The first time Mike Stukel suited up for Navy came as a backup quarterback in the 2009 season opener at Ohio State, after fellow sophomore Kriss Proctor seriously injured his knee in practice. The first time Stukel played came the following week, when starter Ricky Dobbs did the same in a game against Louisiana Tech.
Stukel, who had played the position in high school, had come into that season vying for time at slotback.
"I probably had the best summer camp since I've been here," Stukel, now a senior, recalled earlier this week after practice. "Kriss tore his meniscus two weeks before the Ohio State game. I moved back to quarterback and I got to play quarterback before Kriss did, which is pretty funny."
Proctor is now Navy's starting quarterback and Stukel is back where he started — trying to get on the field among what Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has called the deepest group of slotbacks in recent history.
"If you have a good practice [week], you're going to play. If you make plays, coaches are going to get you on the field," Stukel said.
Stukel seemingly had a chance to play more earlier this season when Aaron Santiago was out for six games with a broken arm. But after rushing six times for 54 yards and catching a 37-yard pass against Southern Mississippi, Stukel dropped what would have been a key touchdown pass early in the second half against the Scarlet Knights. Navy lost by a point.
"That was tough," Stukel said. "I just told myself that it happens to everybody. I had a lot of confidence going into that, and then it kind of dropped off a little bit and it got a little shaky, but I think I've gained it back for the most part."
As importantly, Stukel appears to have gained back the confidence of his coaches. He has played a little more the past two weeks after barely being involved against East Carolina and Notre Dame, and has scored touchdowns in each of the team's victories, over Troy and Southern Methodist, to help Navy (4-6) keep its alive its chance to become bowl-eligible.
Stukel hopes to get more of an opportunity Saturday when the Midshipmen try for their third straight victory when they play at San Jose State (3-7).
"You kind of control your own destiny, you've got to make the most of your opportunities when you get that playing time," Stukel said. "I'm not really disappointed in the time I've seen on the field or not; it's kind of how things happened. It's fun to get out there when you get that opportunity to make a play for a team."
Starting fullback Alexander Teich said Stukel typifies what Niumatalolo and his coaches are looking for from their players.
"When the team needs him, and the coaches change around his position, he's always a guy who's said, 'Yes, sir, I'll do it,' " Teich said. "Instead of complaining, which you'll get a lot of different places, here it's not about you. It's about this team and the guys around you, and Mike's always been willing to make the sacrifices for his brothers on the team."
Said Niumatalolo: "I couldn't be more proud of the kid. We've moved him early on in his career back and forth and he didn't say a word, went where he had to. I'm happy for the kid that he's producing because he's been a model player. He's done well when he's got in there."
Stukel acknowledges that before accepting his appointment to the academy, he nearly decided to go to Football Championship Subdivision power Georgia Southern because it was closer to his home in Fleming Island, Fla., and "the military scared me a little away from here."
He thought about leaving during prep school and then after his sophomore year. He also considered staying at the academy and switching to baseball, a sport he had played in high school.
"It wouldn't have been a good decision," he said.
Stukel also recalled the reason he had decided to go to Navy in the first place.
"There was nothing that really compared to playing Division I football and playing Notre Dame, Army-Navy, those games," he said.
What has surprised Stukel is how well he adjusted to the military aspects of academy life.
"It's been better than I thought. I never thought I'd serve in the military," said Stukel, who will go into the Marines after graduation. "It's been good; I definitely like where I'm at. I'm glad I can serve my country. I almost think if I didn't go to an academy school, I'd possibly think of doing some background in the military. I'm definitely embracing it. I don't reget it at all."
@ San Jose State (3-7)
Site: Spartan Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
Time: 4 p.m.
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: First meeting
Line: Navy by 41/2
Navy offense vs. San Jose State defense: The Midshipmen are coming off one of their most efficient, if one-dimensional, performances of the season. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor attemped only three passes, throwing two incompletions and an interception, but directed the triple option to near perfection in a 24-17 win at Southern Methodist. Proctor ran for 107 of his team's 335 yards against a team ranked 23rd against the rush. The Spartans, who have lost three straight, are ranked 103rd and give up over 202 yards a game rushing. Since San Jose State doesn't get to the quarterback much — the Spartans are only a little better than Navy in this area — Proctor might have some time to throw play-action passes.
Navy defense vs. San Jose State: The difference in Navy's winning its last two games and giving itself a chance to become bowl-eligible — the Midshipmen have to beat San Jose State and Army on Dec. 10 to get to the Military Bowl — has been the rejuvenated play of its defense. Navy did a good job shutting down a June Jones-coached passing game last week in Dallas and will face a similar, if less formidable, challenge from Spartans quarterback Matt Faulkner, who has his team ranked 35th nationally with just over 264 yards a game. But the Spartans are mistake-prone. Faulkner has thrown 11 of his team's 13 interceptions, and San Jose State has lost 15 fumbles.