How high can Navy fly? The Midshipmen will start to find out this spring. They return 15 starters to a team that won 10 games and demolished Missouri 35-13 in the Texas Bowl.
Navy has won seven straight Commander in Chief trophies, and more success could be on the way.
Navy returns quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who could end up being the academy's top QB since Roger Staubach. Navy isn't the national power it was during Staubach's days, but it is one of the most consistent programs in the country with seven consecutive bowl appearances. The Midshipmen also have won at least eight games in each of those seasons.
The trend could continue in 2010, especially if Dobbs is healthy all season. To reach the 10-win mark again, Navy needs to fill spots on the offensive line and at linebacker in its 3-4 scheme.
Here's a look at the Midshipmen as they enter spring drills.
QB Ricky Dobbs gives Navy many options on offense with his ability to pass and run.
Coach: Ken Niumatalolo Last season: 10-4 overall. Beat Missouri in the Texas Bowl.
Spring dates: March 29-April 23.
Dobbs is the key to the offense and to Navy's season. He rushed for 27 touchdowns last season, an NCAA record for a quarterback. Meanwhile, he is Navy's best passing quarterback in decades. Dobbs played with a broken kneecap in the last six games but still rushed for 1,192 yards and passed for 1,031. The Midshipmen have nearly all of their skill position players returning. Navy returns its top six rushers and four of its top five receivers. The Midshipmen also return three starters in the secondary, including Middleton, who led Navy with four interceptions. The Midshipmen also return two standout specialists in Buckley (10-of-13 on field-goal attempts) and Delahooke (43.1 yards per punt).
HELP IS NEEDED
While the offense returns most of its skill-position players and both tackles, Navy must replace its starting interior linemen, a key position in the option offense. Last season was the first since 2004 that Navy didn't lead the country in rushing. Navy must rebuild at linebacker after losing Russ Pospisil, Tony Haberer and Ram Vela. Navy lost all five linebackers who started at least six games last season. One of the projected starters at inside linebacker, Tyler Simmons, will miss spring after injuring his spleen in an offseason skiing accident. Simmons, who had 68 tackles last season, is expected to return in the fall.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
NT Shane Bothel: He will compete with fellow senior Burge during the spring. Burge started six of the last seven games last season, but Bothel came on late last season, too. Bothel finished on a good note with six tackles against Missouri in the bowl game.
G Brady DeMell: DeMell, a junior, earned a starting assignment for the bowl rout of Missouri. He played guard and center last season and will be a key in rebuilding the interior offensive line. DeMell is the No. 1 left guard going into the spring, and he will compete with rising sophomore Josh Cabral.
LB Caleb King: King, a junior, will step into one of the inside linebacker spots vacated by Pospisil and Haberer, who combined for 185 tackles last season. King is one of Navy's hardest hitters, but he was limited to special teams last season.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
Marcus Curry: Curry, a junior slotback, rushed for 585 yards and five touchdowns while catching 10 passes for 287 yards last season. Playing ability is not the issue, though, after Curry tested positive for marijuana during the offseason. Failing a random drug test at the Academy is grounds for expulsion. Although Curry said he did not know a cigar he smoked contained marijuana, reports indicate some at Navy do not support his return to the team. Two other slotbacks - Gee Gee Greene and Bo Snelson - were Navy rarities in that they played as freshmen last season.
Navy has to reach six wins to play in the Poinsettia Bowl. Given the Midshipmen's schedule, that's a given. With four of the first five games on the road, Navy will have a slim margin of error early in the season. Finding answers in the spring would be a definite plus.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.