Navy Football preview: Midshipmen kick off new era in Annapolis

College football is one intriguing animal. The sport that trumpets tradition is now known for players racing to enter the transfer portal, coaches breaking contracts for better jobs and schools leapfrogging leagues. Blink and you might miss something.

Over the next week, we’ll try to make sense of the local FBS teams, from Maryland making a summer statement to pivotal second seasons at both Virginia and Virginia Tech. James Madison, meanwhile, will try to build off a successful first season in the Sun Belt Conference.

But the 2023 season kicks off Saturday with “Week Zero,” with a local school making a 3,354-mile trip overseas to face a team called “The Fighting Irish” in Ireland’s capital. Makes perfect sense.

Navy was a model of consistency under coach Ken Niumatalolo until a few years ago. The team reached 10 bowls in his first 12 full seasons at the helm before posting an 11-23 mark from 2020-22. That stretch included a 10-13 AAC record and a 1-5 showing against fellow military academies Army and Air Force.

The recent struggles against rival Army factored into Niumatalolo’s dismissal last December, after the Midshipmen’s 20-17 double-overtime defeat at the hands of the Black Knights to close out a disappointing 2022 campaign. The team has lost five of their last seven matchups with Army, after winning 14 straight in the series.

But while Navy begins anew, it’s not a complete regime change, and many of the people in place know the personnel and system.

A (not so) new era

New head coach Brian Newberry is hardly new to the program, having served as Navy’s defensive coordinator the previous four seasons. Even with the Midshipmen coming off three straight losing campaigns, Newberry has plenty of reason for optimism.

“We’ve got a really good nucleus of players coming back. Sixteen starters off a team that did some good things, despite our record,” Newberry said last month at the team’s Media Day. “I thought we got better as the season went on — obviously didn’t finish it the way we wanted to, but played some games at the end.”

Five of the Mids’ eight losses in 2022 were by one possession.

The first order of business for the new regime: Update an offense that peaked the first year the Midshipmen played in the AAC, but that’s become predictable thanks to its success.

“If we’ve gotta throw it 15 or 20 times to win, that’s great,” Newberry said. “If we’ve gotta throw it five to 10 times a game to win it, that’s great. We’re going to do whatever we can to win football games around here. But, we need to have the ability to take what people give us. We can’t be one-dimensional.”

Offensive Coordinator Grant Chesnut comes to Annapolis after spending the last nine seasons directing the spread formation at Kennesaw State, where Newberry was the defensive coordinator from 2015-18.

“I love what we’re doing,” Newberry said. “I think it’s creative, I think it’s unique and I think it’s different than what anybody else is in the country is doing. And it’s our own.”

The Mids averaged the fourth fewest passes per game in all of FBS last year.

In theory, the new passing threat will help keep opposing defenses honest.

Fresh offense, familiar faces

Senior center Lirion Murtezi anchors the offensive line, a unit that returns four starters.

“Coach Chesnut is just really creative with all of the different things he does. At our bone we’re still a triple-option team, but being able to throw all of the different, creative things around the triple-option is going to make us an explosive team on offense this year,” Murtezi said. “I think a lot of defenses, before, they kind of just prepared for us just running the ball a lot. I think they’re going to have to do a lot more work this year. I’m super-excited for our offense.”

Murtezi will be snapping to a combination of three quarterbacks: seniors Tai Lavatai and Xavier Arline, plus sophomore Blake Horvath. Lavatai and Arline have combined for 27 career starts, 193 rushes and 507 passes.

“That gives me some solace,” Newberry said. “Because we’ve played with those guys, we’ve won games with those guys, we know who those guys are. They’ve both gotten better.”

While Horvath did not play a down last fall, he’s climbed up the depth chart to be listed as co-first string with Lavatai. The team also returns leading rusher junior Daba Fofana, who dashed for 769 yards and six scores last year, and leading receiver senior Jayden Umbarger, who caught 16 passes for 265 yards and two scores his junior year.

A stalwart defense

The defense lost all-AAC linebacker John Marshall to graduation, but the bulk of last year’s unit is returning this year. P.J. Volker has taken over as defensive coordinator after coaching the linebackers for the past four years.

“We’ve always played hard on defense here and I think we can take that to the next level,” Newberry said. “I don’t have to be in that room — it’s the same system. At the same time, I want him to feel like he can add his creative juices to what we’re doing and there’s going to be some tweaks. There always are year-to-year.”

Senior defensive end Jacob Busic, who finished second on the team with six sacks last year, enters his third year as a starter.

“We’ve been playing with each other for a very long time,” Busic said. “One thing I love about our defense is we’re never stagnant — we get better every year.”

The Mids ranked first in the conference against the run and on third down last fall, allowing the second-fewest yards and fourth-fewest points.

New class of competition

Navy will be competing in an updated American Athletic Conference this fall: Cincinnati, Houston and UCF have left for the greener pastures of the Big 12, while six schools have taken their place (I’m just happy this league doesn’t have a number tied to it that gets mocked).

Newcomers Charlotte, Rice, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, UAB and UTSA all officially joined the AAC on July 1.

“The thing that’s a little different this year — I think the parity and the quality in our league from top to bottom is outstanding,” Newberry said. “That’s really what you want in a conference. Week-to-week anybody can beat anybody in our conference on a given Saturday, and that makes it exciting to me.”

The schedule begins with a bang against 13th-ranked Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. Three of the last six games in the series between Navy and The Fighting Irish have been decided by one possession.

The team gets a week off before hosting Wagner on Sept. 9, and the focus of the players is as much internal as it is on the upcoming slate.

“Just see the small attention to detail and execution. That’s been a huge emphasis from Coach Newberry, Coach Volker and Coach Chesnut,” senior linebacker Will Harbour said. “We gotta execute better, because that’s the difference in those small [margin] wins and losses.”

Other key dates are Oct. 21, when Air Force drops by Annapolis, and Dec. 9, when the Midshipmen meet Army in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Even though the program has had a rough go the last few seasons, the new coach feels this team has what it takes to contend for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and a bowl berth.

“This place has always been kind of a unicorn because of the brotherhood, because of the bond that these guys have, because of the things that they go through,” Newberry said. “I think that’s always been an edge for us. I think it’s been a force multiplier for us. We have a bunch of unselfish dudes that just want to win. They play for each other.”

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up