Niumatalolo's preparations for Navy football include two-week quarantine, six weeks of workouts
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: June 19, 2020
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Preparing for a college football season in the time of pandemic is a complicated process.
After three months of waiting and wondering, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo finally has a plan.
Navy announced earlier this month it would host Notre Dame in the 2020 season opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during Labor Day weekend. It will mark the first time in the 94-year history of the series the annual contest will be held in Annapolis.
Niumatalolo must figure out how to get the Midshipmen ready for arguably the toughest opponent of the season. Some early pundits have already proclaimed Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll, as a leading contender for the College Football Playoff.
Navy players will report to the academy on July 5 and spend two weeks in quarantine. Niumatalolo said football-related activities can begin July 21 and guessed the first two weeks would be spent focused solely on strength and conditioning. Football practices would likely get underway the first week of August.
Niumatalolo noted that most of the Power 5 conference football programs have already brought their players back for voluntary workouts.
“We’re going to have a shorter amount of time to get ready than most people. It’s not ideal. We just have to adjust to the situation and do the best we can,” he said. “You can’t complain. You just have to find a way to maximize the time we have.”
Navy was forced to cancel spring practice due to the coronavirus and also could not hold offseason workouts as usual. Niumatalolo lamented the missed opportunity to evaluate younger players and get them bigger, faster and stronger. He is hopeful the innate nature of midshipmen will have prompted players to work out on their own.
“You cannot make up for lost time. We will have missed almost six months of preparation,” Niumatalolo said. “Fortunately, I feel really good about the culture of our program. I think the discipline of our players will come to the surface during this time. Hopefully, that will be our edge — that we’re more disciplined than other teams.”
Niumatalolo went to his home state of Hawaii during the Naval Academy spring break and wound up staying for three months. The 12th-year head coach noted that was the longest amount of time he’d been on Oahu since leaving the island to take an assistant’s position at Navy in 1995.
Athletic director Chet Gladchuk’s announcement that Navy-Notre Dame would be moved from Dublin, Ireland to Annapolis prompted Niumatalolo to come back to Maryland, and he arrived at the end of the first week of June.
Last week was spent formulating a plan for preseason camp, not an easy task when issues surrounding the coronavirus are constantly evolving.
“There’s still a lot of chaos, a lot of uncertainty. We’re having daily meetings trying to figure things out about the virus,” Niumatalolo said. “All the precautions and protocols that need to be followed are daunting.”
Niumatalolo said he’s crafted a formula for training camp, although it has been tweaked almost daily over the last two weeks.
“Every day something new comes up. Just when we think we have a plan, we have to rip it up and start over. There are so many variables. It’s a moving target right now,” he said.
One complication involves the Physical Readiness Test all midshipmen must pass prior to the school year at the Naval Academy. That involves completing a certain number of pull-ups and push-ups along with running a mile run in a specific time.
Niumatalolo lamented that training for the mile run portion of the PRT is not remotely akin to doing so for football, which involves speed and short bursts as opposed to endurance running. He has told the football players to prepare to pass the PRT upon return then the strength and conditioning staff will turn their attention to getting them into football shape.
Bryan Fitzpatrick, Navy’s associate athletic director for sports performance, provided players with workout plans for while they were home during the second half of the spring semester.
“Our strength coach has been reaching out to players individually to find out what they’ve been doing, just trying to assess where they’re at physically,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s tough because some guys have access to a weight room, while other guys are doing pushups in the living room.”
Niumatalolo said Fitzpatrick and his staff, which includes associate strength and conditioning coach Bryan Miller, will have to assume the players are starting somewhat from scratch in terms of getting into playing shape.
“We have to be super careful. We can’t go crazy and get people hurt. That said, we can’t go too slow because we’re already way behind. It’s a real dilemma,” Niumatalolo said.
“You build a football team through winter and summer strength and conditioning. Spring camp is another critical part of that. We’ve skipped some of the most important steps in the process,” he added.
The biggest issue facing Navy football involves preventing spread of the coronavirus. Players, coaches and support staff will all quarantine before beginning the six-week preparation process and testing will be conducted as needed.
It was reported on Thursday that 13 University of Texas football players tested positive for the coronavirus, just four days after beginning voluntary workouts on campus. Alabama, Auburn, Kansas State and Iowa State are among the schools that have also revealed positive cases among football players.
During the two weeks of strength and conditioning, Navy will break up its 118-player roster into pods for workouts. The Naval Academy Athletic Association will have a cleaning crew at Ricketts Hall to regularly sanitize the locker room, weight room and training room among other facilities.
“There are so many logistical issues to consider. How many guys do you want lifting at the same time? How many guys can we have in the locker room at once? Do we have classroom meetings or continue to do it online?” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve developed a comprehensive plan involving the medical staff, but I’m sure there are things we haven’t thought about. Things are changing and we have to be able to adjust on the fly.”
Obviously, a key part of the strategic plan is how to quarantine any players that test positive for the virus, followed by contact tracing to determine what other players or support staff were exposed.
In August, Navy will begin practice and there is no way to effectively limit person-to-person contact. Players will be sweating alongside each other, banging bodies, blocking and tackling.
“How do you social distance in football?” Niumatalolo asked? “The answer is that you can’t. It’s a high contact sport.”
Niumatalolo feels comfortable with the protocols in place for the first month when the only midshipmen at the Naval Academy are the football players and plebes. However, come mid-August the entire Brigade of Midshipmen will reform and that opens a new can of worms.
“I feel good about what’s going to happen through the midway mark of camp. There will be a limited amount of people on the yard so you feel like you can contain things a bit,” he said. “What happens when the Brigade gets here? I cringe when I think about what’s on the other side.”