Navy football preview: Midshipmen look to another senior pilot

Ken Niumatalolo celebrates during the team’s bowl game last season. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

A college football season like none other is already underway with Central Arkansas and Austin Peay; meanwhile, the rest of the sport holds its breath while trying to hold a massively modified season.

College football coaches are often thinking about making “halftime adjustments” and turning to “Plan B.” They have something in store for every contingency. But has there been anything that could have prepared Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo for 2020?

“I’ve been coaching 31 [years] and let me just say this: no,” Niumatalolo said. “There’s nothing that prepares you. I think about all of us — who would have ever thought that there’s something that shuts down the world? I don’t think anything prepares you for that.”

So, Navy has been extra cautious this summer, leaving nothing to chance.

“Being on a military installation, so to speak, it helps you being that our campus is surrounded by a wall and gates. The bubble is literal, so to speak,” Niumatalolo said.

“You gotta eat differently, you gotta get ready for practice differently. You have to finish practice differently. Those are things we have been planning for since March; follow all of the safety guidelines.”

It’s against this backdrop that Navy prepares for the upcoming season, one with hope but still with a handful of questions.

The first question facing the Midshipmen on the field this summer: Who will be the starting quarterback?

Malcolm Perry (1,084 yards passing and 2,017 yards rushing) graduated and is trying to stick on the Miami Dolphins roster in the NFL, leaving more than a few candidates vying for the vacancy.

But instead of sophomore Perry Olsen or junior Chance Warren, it’s senior Dalen Morris who has emerged as the first-string QB.

“He’s just been the best so far at operating the offense; he’s just been the best in reading, throwing the ball where it’s supposed to go,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve always believed that the number one trait or characteristic of a great quarterback is decision-making.”

While Olsen and Warren may have higher upside, the Navy option offense needs to be directed by sure hands. It’s no accident that in Niumatalolo’s dozen years in Annapolis, the six teams directed by senior starting quarterbacks have gone 53-25, while the other six have posted a 44-34 mark.

A recent example of the senior starter succeeding after sitting was 2016, when Will Worth took over for the injured Tago Smith and directing the Midshipmen to their only AAC Division title. Morris appeared in four games over his first three seasons and has had the benefit of learning behind Perry as well as Zach Abey.

“When you’re young and you come in, you think you can make every throw and make everybody miss,” Morris said. “But as you start to grow and learn the system more you can make better decisions and trust the people around you.”

The people around Morris begin with a fullback rotation consisting of junior Jamale Carothers (734 yards on 6.6 per carry in 2019) and senior Nelson Smith (571 yards while averaging 4.9 per attempt); the duo combined for 21 touchdowns last year.

Starting slotback candidates include seniors C.J. Williams, Keoni-Kordell Makekau and Myles Fells. The trio combined for 640 yards on 120 carries in 2019; in the post-Malcolm Perry world, one can easily see more attempts this fall.

Leading receiver Mychal Cooper (18 catches for 380 yards and two touchdowns) is back, as is Ryan Mitchell (eight receptions for 183 yards and a score). The offensive line has to replace three starters, but they had to replace four last year and still led the nation in rushing. Seniors Peter Nestrowitz and Billy Honaker return.

The Mids’ defense made great strides last year under first-year coordinator Brian Newberry, allowing 112 fewer yards per game than in 2018 while holding foes to 94 yards under their season average. The blitzing, shifting look notched 30 sacks and 22 takeaways last fall and returns seven starters.

The keystone to the unit again will be middle linebacker Diego Fagot, who led the team with 100 tackles as a sophomore. He was also second with 5.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.

“Not only is he a physically gifted linebacker, he’s super smart,” Niumatalolo said. “His football IQ is really, really high, so that allows us to kind of tinker with things that you normally wouldn’t do on defense.”

With a full year at the position under his belt, Fagot expects to be that much sharper this fall.

“I have the liberty to play as fast as I can, whereas last year, I had to take off a little bit,” Fagot said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t take those chances to run, to break through the gap, and make the tackle. I would just kind of sit back and see what the running back does. Whereas this year I know there’s someone outside who will force the ball back in if I don’t make the play, so let me just take this chance.”

The Mids return six other starters on the defensive side of the ball, including the entire secondary.

The schedule begins on Labor Day night against BYU. The Midshipmen were originally slated to face Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 29 before the matchup was moved stateside.

It looked as if the Mids would face the Fighting Irish in Annapolis, Maryland, for the first time ever. That’s before the ACC (which Notre Dame is a member of this year for football only) mandated that nonconference games “must be played in the home state of the ACC institution.”

So instead of opening its season this weekend against its longtime foe (the two schools have played every year since 1927), Navy will face the Cougars for the third time in school history (they’re 1-1, with a win in 1978 and a loss in 1989).

But just like the season like none other, the program adjusts to a change of venue and then opponent for its opener.

“It went from the ‘down’ of not playing Notre Dame here to ‘OK, where do we go from here?’ and just looking at our options.” Niumatalolo said. “We’re excited to be able to play a really good football program that’s got a national brand.”

The American Athletic Conference, due to the departure of Connecticut, will not have divisions in 2020, and the Midshipmen are fortunate not to be facing either conference team ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25 (Cincinnati is No. 20 and UCF is No. 21).

Navy’s recent West Division nemesis Memphis comes to Annapolis Nov. 14; the Tigers have won two of three against the current crop of Navy seniors and have captured the West three years running.

But even in a unique season, there are still those two words that define each autumn: “BEAT ARMY.”

After three straight losses in the series, the Midshipmen beat Army in West Point last December. They’ll have a chance to do so again Dec. 12 in Philadelphia.

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