If any college football team was affected deeply by the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic last season, it was Navy.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo didn’t have his defense tackle during last year’s summer workouts, and they allowed 55 points in Week One to BYU. And his option offense needs repetition in order to hum the way it has in Annapolis over the years. But last year, the offense tallied just 13 points over the last three games.
While we might not be past the pandemic, the Midshipmen are better prepared this summer. “I just knew we had to get back to do what we do. That’s all I was concerned about,” Niumatalolo said at the team’s Media Day earlier this month. “Last year, we couldn’t do any of this stuff and we’re doing it now.”
Success for the Navy program during Niumatalolo’s tenure starts at the quarterback position, and while the Mids don’t need the next Keenan Reynolds or Malcolm Perry directing the option this fall, they need solid play from that position. Sophomores Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai began the month atop the depth chart, with junior Maasai Maynor also a contender.
And the coach wants strength in numbers this fall. “I think of the year of Will (Worth). Will came in played awesome — we thought we had Tago (Smith) and Tago got hurt in the first game and Will wins nine games before getting hurt in the conference championship game,” Niumatalolo said. “With what we do on offense, you need more than one quarterback.”
Arline made three starts last fall, including the game at Army. “I’ve been impressed with his maturity for a young man,” Niumatalolo said. “I see what he does.”
If you’re expecting to learn who will start before Saturday’s regular-season opener against Marshall, good luck — the coach plans to wait until the first offensive series against the Thundering Herd to unveil his starter.
Whoever takes over will be growing with his new weapons, including slotback Chance Warren. “When his number is called he makes that play,” senior wide receiver Mychal Cooper said, “and I think that inspires guys and builds confidence with the rest of the team.”
While the Mids will boast new starters in the backfield, Cooper returns after leading the team in receiving yards last season, while junior Mark Walker paced the team in receptions.
The defense improved as 2020 progressed: After giving up 35 or more points in each of the first three losses, they allowed a total of 44 over their final three games. Nine starters return on that side of the ball, most importantly three-year starter Diego Fagot.
“He makes a play, guys rally around him,” senior safety and fellow co-captain Kevin Brennan said. “Diego is one of those guys that, if another guy makes a play, he’s one of the first guys in there celebrating with him.”
Brennan is one of four seniors starting in the secondary, while the defensive line is anchored by sophomore Donald Berniard. Defensive Coordinator Brian Newberry brought an aggressive mindset in 2019, and after last year’s missteps, the unit has built on that base.
“Coach Newberry was only able to put in probably half of the defensive plays that we now have,” Fagot said. “But now in the 2021 season, we’ve able to build off the foundation of what we did in 2019.”
The Midshipmen play just a pair of teams that were nationally ranked in the preseason, but they’re No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 9 Notre Dame. They also face seven schools receiving votes this month, from Marshall on Labor Day weekend to archrival Army. But the Mids have a chance to gain a little early-season momentum, as four of their first five games are in Annapolis. After a season of semi-silence in the stands, the players are looking forward to the return of their fans to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I think excitement is going to be at an all-time high,” Brennan said. “We got the (Naval Academy Student) Brigade in the stadium one time last year, against Temple, and it made a huge difference in the energy in the stadium, just having those 4,000 people there. So when there’s 35,000 in Navy-Marine Corps (Stadium) it’s going to be a great time.”
While they have been picked to finish eighth (in a tie with East Carolina) in the 11-team AAC, remember: They were picked to finish next to last in the West Division two years ago and wound up tying for the division title. They’ve gone 30-18 since joining the league in 2015, and those who underestimate this program do so at their peril.
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