Army senior fullback Collin Mooney was slightly horrified when he first read the comments made by his defensive coordinator during preseason practices: "Collin Mooney," said John Mumford, who is in his ninth season as an Army assistant, "is probably better than any Navy fullback we've ever faced."
Mooney understood that his coach was trying to pay him a compliment. But at the time, he had exactly zero starts, six carries, and 22 rushing yards in his collegiate career.
"I was cringing because [the comments were made] before we had even played a game," Mooney said Monday at the annual Army-Navy news conference. "It was like, 'Who is this Mooney guy?' I hadn't even done anything."
But Mooney can feel better now, as he enters his final game, the 109th meeting between Army and Navy on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. Not only has he been the workhorse of a new-look Army offense, but he has put up numbers that a Navy fullback would envy: 1,285 yards on 214 carries - an average of 6 yards per carry and 116.8 yards per game - and eight touchdowns. He is 53 yards shy of the school record for rushing yards in a season (Mike Mayweather's 1,338 yards, set in 1990).
"I think he's really good," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I've been really impressed with him. He's tough, he's got great feet, he's strong, he's run the ball against everybody."
Reluctant as he is to admit it - particularly this week, as the Black Knights (3-8) try to end a six-year losing streak to Navy (7-4) - Mooney looked to the Midshipmen's fullbacks for help as he prepared for his first year as a starter. During the off-season, second-year coach Stan Brock switched Army's offense from a pro-style set to the option, and told Mooney that he was going to be at the center of the change.
There was no question that Mooney, a compact 5 feet 10 and 247 pounds, had the attitude and toughness required to play the position. His teammates describe him as their strongest and hardest-working player; said senior linebacker Frank Scappaticci, "Everyone who watches Collin prepare or work out knows that he's an absolute physical beast."
(This is a player, after all, who once broke his nose while chasing a cow that had escaped from its enclosure at a friend's house. It was nighttime, and Mooney tripped over a railroad tie while trying to get the cow back to its pen. He also suffered a concussion and had to miss a handful of high school practices. "It's OK; it gives me some character in the face," he said with a smile.)
But Mooney hadn't been asked to regularly carry the ball since he was a freshman in high school in Katy, Texas. And while he learned a great deal from his predecessor at Army, former captain Mike Viti, Viti had a total of 32 carries for 81 yards last season. Navy has dominated its fellow service academies in recent years with its high-octane triple-option offense, so Mooney watched film of fullbacks Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard and Eric Kettani.
"I've had to watch them to pick up how to be a running fullback," Mooney said. "For years, I was just a bruising, neckroll-wearing, blocking fullback, and that was all I did - just ram my head against the wall. Now it's a different dynamic. I have to be able to move and see holes, and I've learned from watching them. That's helped me out, both studying their film and also doing it."