Navy football must do some serious soul-searching this offseason
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: December 10, 2018
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — This is going to be a busy offseason for the Navy football program, which suddenly finds itself in crisis mode.
One of the most consistently successful programs in all of college football has hit the skids the last season and a half. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo must immediately begin the process of figuring out what has gone wrong and why.
Niumatalolo admitted after Saturday’s disappointing 17-10 loss to archrival Army that some serious soul-searching is required. Every single person involved with Navy football – coaches, players, athletic administration and support staff – needs to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves what they can do to help turn things around.
Navy just completed an absolutely dismal season with a 3-10 record. That is both alarming and appalling at the same time. Just four years ago, the Midshipmen set a single-season record by winning 11 games. How did this proud program fall so far, so fast?
One of these days, when I no longer have to work 50-60 hours a week, I am going to write a book titled “The Greatest Era in Navy Football.” I’ve had a front row seat to watch it all unfold – from Paul Johnson and Craig Candeto to Niumatalolo and Keenan Reynolds.
Sitting here today, I would amend the title to this: The Greatest Era in Navy Football: 2003-2016. For now, the epilogue would be about how it all fell apart beginning with the second half of the 2017 season.
Will there be another chapter about the recovery of Navy football? What happens this offseason will go a long way toward answering that question.
Navy compiled a 24-7 record from the start of 2015 until October 7, 2017. Since then, the Midshipmen have gone 5-16. A huge part of that sudden downfall involves the competitive level of the American Athletic Conference, which has taken a quantum leap forward since Navy became a member in 2015.
As mentioned in my last column on this topic, Navy must step up its game across the board in order to keep pace with the rapid improvement of the AAC, which is going to be even stronger from top to bottom two years from now.
However, it would be foolish to simply cite the rise of the AAC as the sole reason for the Midshipmen’s struggles the past two seasons. After all, Navy has lost three straight service academy games during that time.
Niumatalolo and athletic director Chet Gladchuk are going to engage in a very serious post-season debrief this week. Hopefully, it will be productive and not just a case of finger-pointing. What those two men decide needs to be done will go a long way toward determining whether the program begins to bounce back.
By the time that meeting is over, Gladchuk and Niumatalolo need to be in full agreement on what steps need to be taken this offseason.
I expect changes – lots of them. In the wake of 3-10, there damn sure better be changes.
I like and respect every single member of the current coaching staff. I don’t want to see anyone lose their job and ability to support their family.
However, I’ve followed college football long enough to know that staff shakeup is inevitable in the wake of a season like this. I would be stunned if there is not some level of coaching turnover.
Whichever coaches comprise the staff going into spring practice must address schemes on both sides of the ball. Navy needs to be better on both offense and defense and in order for that to happen the overall philosophy and playing style needs to be reconsidered.
Despite its gaudy record over the last three seasons, Army West Point is not significantly more talented than Navy. I saw very similar players on both sides of the ball during Saturday’s showdown between the archrivals.
What I have also seen during Army’s current three-game winning streak in the series is one team that is better coached and executes at a higher level. You guess which one that is.
Army has found an identity on both offense and defense. Head coach Jeff Monken has emphasized running the ball and stopping the run.
The Black Knights have developed a power running game that features the quarterback and fullback doing damage between the tackles. Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis have pretty much eliminated the quarterback-slotback pitch element of the triple-option in order to reduce fumbles. Instead, they use creative methods to get the ball to the slots on the perimeter, such as quick tosses or short passes into the flat.
Army does not play opponents anywhere near as potent as Navy does, but the performance of its defense this season has nonetheless been impressive. The Black Knights rank 11th nationally in total defense and 17th in scoring defense. Those impressive statistics are due to the innovative schemes of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who has found a way to shut down conventional offenses just as well as the option attacks of Air Force and Navy.
Bateman has reportedly been lured away to North Carolina by newly-named head coach Mack Brown, which is good news for Navy. Perhaps the Midshipmen should take a few pages out of Bateman’s playbook because what they did defensively for most of this season was not nearly good enough.
Offensively, I think Navy is trying to do too much. The Midshipmen are using shotgun formation with three potential ball-carriers in the backfield, zone blocking schemes, I-formation at times and all sorts of other wrinkles.
There is something to be said for offensive diversity and being able to keep opponents off-balance. There is also something to be said about giving players more than they can handle and being the type of offense that is a jack of all trades, master of none.
Navy needs to get back to running the triple-option and nothing but the triple-option. I propose the entire offseason and all of spring camp should be devoted solely to a triple-option reboot that begins with going back to the basics.
For a long period of time, Navy operated the triple-option with a remarkable level of precision on par with the wishbone days of Oklahoma and Nebraska. A steady string of quarterbacks were taught how to read the various option keys and deliver the ball exactly where it was supposed to go.
It was poetry in motion and Navy could make any defense look stupid and helpless when executing the option the proper way.
For the past season and a half, Navy has not run the triple-option very well at all. Truth be told, I don’t know how many read triple-option plays the Midshipmen have even attempted during that time.
I don’t know the reasons behind this strange shift in offensive philosophy. Perhaps the quarterbacks have not been capable of reading defenses. Maybe the offensive line doesn’t have the overall quickness and agility to effectively block on triple-option plays. Maybe the coaching staff does not think being solely a triple-option offense is good enough to win in the American.
I say Navy must do whatever necessary to get back to being a true triple-option team that executes at such a high level that no defense can consistently stop it. That’s the way things used to be and the Midshipmen moved the ball and scored points on everybody.
Last, but certainly not least, Navy simply has to play a better brand of football. There is no way the players can be exempt from this conversation. There have been way too many mental mistakes and missed assignments to say the players don’t deserve some of the blame.
It appears quite obvious to me there has been a talent drop-off at certain positions the last two seasons. That goes back to recruiting and clearly some mistakes have been made of late.
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