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Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during the Midshipmen's game against Marshall at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 4, 2021.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during the Midshipmen's game against Marshall at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 4, 2021. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The past two years have been unlike any other for Ken Niumatalolo. For the only time during his 14 years as Navy head coach, the program had consecutive losing seasons and didn’t play in a bowl game. The last 24 months accounted for two of the four times the Midshipmen haven’t gone bowling at the end of a season with Niumatalolo at the helm.

Navy was affected by the coronavirus pandemic as much as any program in the country. The team didn’t practice tackling or blocking before the 2020 season and was at a physical disadvantage most weeks, leading to a 3-7 record and matching the fewest wins in a season under Niumatalolo. The 2021 season seemed to have a hangover from the long, late night that was 2020, and the Mids finished 4-8 with one of the worst offenses in college football.

The offseason leading up to Saturday’s noon opener against Delaware has been a relief for everyone — even as it has been physically punishing.

“I feel like you throw out the last two years for us,” Niumatalolo said. “Because nothing we did was similar to what we [traditionally do]. I feel like with this team, we’ve done everything. After the Army game ... everything we did was stuff that I do with [the first] 12 other teams.

“This year has been awesome because we’re back. I really feel like we’re back. Just our team, everything that we do to develop our team.”

Niumatalolo described Navy as a “developmental” program, and that part of the operation was severely hindered the past two years. The offensive system is unique with the triple option and takes time for players to master. Recruiting to Navy is different and recruiting site 247Sports hasn’t had a class of Mids ranked in the top 100 since 2017 (87). These are classes that need to grow inside the program once they arrive in Annapolis.

“At the United States Naval Academy, young men that we get, we need to do everything,” Niumatalolo said. “Everything we do and build into character, the toughness, the resolve of a Navy football player, you have to go through steps A through Z.

“You can’t skip anything and they’ve got to go through the fire, so to speak. And we put them through the fire this offseason. So I feel good.”

Navy quarterbacks, from left, Tai Lavatai, King Benford, Maasai Maynor and Zachary Branam during practice at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 23, 2022.

Navy quarterbacks, from left, Tai Lavatai, King Benford, Maasai Maynor and Zachary Branam during practice at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Aug. 23, 2022. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai is a prime example of a player the team hopes has developed into a difference-maker. The production from the position has been subpar since Malcolm Perry led the team to an 11-2 record in 2019 behind 2,017 rushing yards and 1,084 passing yards. Navy has thrown for 1,655 total yards in the two years since and the quarterbacks have rushed for less than 1,000 yards combined.

Lavatai didn’t play a snap as a freshman in 2020 before unexpectedly winning the starting job before the 2021 season. He started all 10 games that he played, but averaged just 2.2 yards per carry and threw for 44.9 yards per game. Navy needs more from the quarterback position to break out of its two-year offensive slump and all eyes are on Lavatai. The 6-2, 221-pounder said he’s more confident than ever with a better knowledge of the playbook and reading defenses. He’s in better shape and is trying to be more vocal as the starter at the most important position on the field.

“Night and day,” Lavatai said when comparing the feeling going into 2021. “Last year, I never saw a college snap, so it was very, very intimidating, I would say. Just the unknown of what could happen or how the speed of the game was.

“In the last year, now that I got to see how the speed of it, how the tempo is. . . . I’m a lot more confident just feeling like I understand and know what to expect rather than last year where it felt like it was very unknown what could happen.”

Lavatai wants to make more of an impact and Navy needs him to considering he’s one of just four full-time starters returning on offense. Niumatalolo raved about the athleticism and speed of the roster.

The defense brings back six starters, highlighted by seniors John Marshall (striker) and Nicholas Straw (raider). The Mids ranked 34th in total defense last season.

“We’re probably farther along with our scheme and comfort within that scheme with our players than we ever have been since I’ve been here at this point going into a season,” defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said. “Across the board, we’ve improved everywhere.”

Niumatalolo has referred to this roster as an “anonymous” group that doesn’t bring a lot of star power to field — and they’re good with that. They want to be elite on defense and take care of the ball on offense. The longest-tenured coach in school history believes this is the fastest team he’s ever fielded and is looking to erase the memories of the last two seasons.

“We’ve been pushing these guys hard and they’ve responded,” Niumatalolo said. “They haven’t wilted under the pressure of our preparation, but we have to do things that way. It’s our only way for us to be a tough team.

“We’re a proud program. We’ve won a lot of games prior to the last two years and we want to get back to that.”

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