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Navy football is uncertain which Air Force players will be on the field Saturday

By KAREEM COPELAND | The Washington Post | Published: October 2, 2020

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The strange just keeps getting stranger for the Navy football team.

First there was a season-opening 52-point drubbing at the hands of BYU after Coach Ken Niumatalolo decided against face-to-face tackling and blocking during preseason practices as a safety measure against the novel coronavirus. Then the Midshipmen fell behind 24-0 against Tulane before scoring 27 consecutive points in the second half to earn a stunning victory. It was the largest comeback in school history, led by a quarterback — senior Dalen Morris — who was benched in the opener and lost his job the following week.

Now Navy will face an Air Force team that hasn't played a game, only has two opponents on its schedule and features a roster missing nearly 40 players. The Falcons were allowed to take advantage of a turnback clause that permits them to separate from the academy for a semester because of hardships — in this case, the coronavirus pandemic.

That has left Niumatalolo trying to prepare for an opponent without any 2020 game video and without fully understanding who exactly will be on the field.

"They're very similar to us," Niumatalolo said. "You have your JV team. You have your prep school. The guys kind of grow up in your program, so to speak. It's not like you get junior college guys that [it's] the first time in your program. Even if they're new guys, they're guys that have been there. We expect them to be a good team. We just don't know who they are.

"We're trying to see who the players are. Some of them we recruited. Some of them we didn't. You just try to get from a personnel, scouting report, try to see who they are."

Niumatalolo previously voiced his frustrations about this scenario that he later walked back. He took issue with the fairness of Air Force having not played any games while taking advantage of the opportunity to singularly prepare for Navy while the Midshipmen had to focus on other teams and endure the physical toll of playing games. The Falcons only had Navy and Army scheduled after the Mountain West postponed its season, allowing Air Force to play for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Then the Mountain West announced last week that it would play games this season, with the yet-to-be-announced schedule starting Oct. 24.

"We just do the best we can," Niumatalolo said. "Our scouting reports, we talk about what we know about the people we know from the information we've got. We just do the best we can and go from there. . . . If we don't have any tape on a certain player, maybe we saw him in high school.

"Especially at this late date, you don't really worry about anything else. If you've got the information, great. If you don't, you just press forward."

Navy is preparing off a depth chart released by Air Force last week that lists sophomore Haaziq Daniels or junior Warren Bryan as the starting quarterback. Bryan has played two games without recording any statistics, and Daniels has yet to play in a game. Donald Hammond was supposed to be a returning starter under center, but he is not listed on the roster. Multiple outlets have reported that Hammond is no longer a cadet in good standing. Niumatalolo half-joked that he wouldn't be surprised to see Hammond on the field, but Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun tersely said "anyone listed on the roster could play Saturday."

The Falcons' offensive line is a strength, with every listed starter a senior, led by guard Nolan Laufenberg and tackle Parker Ferguson. Both were listed on the Outland Trophy watch list this season. Senior tailback Kadin Remsberg is expected to start for a second consecutive season after leading the team with 1,050 rushing yards in 2019.

The Air Force defense seems to be hit hardest by the turnback option, with former starting defensive linemen Jordan Jackson and Chris Herrera, linebackers Demonte Meeks and Lakota Wills and cornerback Milton Bugg not listed on the roster. Outside linebacker Grant Donaldson is the only listed defensive starter who was a regular starter in 2019.

"We go out there day in and day out, there's going to be some new guys that really haven't played a lot in regards to college football," Calhoun said. "You love the effort. You absolutely love the attitude.

"We knew coming into the season we were going to have a good number of new faces. It'll be interesting to see. . . . I think there will be some moving parts."

The scenario is odd for everyone involved, which seems to be the theme for the 2020 college football season. The Midshipmen are looking for some kind of consistency after an alarming opening six quarters of the season. The Falcons simply want to play a game despite massive losses on the defensive side of the ball while starting a quarterback with no college experience.

Regardless of all the turmoil, this will be the first step in determining the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

"We got the C-I-C back last year and that's one of our goals every single year," Navy safety Kevin Brennan said. "This is just one part of that.

"It's one of our biggest games of the season. . . . I was lucky enough to play in it last year so I kind of understand the emotions going into it. The most important thing is not to let all the external factors get into your head and really just focus on your job.