Navy blessed with tremendous depth along the offensive line
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: August 29, 2018
ANNAPOLIS (Tribune News Service) — It might be an understatement to describe the competition along Navy’s offensive line as stiff. Fierce and intense would probably be better words.
Jake Hawk started 12 of 13 games at left tackle last season, but suddenly finds himself the backup behind Kendel Wright at that spot.
Laurent Njiki and David Forney are engaged in such a close battle at left guard that a starter had not been declared going into the final week of practice prior to the season opener.
Ford Higgins and Bryan Barrett provide a significant contrast in size and style at center. Higgins is the definite starter, but Barrett could play against certain defensive alignments.
Chris Gesell and Steve Satchell are savvy seniors who have both played extremely well at right guard.
Andrew Wood is entering his third season as the starter at right tackle, but backup Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa has proven during preseason practice that he deserves some game repetitions.
“We have as much talent, age, experience and athleticism as we’ve had in a long time,” Navy running game coordinator Ashley Ingram said. “We have as much depth from 1 to 10 as I can remember during my time here.”
Ingram is beginning his 11th season of coaching the Navy offensive line so he should know. With at least two solid players at each position, the Midshipmen should be able to substitute liberally to give the starters some rest.
“Our depth is really good so we’re going to be able to rotate a lot of guys. There’s nothing better than having fresh legs coming out on the field,” Higgins said. “Having me out there tired is not better than someone coming in fresh.”
Hawk is a senior with tremendous experience, having appeared in 27 straight games. One would think the Fort Meade High graduate’s starting spot was safe coming into this season, but that was not the case.
Wright, who played in 11 games as a member of the point after touchdown and field goal unit in 2017, took his game to another level and beat out the incumbent. The 6-foot-4, 278-pound junior has shed 12 pounds since last season in order to improve his mobility.
“Kendel is a junior now and has been in the system. He’s just very talented, probably the most talented lineman we have,” Ingram said. “To be honest with you, Kendel’s had as good a fall camp as anybody on the offensive line. He’s just playing really, really well.”
What is unusual about the situation is that Hawk has also improved greatly and is performing at a high level, according to Ingram.
“Jake is not playing poorly. In fact, I think Jake has a chance to be a better football player this season than he was last season,” Ingram said. “We plan to play both of them a lot. I think maybe they could split reps.”
Apparently, that is the plan at several of the offensive line positions. It appears Njiki will start at left guard in Saturday’s opener at Hawaii, but Forney will see plenty of action – perhaps substituting on both the left and right side.
Navy graduated both starting guards in Robert Lindsey and Evan Martin. However, Forney came on strong toward the end of last season and actually took the starting job away from Lindsey for the last two games. Njiki started in place of an injured Martin against Tulane and performed well.
“Laurent’s had a really good camp and brought a great mentality. There’s a level of toughness about that young man that we really like,” Ingram said. “Going into the first game, Laurent probably has the lead a little bit. Forney is doing some good thing as well. I expect both of them to play a lot.”
Gesell and Satchell were listed equal atop the depth chart at right guard going into August training camp. Satchell has more experience, having played in 26 games as a member of the PAT-field goal unit. Gesell, who has been beset by injuries throughout his career, saw his first career action against Virginia in the Military Bowl last December.
“Chris is a talented kid, but he’s always been injured. He had an offseason surgery and that basically kept him out all of last season,” Ingram said. “This spring was really the first time (Gesell) has been completely healthy and he played really well.”
Ingram described Satchell as a “hard-nosed player who knows the system really well” and said he will see considerable playing time as well.
Navy graduated a standout center in Parker Wade, who started all 13 games and graded out very high a year ago. Higgins, who backed up both Hawk and Wood at the two tackle positions last season, was moved to center on an experimental basis during the spring. Ingram liked what he saw and decided to keep the 6-foot-2, 260-pound junior there.
“Ford is doing a great job. Skill-wise, he’s as talented a center as we’ve had in a long time,” Ingram said. “Ford is not the biggest guy in the world, but he has a great mentality and great athleticism. He’s kind of the vocal leader of the unit.”
Higgins was a three-sport athlete at Greater Atlanta Christian School, earning a total of eight letters in football, wrestling and lacrosse. He was a Touchdown Club of Atlanta award winner and earned All-State honors as a senior.
Offseason ankle surgery forced Higgins to sit out spring practice, but he began the transition to center by working on snapping the ball and studying film. August training camp was a crash course on how to truly play the position and the Norcross, Georgia resident feels comfortable.
“It’s not too difficult. Coach wanted that to happen and I’m here to play wherever they want me and whatever helps the team out the best,” he said. “I was excited about (playing center), just knowing the coaching staff wanted me on the field. I feel really confident about anything that comes my way.”