Previously on WTOP.COM’s Sports Page–

The United States Naval Academy is all about tradition.  The pageantry.  The knowledge that after four years of playing on the field these young men will graduate to a different field where the stakes are of a different nature.  Heisman winners Joe Bellino & Roger Staubach.  Forty-plus years of playing the Washington Generals to Notre Dame.  The Commander in Chief’s Trophy.  The annual matchup with Army that might not mean much in the national rankings but ranks high in our nation’s hearts.   Navy’s tradition now includes the newest BCS conference–the American Athletic Conference (at least they didn’t pigeonhole themselves by tying it to an ocean or a number made void by expansion).  Two of the Midshipmen’s league foes this fall–UConn and South Florida– had yet to join Division I-A when most of the players on the current Navy team were born.  Tradition, indeed.

For Coach Ken Niumatalolo, shedding the program’s independent football status was a necessary move forward in the 21st century where every school except Notre Dame, BYU and the United States Military Academy belongs to a league (in 1978 when Division I split into I-A and I-AA, there were 33 such schools).  With new traditional opponents that hail from recruiting hotbeds in Florida, Texas and all over the south, the coach is pleased with Navy’s next step:  “What it adds is another goal for us…which makes us very excited, to have an opportunity to play for a conference championship.”

Thank goodness for the sake of tradition Keenan Reynolds returns for his senior season.  The quarterback is 993 yards away from breaking Napoleon McCallum’s career rushing record and stands six touchdown passes away from tying Bill Byrne’s career mark.  After leading the Mids to a 23-14, where does he want to improve?  The senior wants to limit turnovers–as Navy lost 17 of 24 fumbles last fall.  Reynolds says, “85 percent of those turnovers were directly placed on my shoulders, my fault…whether I was careless with ball-handling or pitches”.  While he’s been more of a threat on the ground than in the air during his career, Reynolds is looking forward to improving as a passer this year.  He has the perfect weapon in wide receiver Jamir Tillman, who led the team in catches and receiving yards as a sophomore:  “he’s very competitive…and that’s one thing I really like about him.  In practice if we misconnect he comes back and we try to figure it out.  That’s one of those intangibles that make him such a great player.”  If they’re able to consistently threaten in the air, watch out AAC.

Navy coughed up 30 or more points seven times last fall.  Defensive lineman Brandon Sarra knows that trading in the Texas States and Georgia Southerns for the SMU’s and ECU’s will be a challenge, telling WTOP “we lost five starters who played a ton of games for us. Two and three-year guys…even a four-year starter like Parish Gaines.”  The Mids also have to replace leading tackler Jordan Drake.  Sarra and fellow senior Will Anthony are expected to make noise in the trenches this fall, while junior Brendon Clements will anchor the secondary.

While the Midshipmen have upgraded from the VMI’s and Western Kentuckys, it’s not as though this is the SEC.  The AAC ranks 7th in BCS conferences by–right behind the Mountain West.  The Midshipmen’s preseason rating by that site is fourth-best in the league–trailing only Memphis, Cincinnati and UCF.  Niumatalolo isn’t intimidated–adding, “you know– we’ve played a lot of teams in the conference and we’ve played a lot of people.  It’s not like we were a high school and decided to come up and play.”  Case in point– Navy beat SMU in 2011, topped ECU in 2012 and edged Temple last year.  Saturday’s game with Colgate is the first of an early season Annapolis run:  five of their first seven games are at home.  Brandon Sarra likes the opportunity: “we like playing at home– it’s always good to be in front of the fans. Navy Marine Corps is always rocking.”  This year’s senior class is 12-4 in Annapolis.  More importantly, they’re 3-0 against Army West Point.  Tradition.