Navy's thrilling victory over archrival Army provided quite a showcase for the future of the football program.
Watching film the following day, coaches were excited about the number of young players that made important contributions to the 17-13 win at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
There was freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds engineering the game-winning drive by making several spectacular individual plays, including a 49-yard pass to wide receiver Brandon Turner, then scoring the go-ahead touchdown on an 8-yard run.
How about sophomore fullback Noah Copeland rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries? It was the second straight strong outing by Copeland, who ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the home finale against Texas State.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green was pleased to see sophomore Danny Ring and freshman Bernie Sarra combine to record eight tackles while sharing time at nose guard. Those two youngsters also did a good job of holding the point of attack against Army's inside running game.
On Army's final drive, it was sophomore cornerback Parrish Gaines who made a shoestring tackle of wide receiver Chevaughn Lawrence that likely saved a touchdown.
"There's definitely some good young talent in the program. I feel good about where we're at talent-wise," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Across the board, we're more athletic than we've ever been. We're faster and stronger than we've ever been."
Navy's depth chart for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl features 29 sophomores or freshmen (11 offense, 15 defense, three specialists). Every position is stocked with promising first- or second-year players, many of whom saw significant playing time this season.
Reynolds is poised to become the first four-year starting quarterback of the triple-option era and will likely set several school records before he's through. The Tennessee native has displayed a good grasp of the intricate offense, strong running ability and an accurate throwing arm while compiling a 6-1 record as a starter.
Reynolds has completed 57.7 percent of passes (56-of-97) for 884 yards and eight touchdowns while tossing just one interception. The 5-foot-11, 199-pound plebe has rushed for 628 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper also likes the potential of sophomore John Hendrick, who is third on the depth chart. Jasper said the Tampa product has good size (6-1, 198), a strong arm and powerful running style.
Navy is well-stocked with promising youngsters at the fullback position as well. Copeland came on strong toward season's end and is second on the team with 691 rushing yards. Fullbacks coach Mike Judge said recently the sophomore has learned better how to find holes inside and has become tougher to tackle.
Freshman Chris Swain impressed the coaching staff after coming back from an injury that sidelined him for much of the season. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Georgia native ran over an Army defender to pick up a first down and rushed for 45 yards on seven carries versus Texas State.
Navy coaches are also high on sophomore Maika Polamalu (6-0, 218) and freshman Quentin Ezell (6-1, 215). "We really like all four of those guys. We've got two big, strong guys (Swain and Ezell) and two smaller, quicker guys (Copeland and Polamalu)," Niumatalolo said.
Slotback is also well-stocked with young talent. Sophomore Geoffrey Whiteside rose to No. 2 on the depth chart and made a lot of big plays this season. The 5-foot-10, 177-pounder from Ohio totaled 20 yards on two runs and two receptions against Army He rushed for 55 yards on seven carries and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass at East Carolina.
"Geoffrey really stepped up as the season went along. It seemed like every time we turned on the tape, he was doing good things," Niumatalolo said.
Fellow sophomore Ryan Williams-Jenkins is third on the depth chart and, like Whiteside, returns kickoffs. Slotbacks coach Danny O'Rourke likes the ability of freshman Demond Brown (Old Mill), who is a member of the traveling squad. Niumatalolo said Colin Osborne is another plebe and local product who could contribute next season.
Navy's top returning wide receivers in 2013 will be rising juniors Matt Aiken, Shawn Lynch and Casey Bolena. Among the youngsters poised to move onto the depth chart are sophomores Brendan Dudeck (6-0, 202) and James King (6-2, 201) along with freshman Devin Crayton (6-2, 170), all of whom possess good size and speed.
The Midshipmen currently start two sophomores along the offensive line — center Tanner Fleming and right guard Jake Zuzek. There are three freshmen on the depth chart in tackle Joey Gaston (6-5, 260), guard E.K. Binns (6-3, 287) and center Brandon Greene (6-3, 268). Niumatalolo said those three plebes are all "big, athletic and smart."
Defensive line coach Dale Pehrson loves the way Ring stays low and gets off blocks. Pehrson has described Sarra as an old-school, throwback type who plays with toughness.
Right-side starter Evan Palelei will be the top returning defensive end next season with sophomore Paul Quessenberry (6-2, 230) and freshman Will Anthony (6-1, 245) the top candidates to battle for the vacant spot on the left side. Pehrson said Quessenberry plays with great intensity and effort while Anthony is so athletic the coaching staff has considered moving him to linebacker.
Sophomores Jordan Drake and Josh Tate are the starter and backup, respectively, at the outside linebacker position known as "Striker." Backing up senior Keegan Wetzel at the outside linebacker spot known as "Raider" are sophomore Obi Uzoma (6-3, 231) and freshman A.K. Akpunku (6-3, 225).
"Obi and A.K. are examples of how we've gotten physically better at certain positions. We've never had outside linebackers with that kind of size and athleticism," Niumatalolo said.
Junior Cody Peterson, who took a starting spot away from senior defensive captain Brye French and recorded a team-high 14 tackles against Army, will be the top returning inside linebacker. Niumatalolo said the staff expects Vinnie Mauro (6-2, 220) to step up as a senior and show the talent that earned him scholarship offers from Wisconsin and several other major-conference schools.
"It's Vinnie's time to shine. He has the ability to do the job," said Niumatalolo, noting that Navy has a history of linebackers emerging as seniors. "I think Vinnie could be like Keegan Wetzel, Jerry Hauburger and Aaron McCauley in that he comes out of nowhere to have a great final year."
Anthony Lewis (6-0, 220) is the only sophomore on the depth chart at inside linebacker. Niumatalolo mentioned Don Pearson (6-3, 205) as a freshman who could make an impact in 2013 provided he continues to add weight and strength.
Navy's secondary boasts a slew of young talent as sophomore Parrish Gaines and freshman Kwazel Bertrand are the starting cornerbacks. Two other plebes, Quincy Adams and Shelley White (Archbishop Spalding) are the top backups.
Sophomore Chris Ferguson has started 14 games at free safety over the past two seasons. Green, who coaches the defensive backs, believes sophomore James Britton (6-2, 215) can take over the "Rover" position being vacated by senior Tra'ves Bush and perform well. Britton played outside linebacker in Navy's nickel and dime packages this season.
Navy also returns current junior Wave Ryder, who took over at strong safety when Ferguson got injured and has started five games. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hawaiian has enjoyed a breakout season with 51 tackles.
"We've had a lot of young guys get playing time and gain experience," Green said. "Now we've got a good foundation of guys coming back."
Navy's specialists are also young with sophomore Pablo Beltran having completed his second season as the starting punter and freshman Nick Sloan performing well as the placekicker. Beltran is averaging 43.9 yards per punt, which is the second-best single-season mark in program history. Sloan has made all 37 of his extra-point attempts and is 10-for-12 on field goals. Coaches have high praise for the performance of long snapper Joe Cardona, a sophomore who has been flawless this season.