Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo knew fullback Chris Swain had potential last season, when he spotted the powerful freshman behind starter Noah Copeland.
It was during his team's final game, a blowout defeat to Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco's AT&T Park, that Niumatalolo fully recognized how Swain's breakaway speed complemented his power.
"The first time I really realized his true speed is when he broke that touchdown against Arizona State. Those guys can run," Niumatalolo recalled Saturday in Annapolis.
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- Ken Niumatalolo
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 550 Taylor Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21401, USA
"When they didn't catch him, I said, 'Whoa, he's faster than I thought.' The knack that he has for breaking runs is not [just] a knack. He's physically strong. He's a machine. He's hard to bring down."
Swain's performance in the bowl — carrying the ball four times for a career-best 93 yards, including the aforementioned 46-yard score as well as a 36-yard run — solidified his spot as Copeland's backup going into the 2013 season.
What Swain did in Saturday's annual Blue-Gold intrasquad scrimmage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium put the 5-foot-11, 232-pound sophomore from Macon, Ga., into the conversation as a potential starter for the season opener Sept. 7 at Indiana.
In a 27-0 win for the Blue team, Swain broke off a 41-yard touchdown run and also had an apparent 43-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty.
"The kid is as talented as we've ever had [at fullback]. He's big, strong, fast, he's just a young pup, doesn't know how good he can be," Niumatalolo said. "We've got to do a good job of bringing him along because the guy in front of him is pretty good, too."
Swain, who ran on his high school's 4x100 meter relay team, said he "feels faster" than he did a year ago. He also believes that he still has plenty of competiton at fullback.
"It's more than me and Noah. It's Quinton Singleton and Quentin Ezell," said Swain, whose younger brother, Myles, is a freshman slotback for the Midshipmen. "We all have the ability to make plays. We just have to work hard."
Niumatalolo said Swain will push Copeland for playing time and the third-year coach could see himself alternating them as starters. As a sophomore, the 5-10, 214-pound Copeland was second only to senior Gee Gee Greene in rushing with 762 yards and five touchdowns on 162 carries.
"The best guy's gonna play," Niumatalolo said. "The kid's that good — we'd be dumb not to play him."
A year ago, quarterback John Hendrick came into preseason camp fighting for the No. 2 spot beind then-starter Trey Miller. He watched freshman Keenan Reynolds leapfrog over him — and Miller — to become Navy's starter the last eight games.
Now a junior, Hendrick knows that his chance will likely only come if Reynolds gets hurt.
"I have a lot of experience in this offense and I just have to show them what I can do," Hendrick said. "You always have to prepare like you're the starter because you never know what can happen, especially in this offense. I don't want it [Reynolds getting hurt] to happen, but if it does, I have to be ready to step into this role,"
After a shaky start Saturday, when he bobbled the first snap after replacing Reynolds, Hendrick played fairly well. He finished 5 of 8 passing for 42 yards and showed an ability to get out of the pocket to run.
"John's a good quarterback. Like everyone else, he made some mistakes, but he's not the only guy," Niumatalolo said. "He's definitely a clear-cut No. 2 quarterback, [but] he has to get better. The hard part [for] John is that he's in there with the second-string line, so he's running for his life. I have confidence in John."
Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper promised during spring practice that the Midshipmen would run — and pass — more out of the shotgun formation in the fall.
But when was the last time Navy lined up four receivers, as it did on several occasions Saturday?
Jasper thought Navy could have done more with with a spread offense last season, particularly after Reynolds had established himself as a quarterback who could pass as well as run.
"The key is that we've got to get good at it," Jasper said Saturday after Reynolds connected on 13 of 15 passes for 141 yards. "Last year it was part of our package but I did not do a good job of implementing it, calling it enough. When we did do it, we had success with it. If we get good at it we'll be hard to defend."