Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo says spring practices could start as early as next week
By BILL WAGNER | The Capitol | Published: March 12, 2021
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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — When Navy athletics entered a minimum 10-day pause on March 1, Ken Niumatalolo got a sickening feeling in his stomach. His thoughts went back to this time last year when college athletics started shutting down.
Navy's 14th-year football coach initially thought spring practice would have to be delayed. Within a few weeks, it became apparent that important period of development would be canceled.
Niumatalolo believes losing spring camp was the first significant step backward that ultimately led to the Midshipmen finishing 3-7 last season.
Upon learning on Wednesday that Navy was extending the pause for at least another week, Niumatalolo decided to change the dates of this year's spring camp. The Midshipmen were initially scheduled to start practicing March 29, but now might do so as early as Monday.
Niumatalolo told The Capital that Navy spring football would get underway whenever the current restriction of movement order imposed on midshipmen is lifted.
"We're pushing up spring practice to as soon as possible. As soon as this pause is over, we're hitting it," Niumatalolo said. "I don't want to delay any longer because something else might come up. Whatever is the first day we can come back, we're going."
Niumatalolo is concerned another outbreak of COVID-19 at the Naval Academy could shut down athletics for the remainder of the spring. He does not want to risk having spring practice cut short or interrupted.
"We can't go two years without any spring practice. If we did, it would be absolutely devastating," Niumatalolo said.
In years past, Niumatalolo has not utilized all 15 practices allotted by the NCAA. He is not giving up a single second of practice time this spring as the coaching staff begins the process of rebounding from a disappointing season.
"We need as many repetitions as possible," he said flatly.
Niumatalolo learned the hard way just how critical spring camp is. Navy needed to identify and develop a new starting quarterback to replace the record-setting Malcolm Perry, and that process was delayed until August training camp.
Navy never fully recovered from not having the spring to evaluate the quarterbacks. The Midshipmen started three signal-callers over the course of the season with Dalen Morris giving way to Tyger Goslin then regaining the job back before ultimately being replaced by plebe Xavier Arline.
"Not being able to work with the quarterbacks during the spring really hurt and played a big part in how the season went," Niumatalolo said.
Making matters worse was the fact Arline, whom the coaching staff wanted to get a long look at during preseason camp, was not allowed to practice until late August due to coronavirus protocols.
Niumatalolo thinks back to the dizzying sequence of events of a year ago that caused spring practice being canceled. Conditions surrounding COVID were no better by the time Navy football returned to the field in August and the veteran coach made the fateful decision to not conduct full-contact practices.
Navy was not physically prepared for the season opener and got dominated by BYU during a 55-3 blowout. Niumatalolo announced a few days later the Midshipmen would begin hitting but by then the 2020 team was way behind.
"Everything about last season was so different from anything we've ever dealt with. We didn't have spring ball and we didn't practice normally during fall camp," he said. "It's like trying to repair a roof in the middle of a storm. It just doesn't work. We were trying to bake a cake even though we were missing some of the main ingredients. Spring practice was the flour. August practice was the butter and eggs."
What happened last season has informed Niumatalolo's decision-making. He is not going to tiptoe to the start line this coming August.
"My theme going into next season is either we're all-in or we don't go at all. I'm definitely not going to do what I did last year," he said. "We were just trying to make it through last season while keeping everyone safe."
Niumatalolo realizes it's possible to get through a season by relying on regular testing and adhering to strict protocols. No college football coach was more careful than Niumatalolo and Navy still was forced to take a monthlong break due to a spate of positive tests.
"Obviously, the virus is still a threat. However, I feel a lot more comfortable with preparing the team now that I have more information and know a lot more about how it all works," Niumatalolo added.
Niumatalolo believes some of the "new normal" elements of operating a program may remain in place even after coaches and players are vaccinated. Online staff meetings and virtual recruiting could be among the developments that are here to stay.
"I think we've learned a lot about news ways to communicate through all of this," he said. "We've been able to reach a lot more recruits and have a lot more home visits through the virtual environment."