ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The U.S. Naval Academy is buzzing with excitement about the dawning of a new era of Midshipmen football.

Head coach Brian Newberry’s inaugural season at Navy is set to kick off next week, and at his disposal will be a wealth of returning talent on the field and three coordinators in their first years on the job.

The Midshipmen will have the services of their leading passer, rusher and receiver from 2022, but the offense is going to be slightly different from the triple option scheme that has been such an integral part of service academy football. Newberry tabbed Grant Chesnut, with whom he worked at Kennesaw State, to be his offensive coordinator in 2023, and things seem to be going well through the first half of fall camp.

“I was excited when I hired Coach Chesnut,” Newberry said. “I’m even more excited about that now.”

Chesnut, who doubles as offensive line coach, occupied the same roles for the Owls since 2014. The program did not begin playing until the following season, but it has since amassed a 68-24 record and ranked among the top three in the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing in six of the last seven years through the use of the spread option.

“We want to give the illusion of being very complex but be simple for our players,” Newberry said in a July 29 news conference. “Simple is always better than complex.”

The Midshipmen will not be a team that throws the ball 30-40 times a game, Chestnut said, emphasizing that the triple option is still the base. The most notable change has been utilizing both under-center and shotgun formations but keeping the fundamentals the same for the offensive line.

“That’s the key piece, because you can take the skill guys and do a lot of different things,” Chesnut said.

The anchor of the offensive line is center Lirion Murtezi, one of four seniors to be voted a team captain and a six-game starter in 2022. Three other linemen — junior Connor McMahon, senior Sam Glover and senior Joshua Pena — all totaled 10 or more starts last year.

Tai Lavatai started the first eight games for Navy in 2022 before missing the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

Tai Lavatai started the first eight games for Navy in 2022 before missing the remainder of the season with a knee injury. (U.S. Naval Academy)

Experience also can be found in the quarterback room, led by seniors Tai Lavatai and Xavier Arline. The duo accounted for 46 of Navy’s 54 completions, 872 of its 1,030 passing yards and seven of its nine passing touchdowns last season. Each logged at least 300 rushing yards and three scores on the ground as well.

Though Lavatai and Arline have experience, both missed significant chunks of spring practices with injuries — the former tore his ACL in 2022, and the latter was injured playing lacrosse. That allowed younger quarterbacks to step up, including sophomore Blake Horvath and freshman Braxton Woodson.

“Everyone’s pretty smart in there,” Lavatai said. “I think we’re all still learning the offense, kind of understanding what Coach Chesnut wants it to be like, but every person brings athletic ability — the ability to throw, make plays. So it’s really good for us because our triple option offense, it’s a long season, so we need multiple guys that can come out and keep the offense rolling, and I think we have a very good group in that room that can execute at a high level.”

Horvath and Lavatai have emerged as the leading contenders for the starting job. Entering the final days of preseason practice Horvath and Lavatai are “1A and 1B,” Newberry said. Both are likely to play in the season opener.

Also in the backfield is the 2022 leading rusher in fullback Daba Fofana, who totaled 819 yards and six touchdowns on 186 carries as a sophomore. Junior Anton Hall Jr. — who converted from fullback to slotback in the spring — was another prominent ball carrier last year, and Lavatai said sophomore fullback Alex Tecza has stood out to him through the first couple weeks of camp.

Out wide, captain Jayden Umbarger figures to do the heavy lifting again after a 16-catch, 265-yard, two-touchdown junior campaign. The other three 100-yard receivers have all moved on, leaving plenty of room for unproven players to make themselves known.

“There’s some young guys that we’re excited about, and we’ll continue to develop those guys, and hopefully some of those new guys, young guys can help us out,” Newberry said.

Navy head coach Brian Newberry speaks after practice Aug. 8, 2023. The Midshipmen are looking to simplify their offense during the first season with Newberry and offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut at the helm and achieve bowl eligibility for the first time in four years.

Navy head coach Brian Newberry speaks after practice Aug. 8, 2023. The Midshipmen are looking to simplify their offense during the first season with Newberry and offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut at the helm and achieve bowl eligibility for the first time in four years. (Robert Stewart/Stars and Stripes)

The defense will feature nine starters from 2022 and a coordinator who has worked with Newberry since before they arrived at the academy in 2019.

After being promoted from defensive coordinator, Newberry elevated P.J. Volker to that role, one he will balance with linebackers coach duties. The pair has coached a unit that has allowed no worse than the third-fewest yards per game among American Athletic Conference teams in each of the past four seasons.

“One thing I love about our defense is we’re never stagnant,” said Jacob Busic, a captain and third-year starter at defensive end. “We get better every year. We just keep putting in work, and we’re all super close.”

Some special teams personnel still need to be ironed out ahead of the season opener, as last season’s primary field goal kicker and kick returner are both gone. Junior Riley Riethman is back after averaging nearly 44 yards per punt, as is junior slot back Amin Hassan, who returned all but one punt.

Toward the end of a practice last week, senior kicker Evan Warren hit a 57-yard field goal to wrap up regulation during Navy’s game simulation period. A two-year kickoff specialist for the Midshipmen, he has yet to make a field goal in a game, so the long boot was an encouraging sight, Newberry said.

“(Special teams coordinator) Ricky Brown’s a rock star,” Newberry said. “He’s done a phenomenal job with the special teams.”

Although the Midshipmen finished just 4-8 last year and came in ninth out of 14 in the AAC preseason media poll, they are confident they will bounce back and be competitive in the conference, which added six new teams after losing Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to the Big 12.

“The goals that our team has always had,” Lavatai said. “Win the (Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy), go to the AAC Championship, go to a New Year’s bowl.”

The road to a bowl game will commence at 2:30 p.m. ET Aug. 26, when Navy takes on Notre Dame, ranked 13th in the coaches’ poll, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

“It’s a very important game for us to show what we’re about,” Lavatai said. “A new team, a new offense, the mentality that we have, and come out not scared of anybody. Respect ‘em, but not scared to play anybody, and I think it’s going to be a really fun game to be a part of and to watch.”

(U.S. Navy)

What to watch for

  • The last time Navy won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy outright was 2019. The Midshipmen will have to defeat Army, which has won five of the last seven meetings, and Air Force, which has won three straight.
  • Navy has not been to a bowl game since 2019. Prior to that, the Midshipmen had not been bowl-eligible just twice since 2002.

Key players

  • FB Daba Fofana (5-8, 205-pound junior)
  • WR Jayden Umbarger (6-0, 196-pound senior)
  • LB Colin Ramos (5-11, 205-pound junior)
  • FS Rayuan Lane III (5-11, 197-pound junior)

Key games

  • Notre Dame (Dublin, Ireland, season opener), 2:30 p.m. ET Aug. 26
  • vs. Air Force (CIC Trophy), noon ET Oct. 21
  • vs. Army (Foxborough, Mass., CIC Trophy, regular season finale), 3 p.m. ET Dec. 9

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