Former Navy football coach Paul Johnson revived the program using a patented version of the three-option offense. Option 1 is a defensive dive, and he made sure the staff recruited the type of players they wanted at the position.
Because the defensive backs line up so close to the line of scrimmage and hit the hole so quickly, Johnson wanted a strong built player who could break the ball or push the pile forward for a few extra yards.
Kyle Eckel was the first star quarterback of the triple-pick era. He weighed in at 237 pounds, but he also had the speed to go away for a touchdown if he got in the clear. He had 2,396 rushing yards in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Eckel, along with Adam Ballard (236 pounds), Eric Kettani (245) and Chris Swain (245), was the first in a line of big hitting seniors.
Eckel, Kettani and Swain were big guys with special talents, speed and athleticism. That’s why all three spent time in the NFL.
Navy’s option offense, entering its 15th season, has thrived under current coach Ken Niumatalolo. The Midshipmen periodically put the quarterback in a shotgun formation and put together zone-blocking schemes.
As a result, the linebacker position has also thrived with a coaching staff looking for prospects with a versatile skill set as opposed to great size.
Jamale Carothers embodied the new breed as he moved to linebacker after being recruited as a slotback. At 5-foot-9 and 203 pounds, Carothers was the smallest starting quarterback of the triple-option era, and his combination of speed, quickness and cutting ability proved to be a valuable asset. As a sophomore in 2019, Carothers rushed for 734 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Nelson Smith (5-9, 213) replaced Carothers at quarterback the following season and led Navy in rushing.
The Midshipmen return a pair of beefy bruisers last season as starter Isaac Ruoss and backup James Harris II checked in at 225 and 230 pounds, respectively.
However, this year’s crop of defenders looks more like Carothers. Anton Hall Jr., who sits atop the depth chart, is 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds.
Hall, who put on 10 pounds of muscle through summer strength and conditioning sessions, watched the Carothers tape and welcomes the comparison.
“I will not say that I look like anyone. I’m my own kind of guy, but I bring a similar style of running [Carothers]” said Hall.
Hall also looked at a lot of what he described as “purple backs.”
“Back then you had big boys who would run over anybody. I bring a different style of running,” Hall said.
Asked to describe this style, Hall responded with one word: “Naked.”
“I’m not a stop and cut on a dime type,” he said. “I feel like if I get past the second level, I can take it home almost every time.”
Sophomores Logan Point (5-11, 211) and Daba Fofana (5-8, 205) are similar defenders. Another characteristic of them is inexperience. Hall had just four carries last season, while Point only saw action on special teams in three games. Fofana did not appear in any varsity games.
Assistant coach Jason MacDonald, in his fourth season coaching Navy’s linebackers, acknowledged the challenge ahead.
“The reality is I have to do everything I can to prepare these guys,” he said. “I wish we were further along and there are some things I wish I could have done better, but I’m sure on Sept. 3 these guys will be ready to go.”
Hall was the 2019 South Florida Conference Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,057 yards as a senior. He had more than 20 scholarship offers and chose Navy over Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Southern Mississippi, UNLV and Western Kentucky.
Hall, who also attended track and field and weightlifting at Gulliver Preparatory School, brings a combination of speed and power to the linebacker position.
“What you’re going to see from Anton is a dynamic ability in terms of short-space speed. He can put his foot down and go in a different direction very quickly,” MacDonald said.
McDonald added that Hall plays like a bigger defender because he has “a lot of pop.”
Hall backed up that assessment and believes he has the strength and toughness to make tough pitches inside. “Obviously I’m not that big, but I feel like I’ve got a lot of dog in me. “I’m small, but I’m strong, and if I have to, I’ll go over someone,” he said.
Point enjoyed a highly productive career at Celina High in Texas, rushing for 4,253 yards and 65 touchdowns. He earned Associated Press All-State honorable mention as a senior. MacDonald said Point, who was also a track sprinter in high school, brings better straight-line speed than Hall.
While Ruoss and Harris bring more size and strength to the position, neither is a threat to go all the way.
“I think that’s what we lacked last season. James and Isaac knew where to be and what to do, but they didn’t have the ability to separate like Jamal did,” MacDonald said. “I feel like we have the potential to get back to that with three guys on the depth chart.”
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MacDonald understands that Navy fans are used to seeing quarterbacks in the 225-245 range. When you look at the depth chart this preseason and see three players near .200, naturally they are concerned.
“I just want the best players we can find. If we feel like the best linebackers are between 195 and 210 pounds, those are the players we’re going to get,” MacDonald said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way we’re going to give up a 240-pound kid who’s agile and can run.”
Hall hopes Navy will give this group of young linebackers the benefit of the doubt. There may be growing pains along the way, but he believes this product of the Navy linebacker can get the job done.
“They’re saying all these things because it’s not what they’re used to seeing,” Hall said. “You have not seen such a defender in this attack. You don’t know what I bring to the table. I will prove people wrong and make the fans proud.”
Running the ball on a dive is solely the responsibility of Navy linebackers, who are also the primary blockers. MacDonald said Hall, Point and Fofana have all shown they can get the job done as a blocker.
“What I will tell you is that the young men in that room are going to give you everything they’ve got and they’re going to play with a lot of passion,” he said.