Dec. 2008 profile in the Houston Chronicle, Steven Thomson wrote that Snelson patterned his running style after NFL Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. Keep in mind, Snelson is about four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Campbell in the prime of his playing days.

Or, perhaps better yet, Snelson’s waist is about as thick as either of the bruising Campbell’s thighs.

“When I was in eighth grade, my dad sat me down to talk about my goals,” Snelson told Thomson. “He said I would never be the tallest and probably not the fastest or the strongest. So I had to work the hardest and be the toughest. That’s the mentality that I’ve always had.”

“I told Bo (about) some of the obstacles that would be in his way,” John Snelson said at the time. “He set his mind to it. He’s a hard worker and a tough-minded kid.”

Up against Class 5A competition, as a genuine 48-minute man — high school quarters are 12 minutes — Snelson occupied both offensive and defensive backfields and appeared on special teams; yet he never missed a game or practice due to injury.

Highlights of him with the ball in his hands are a collage of long sprints down the sideline, high leaps over the line and disappearing acts, in and out of piles of defenders.

So far at Navy, as noted, such opportunities have been limited. Snelson did return four kickoffs as a plebe, but registered just a single carry his first 19 collegiate games overall. By November of last year, though, he cracked the Mids’ rotation at slot back and scored his first touchdown on a six-yard run at East Carolina.

True to his Pasadena Memorial Maverick roots, Snelson is somewhat of a non-conformist when it comes to football stereotypes. An English major who was a three-time high school class president, he proudly professes a love of ballroom dancing.

“That’s actually a hundred percent true,” Snelson confirms. “Being from Houston, where we have a large Hispanic population, I was involved in a lot of what are called la quinceañera celebrations (traditionally marking a Latina’s transition from childhood to womanhood).

“I was dancing the merengue, cumbia and waltz at a young age,” says Snelson, who also did the salsa at the Academy’s International Ball. “That’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed doing. It’s just presented itself at different opportunities, throughout my life. It’s always something that I’ve jumped at and tried to take advantage of.”

Now that Snelson has taken after Dobbs and looks to take on an expanded role on the field, his next logical steps on the floor would seem to be taking on the tango.

“I do know how to tango, but I’ve never actually had to perform that before,” he laughs. “But, hey, if the opportunity comes about, I might have to do that, yes sir.”

EXTRA POINT

Late last month, as he was about to embark on his 46th season as head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno told reporters at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago that he’s “looking at four or five (more) years” overseeing the Nittany Lions.

84-year-old Joe Paterno.

Then, on Sunday, the 84-year-old Paterno was hospitalized following a collision with a wide receiver who was running a pass route in practice.

“I expect to be back at practice soon,” Paterno said in a statement, after undergoing tests on his right arm and hip. “I’m doing fine; tell everyone not to worry about me.”

Assuming health allows, Paterno should continue coaching as long as he likes. Born on Dec. 21, 1926, he could still be on the sidelines, coaching in a bowl game, after his 90th birthday.

Let’s hope he’s still knotting his tie, rolling up his shirt sleeves and pant cuffs and leading Penn State when Navy visits Happy Valley in 2012. If so, he’ll be revisiting a crossroads in his unparalleled coaching career.

Paterno opened his second season in charge of Penn State on Sept. 23, 1967 in Annapolis. The Nittany Lions entered with just five of their now record 401 all-time wins under Paterno; they also had five losses.

With less than a minute left, Rob Taylor made his Academy-record 10th catch of the day, hauling in a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Midshipmen a 23-22 victory. Paterno’s record as a head coach was 5-6.

In his book The Lion in Autumn (published in 2005), author Frank Fitzpatrick wrote of Paterno’s fragile state of mind in the aftermath of that loss, on a long, quiet bus ride back to State College, Pa.:

“One of the few times when anyone can recall the coach being silent for an extended period also marked the moment when he might have come closest to abandoning his profession…all the plans and dreams he had formulated in sixteen seasons as Rip Engle’s assistant were evaporating in a haze of mediocrity. His best coaching attributes — competitiveness, a fierce drive, a need to excel — had turned inward and were devouring him.”

Paterno admitted to “having my doubts” after seeing Navy consume 489 yards of total offense at Penn State’s expense.

Any doubts — save for those related to age and its effects — were removed decades ago.

Get well and stay forever young, coach. See you next September.

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.