Five questions surrounding Navy football as preseason camp begins
The Capital August 3, 2022
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — This is a critical campaign for Navy football, coming off two straight losing seasons — both overall and within the American Athletic Conference.
Another sub .500 record would make it four of the last five seasons for Mids and constitute a crisis.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo believes the pandemic impacted Navy far more than the civilian programs in the American, citing change of routine as a major reason for 3-7 and 4-8 records in 2020 and 2021.
Niumatalolo is encouraged the Mids went through a “normal” offseason for the first time since 2019 and believes that will pay dividends on the field.
Outside observers clearly see Navy football on a downward trend with members of the American Athletic Conference media picking the service academy to place 10th out of 11 schools this season.
Navy football begins preseason practice Wednesday afternoon. Here are five questions that could prove decisive toward determining whether the Midshipmen exceed expectations.
Will Tai Lavatai take the next step as a triple-option quarterback?
Lavatai closed out an uneven sophomore season on a strong note, leading Navy to victory over archrival Army. That contest marked the first time the youngster was truly healthy and it showed.
Lavatai set the tone early by powering into the end zone to finish an 8-yard touchdown run on Navy’s opening possession. He ran the ball effectively throughout and completed several pressure passes.
Navy needs Lavatai to build off that performance and he certainly displayed an increased level of confidence during spring camp, taking complete command of the offense. With backup Xavier Arline playing lacrosse, Lavatai became the clear-cut starter and does not need to look over his shoulder.
Lavatai’s statistics last season were pedestrian. He rushed for 371 yards and passed for 449. For most of the triple-option era, Navy’s quarterback has typically rushed for at least 1,000 yards.
It is imperative for Lavatai to establish himself as a dangerous running threat this season. AAC defensive coordinators have shown they can manage the other elements of the option (fullback dive, slotback pitch, play-action pass) if the quarterback is not a true threat.
Niumatalolo and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper would love to see Lavatai become a powerful inside running threat in the mold of Will Worth and Zach Abey.
After gaining 10 games of valuable experience in 2021, Lavatai figures to make significant strides managing the option in terms of reading defenses, making checks at the line of scrimmage and distributing the ball.
Who will emerge as playmakers at the other skill positions?
Navy was hit hard by graduation at fullback, slotback and wide receiver, losing the top performers at all three positions.
Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II formed a solid duo at fullback, combining for 1,014 rushing yards. Carlinos Acie and Chance Warren were productive slotbacks with the former ranking second on the team with 580 rushing yards and the latter amassing 429 yards of total offense. Mychal Cooper was the primary passing target and totaled 219 receiving yards.
Sophomore Anton Hall Jr. emerged from spring camp as the starting fullback. The Florida native is undersized at 5-foot-8 and 198 pounds and got just four rushing attempts last season. Hall and classmate Logan Point have a lot to prove and fullback is clearly one of the team’s biggest question marks going into the 2022 season.
Maquel Haywood, who burst onto the scene as a dynamic kickoff returner last fall, is listed as one of the starting slots. He is joined by junior Vincent Terrell II, who earned the Admiral Mack Award as Navy’s most improved player during spring camp.
Haywood showed tremendous vision, speed and moves in averaging 31 yards on 12 kickoff returns, ranking third on Navy’s single-season list. Terrell primarily played on special teams last season and did not touch the ball on offense.
Junior Kai Puailoa-Rojas, who emerged as a playmaker last season, returns to the slotback corps after practicing at quarterback during the spring. He is a proven commodity with a tremendous upside.
The Mids have several other talented slots capable of stepping up such as junior speedster Daniel Jones along with sophomores Campbell Speights and Amin Hassan.
Senior Mark Walker would seem the most obvious candidate to succeed Mychal Cooper as the go-to receiver. Walker has made 12 starts and has shown flashes of potential, but is coming off a disappointing junior campaign in which he made just seven catches for 63 yards.
Jayden Umbarger showed star potential as a sophomore, earning the title Mr. Reverse. The Archbishop Spalding product was a weapon on double reverses, averaging almost 12 yards on 11 attempts. The Baltimore native figures to be targeted more in the passing game this season.
Who will replace Diego Fagot as the physical, emotional leader of the defense?
Fagot was the heart and soul of the Navy defense for three seasons, earning All-American Athletic Conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior. The rugged 6-foot-4, 240-pound inside linebacker is now trying to make the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent.
Will Harbour is slated to succeed Fagot as the starting Mike linebacker. However, it remains to be seen if the 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior can make the same type of impact, both as a tackler and a leader.
John Marshall, who has excelled at the hybrid outside linebacker position known as striker, was voted one of three team captains. The Gonzaga College graduate totaled 116 tackles the previous two seasons.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has already talked about finding ways toutilize Marshall’s talents. Look for 6-foot-2, 209-pound Highland native to blitz more often from different angles and be moved around the field some.
Sophomore free safety Rayuan Lane is an up-and-coming defender with a high upside. The Gilman graduate was thrust into a starting role as a freshman and recorded 37 tackles, while showing superb range on the back end.
Will an unprecedented youth movement pay dividends for the defense this season?
Due to injury, attrition and performance, Navy fielded one of its youngest teams in history in 2021. The Midshipmen closed the campaign with eight freshmen and eight sophomores on the defensive depth chart.
It would stand to reason that the experience those youngsters gained in the heat of battle will benefit the entire defense as a whole. Lane, who replaced Kevin Brennan as the starting free safety, is a remarkably seasoned sophomore with worlds of potential.
Junior Eavan Gibbons, who became the starter at bandit safety after Mitch West sustained a season-ending injury, was making plenty of plays toward the end of the season, totaling six tackles and a pass breakup against Army.
Defensive tackles Donald Berniard Jr., and Clay Cromwell combine with end Jacob Busic to form a defensive line consisting entirely of juniors who grew up big-time a year ago. Other young defenders who figure to be vastly improved include sophomore inside linebacker Colin Ramos along with sophomore cornerbacks Mbiti Williams and Matthew Peters.
Will Bijan Nichols shatter the Navy place-kicking records?
It’s extremely rare for a kicker to be voted as a team captain of any Division I football team. It had never happened at Navy — until now.
That goes to show how much respect teammates have for Bijan Nichols, the first specialist since punter Bob Bowstrom in 1930 chosen as a captain. (It should be noted that for most of modern history, Navy football elected an offensive and a defensive captain).
Nichols is on the verge of breaking several school records. He ranks second in points scored by a kicker with 204 and only needs 19 to surpass Bennett Moehring.
Nichols also stands second in most field goals (33) and most extra points (112) in a career. Moehring and Steve Fehr hold those marks with 42 and 141, respectively. Also, Nichols has converted 56 consecutive point after touchdown attempts and is hoping to break the record established by Matt Harmon (70 from 2006-08).
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