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Navy football aims far higher following 7-5 season

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during action against Houston on October 8, 2016 in Annapolis, Md.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GENE WANG | The Washington Post | Published: August 5, 2018

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo opens almost all of his practices to the media. He rarely dodges questions about injuries.

In an industry where many of his peers, including those with far less substantial bodies of work, limit access to the bare minimum required, the winningest coach in program history is refreshingly the opposite.

So it was intriguing that Niumatalolo replied with a degree of mystery when asked during media day if this year's team about which he's offered glowing reviews reminds him of another iteration over the last decade.

"I just want to say yes," he said nodding, drawing laughter among media gathered at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Niumatalolo didn't offer a comparison to a specific team, but given the prosperity in Annapolis since he took over as full-time head coach in 2008, aspirations are about as high as they've been at any point during his tenure.

Just three years ago, Navy set a single-season record for wins by going 11-2 and earning a share of the American Athletic Conference West Division regular season title.

The Midshipmen have had just one losing season (5-7 in 2011) under Niumatalolo and four years with at least nine wins.

Navy (7-6, 4-4) is coming off its first nonwinning AAC season, but a 49-7 victory over Virginia in the Military Bowl provided a glimpse into the potential of this year's version of the triple option with junior Malcolm Perry at quarterback.

"I just feel good about what I've seen," Niumatalolo said. "Going to school here is different. There's other things that come into play: military, academics. I mean our grades right now are as good as they've ever been. Our military conduct, the things you're supposed to do, our guys have been on point.

"So those are the kind of things that lead me to believe we have disciplined group, and that they're hungry, and they want to do the things that it takes to win."

That includes former starting quarterback Zach Abey, who rushed for 200 yards twice last year as a junior to match the school single-season record, moving to wide receiver, thus allowing Perry to take over the position full-time.

Perry played slot back and quarterback last year, also twice rushing for 200 yards. In addition, Perry ran for 100 yards as a slot back in three consecutive games, tying the longest such streak in Navy history.

The junior first made national headlines by coming out of the stands at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during his freshman year, changing into his football uniform and playing in the second half of the 2016 season opener against Fordham.

Perry initially was not in uniform after missing the first three days of practice that week and playing in the junior varsity game one night earlier.

"I think coach Jasper prepares us well in the offseason for all different types of defenses, being able to adjust to them all," Perry said, referring to longtime Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. "So when we get to a game, and they line up with something we didn't practice for in that week necessarily, we practiced for it in the offseason.

"There's never really a situation where we have no idea what's going on."

The coaching staff, however, won't be able to simulate the rigorous travel schedule awaiting the Midshipmen this season.

Navy is set to log 26,496 miles to six road and two neutral site games. It all starts with a trip to Honolulu for the season opener on Sept. 1 against Hawaii, which also happens to be Niumatalolo's alma mater.

"I like traveling," Navy senior linebacker Hudson Sullivan said. "I enjoy the plane rides over to the games and back, so I kind of have more fun going to away games sometimes than home games. I think it'll be good."

Said senior fullback and co-captain Anthony Gargiulo: "I'm on the opposite side of that. I'm just fine just coming down the road, especially because my family gets to come and have a nice trip. I don't have to worry about them and how they're going to get there, especially with my parents. They don't like flying.

"Hearing that we're all over the world didn't make them too happy, but they're going to make the trip. I know them."

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