Navy is getting back to the basics.
And after consecutive losing seasons for the first time in almost 20 years, head coach Ken Niumatalolo believes he has a team that will do more than provide tough outs to schools in the American Athletic Conference.
College Football Season Preview
“We’re probably one of the top if not the most athletic team that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Niumatalolo said this past Monday in a news conference previewing Saturday’s game with Delaware. “I feel really good about that. Just our athleticism, our speed. Again, for us at the Naval Academy, who we are-and having been here for 25 years (total as an assistant and head coach), I’ve seen a lot of good teams come through here. We’re as fast as we’ve ever been.”
Last year’s team was outscored 72-10 in its first two games and began the season 1-6 before finishing strong. Four of Navy’s eight losses were one-possession affairs, and the coach feels the experience gained by a young roster last fall will turn the tide in those tight games this year.
“The experience you get, there’s no other way you can get that. You have to go through the fire,” Niumatalolo said. “A tough schedule (11 of their 12 foes in 2021 were bowl-eligible) accentuates it even more.”
The Midshipmen return 49 lettermen and 10 starters from the team that beat Army last December. That victory saw quarterback Tai Lavatai rush for 62 yards and two touchdowns in addition to completing four of six passes for 82 more yards.
“I thought the growth from the Notre Dame game to the Army game was as big a jump as I’ve ever seen in a quarterback,” Niumatalolo. “Just to see him in the Army game: the way he operated. It’s been my experience that if you can operate in that game you can operate in any game.”
The junior is more than ready to build on last season’s late-success.
“It’s very important for me to know the offense inside-out,” Lavatai said. “You can’t ever watch too much film, trying to get a bead on what they (his running backs) can do and what the options can be outside of what they’re doing.”
Sophomores Maquel Haywood and Anton Hall along with junior Vincent Terrell comprise the remainder of the starting backfield entering Saturday’s opener against Delaware: the trio combined for 33 yards on 13 carries in 2021. Wide receivers Mark Walker and Jordan Umbarger combined for 13 catches in their 11 combined starts last fall. The offensive line is anchored by senior captain Kip Frankland, who feels Lavatai is ready to take this attack to the next level.
“The way he’s matured in the locker room is what I think has been great,” Franklin said. “He’s at a point where he can lead this football team. I think one of the things (has been) the way he’s leading the team as a whole.”
Frankland was the only lineman to start all 12 games last year and earned All-East honors. And while the Germantown, Tennessee, native is focused on improving a ground game that was held to 226 yards rushing (the 2019 team averaged 360 yards and led the nation in running the ball), his postgraduate hopes involve the air as he’s looking to becoming a pilot (he’s watched “Top Gun-Maverick” five times already, making him an ace of sorts).
Those following this team over the last few years will have to get used to a new difference-maker on defense as Diego Fagot to the NFL where he was waived by the Baltimore Ravens last week. But the lessons of the player who led the team in tackles three straight years remain for players like starting striker linebacker John Marshall.
“He was just a great leader,” Marshall said. “I was kind of a quieter guy last year, more internal, but now I’m thinking more outward-based just because of his leadership style and what he did last year.”
Marshall finished second to Fagot last season with 54 tackles and helped the defense rank second in the American Athletic Conference against the run and third overall as Brian Newberry enters his fourth season as defensive coordinator.
“Last year, we caught Houston off-guard with some of our three-high safety stuff,” Niumatalolo said. “Every year, he’s evolving.”
The Mids play their first two games at home and five of their first eight in Annapolis. Before COVID turned one of the best game-day atmospheres in the Mid-Atlantic upside down, Navy posted eight straight winning seasons at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (going 38-7 over those years). One factor in their success over the years has been the late-summer/early-autumn heat, while another factor is having the brigade of students standing behind them.
“We love Annapolis-we love playing for the brigade, we love being here. This is our home,” senior right tackle Kip Frankland said. “We’re ready for the heat — the heat is no stranger to us.”
On Nov. 12, the Midshipmen face Notre Dame in nearby Baltimore (hosting the Fighting Irish in Annapolis would be nothing short of a miracle of the highest degree).
“It’s going to be exciting. We’ve played them before here (in Baltimore) and there have been some close games. (New Fighting Irish) Coach Freeman is a great football coach,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s always exciting playing them, and playing them in Baltimore close to Annapolis is gonna be awesome too.”
But for the next few months, the Notre Dame game may as well be in 2025. Because Delaware drops by Annapolis and the Mids are getting back to the basics of becoming bowl-eligible.
And Niumatalolo is ready.
“I just can’t wait to play,” he said. “I’m really excited about this football team. And just being able to do what we do from January on, I’m just excited to see the product.”