Navy QB Xavier Arline (7) fakes a handoff to slotback Maquel Haywood (24) during the 123rd Army-Navy football game played at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Army went on to beat Navy 20-17 in double overtime.

Navy QB Xavier Arline (7) fakes a handoff to slotback Maquel Haywood (24) during the 123rd Army-Navy football game played at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Army went on to beat Navy 20-17 in double overtime. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

(Tribune News Service) — When Tommy Laurendine decided in the late 1990s to tinker with triple-option football, he traveled to Georgia Southern to study the patented system used by coach Paul Johnson.

That relationship continued when Johnson became coach at Navy in 2001, and Laurendine has routinely visited Annapolis for coaching clinics ever since.

Now, Laurendine, who was initially hired to coach tight ends in January, will oversee the Midshipmen's slotbacks, one of the most important units in the triple-option.

"I have the utmost respect for these guys. I've known them all for years and know what they've done with the option. I've come up here many times for visits and sat in meeting rooms and learned a great deal from studying Navy film," said Laurendine, who didn't hesitate to join Navy's staff when he got the offer. "Now to be sitting in the room with Grant Chesnut, Ivin Jasper and Ashley Ingram ... these guys really know their stuff and it's very obvious."

Laurendine ran the option while working as offensive coordinator at Southern Arkansas, which set all sorts of school records during his five-year tenure. He had similar success with the offense at Lenoir-Rhyne, which ranked fifth in Division II with almost 300 rushing yards per game.

During stints as offensive coordinator at The Citadel and Mississippi College as well as coach at Sewanee, Laurendine stuck with the option and continued coming to Navy to learn from a coaching staff operating the offense at the highest level. He discovered that former longtime coach Ken Niumatalolo and Jasper, a pair of Johnson disciples, had steadily added all sorts of wrinkles to their system.

At age 55, Laurendine is the oldest member of the coaching staff and brings plenty of knowledge and experience gained during a 32-year career.

Laurendine's relationship with coach Brian Newberry dates back to 2000 when he started at Southern Arkansas, where Newberry worked as a graduate assistant. Laurendine later hired Newberry as his defensive coordinator at Sewanee.

Naturally, Laurendine is proud that his former assistant has climbed the ranks to become a Division I coach and has been impressed by the way Newberry has taken charge of the Navy program.

"My impression of Brian is what I thought it would be when I arrived. He's a special person who really gets it," Laurendine said. "He's got a cool demeanor, but when he steps between those lines, he's a ball coach. That's what I've always liked about him."

Laurendine takes charge of a position group that has lost both starters since the season ended. Sophomore Maquel Haywood, Navy's second-leading rusher with 473 yards in 2022, transferred to Appalachian State, and junior Vincent Terrell, who had 238 rushing yards and 221 receiving yards, was suspended from the team in February and later announced he also was transferring.

"Those are two big losses. Vince and Maquel were big parts of that room," said junior Kai Puailoa-Rojas, who was listed as a backup alongside Amin Hassan going into the game against Army. "As young as we were last year, we're going to be even younger in the position room. It gives the young guys a great opportunity to step up."

Junior Daniel Jones and sophomore Campbell Speights also return to the roster.

Another weapon is Anton Hall Jr., who has been moved from fullback to slotback to add depth. Laurendine said Hall, who rushed for 390 yards last season, was making a smooth transition before being sidelined by a hamstring injury.

"Anton Hall desperately needs those repetitions because it's a whole different world playing slotback as opposed to fullback," Laurendine said. "Anton brings the bigger body we're looking for at the slot position. He also has good hands and runs well. We're hoping he adds a lot to the group."

Laurendine was impressed by the performance of three plebes during spring camp: Brandon Chatman, Fabian France and Eli Heidenreich.

France was a standout sprinter in track and field at Bergen Catholic in New Jersey, capturing the indoor state championship in the 55-meter dash and being named a Nike and New Balance All-America in the 60-meter dash.

Chatman was a candidate for the Admiral Mack Award as Navy's most improved player during spring drills before suffering a broken ankle. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, resident is expected to be fully healthy by the time summer training camp starts.

Heidenreich was named the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Class 6A Player of the Year as a senior at Mount Lebanon High in Pennsylvania after amassing 2,266 all-purpose yards and scoring 29 touchdowns.

"Fabian France and Brandon Chatman are both speed guys who have really stepped up," Puailoa-Rojas said. "Heidenreich is one of the bigger 'A-backs,' so he adds a different element."

Newly hired offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut has said since the day he was hired that Navy must find other ways to get the slotbacks the ball on the perimeter after an NCAA rule that prevents perimeter cut blocking went into effect last season. Puailoa-Rojas described the new offense as a "lot more creative" and noted there will be a slew of schemes American Athletic Conference opponents have not previously seen.

"With the coaching staff expanding the offense and trying to spread things out, we might be more involved," Puailoa-Rojas said. "They're trying to get the ball to us more on the perimeter and I don't know how you can't love that."

Puailoa-Rojas and Jones will be the only senior slots next season and thus will be expected to provide leadership in the meeting room and on the field. Laurendine described Hassan as a "quiet leader" who sets a great example with his intelligence and toughness.

"It's definitely crazy that I'm going into my final year. It feels like just yesterday that I was coming in as a plebe," Puailoa-Rojas said. "It was a reality shock when we were in the [meeting] room and Coach Chesnut said for the seniors to stay back. It was at that moment I was like, 'Wow, I'm already a senior. This is my time.' I'm just trying to take advantage of every moment I step on the field."

Laurendine is being assisted with the slotbacks by Marcus Thomas, who played the position at a high level for Navy from 2011 to 2013. Thomas, the program's all-time leader with 2,338 kickoff return yards, got into coaching at UCLA after serving in the Marine Corps.

Laurendine has leaned heavily on Thomas while learning the ins and outs of the Naval Academy. Puailoa-Rojas said Thomas brings a lot of knowledge and experience to the table along with the "old school 'A-back' culture."

(c)2023 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

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