Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 7 Navy.
Like a great many AAC and military academy teams, Navy is one of those programs that has been operating in the eight-to-ten win range for years; they’re seemingly always on the cusp of being a top-15 or top-20 team, only to be undone by an unlucky loss or injury. Hell, even when they went out and finished with 10 wins in the 2015 regular season, they still only got the Military Bowl. I don’t think that general outcome will change this year—if Keenan Reynolds didn’t take them to the mountaintop, I’m not sure who, if anyone, can—but I’ll be damned if I’m going to get caught sleeping on Ken Niumatalolo’s Mids.
Navy football didn’t lose a step when it transitioned from Paul Johnson to Niumatalolo back in 2007. Johnson, now confounding ACC defenses as the Georgia Tech head coach, was able to lead the Midshipmen to an average of 7.5 wins in his seven seasons in Annapolis, earning him the chance to move up a rung on the coaching ladder. Doing his best to perfect Johnson’s option-based system—the same one he hooked himself to at Hawaii as a quarterback and then a coach back in the 90s—Niumatalolo hasn’t just matched Johnson’s accomplishments, he’s rushed past them.
In just nine seasons and some change, Niumatalolo has earned the moniker of the winningest coach in the academy’s 124-year history, having compiled 79 wins in that time. The Midshipmen averaged 8.5 wins per year since he took over in 2008, winning four bowls games along the way. They’ve dipped under .500 just one time (a 5-7 2011 campaign); now a member of the AAC, the formerly independent Midshipmen have been in the running for the conference title each of the two seasons they’ve competed for it. Simply put, if you want a how-to guide for running a successful program, look no further than the hiring policy at the Naval Academy—if it ain’t broke, make it better.
Last year, Navy was tasked with replacing the irreplaceable, and many were unsure how the Midshipmen program would handle it. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds essentially was the Navy record book by the time he graduated. The 2015 Heisman candidate concluded his career with 4,001 yards and 31 scores through the air to go along with 4,559 yards and 88 touchdowns on the ground. In the four years Reynolds ran the offense, Navy went for 316.7 yards per game—the prevailing thought heading into the 2016 season was that Navy would dip a bit in production, considering those aren’t numbers you simply replace in one offseason. And yet.
Behind an option attack that looked like it barely missed a step, Navy finished 9-5 overall and 7-1 in the AAC in 2016; the offense, and more specifically, the ground game, rolled under new signal-caller Will Worth, accruing an average of 311.1 yards and 4.4 touchdowns on the ground each game. The nine wins weren’t all just gimmes, either—the Midshipmen notched a win against a very good, Greg Ward-led Houston team and came away with a one-point victory over a dismal but still more talented Notre Dame squad.
The offense was run masterfully by Worth for all but two games—he broke his foot in a loss to Temple, thrusting Zach Abey into the starting role for the next two games. On paper, the end result was a three-game losing streak to end an otherwise impressive post-Reynolds campaign; on the field, though, Abey was essentially using the time as a transition experience, one that would end in a more promising fashion than the losses conveyed.
Abey was shit in the team’s disappointing loss to Army—he completed 6 of 10 passes for 89 yards and two interceptions; he tried but failed to balance this out with his legs, rushing for 73 yards and two scores on 19 carries. Considering the Black Knights hadn’t downed their Midshipmen rivals in 15 years before last December’s 21-17 victory, the loss was brutal for Navy fans; I’d like to think those same fans were not totally devastated given Niumatalolo had seven days to bring a sophomore third-stringer up to speed ahead of the team’s biggest game of the year. Some of the initial concerns were assuaged when Abey seemed to find his sea legs 13 days later—he threw for 159 yards and a score and rushed for 114 yards and another pair of scores in the Midshipmen’s three-point bowl game loss to Louisiana Tech.
So far this season, it’s still not entirely clear which Abey we’re going to see the most this season. He isn’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest runner; his arm isn’t precise and his throws tend to have way too much air under them; he has shown a clear tendency for being loose with the ball, both on the ground and through the air. Sometimes he can overcome these downsides and make all the right reads—against Lane Kiffin’s FAU squad, he was magical, throwing for 110 yards, one score, and one pick and rushing for 235 yards and two scores in a 42-19 rout. Other times, not so much—against Tulane, he had an ugly red-zone interception, a third-down fumble that was taken back for a touchdown, and a red-zone fumble that was luckily recovered by his own men for a score.
While Abey figures things out, he’ll have a slew of offensive weapons at his disposal to relieve some of the pressure. Fullback Chris High, a bruising and consistent rusher, is the best option in the ground game, followed by fellow fullback Joshua Walker. Slot back Darryl Bonner is a speedster, and while he’s used in the running game, expect him to continue developing as the team’s deep threat in the passing game—so far, he’s got 92 yards and one touchdown on three catches. He and Tyler Carmona, who leads the team with 135 receiving yards, will be tasked with replacing Jamir Tillman’s production out wide.
Defensively, Navy returns six starters from a year ago, with linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore constituting arguably the best 1-2 punch that exists at the position in the AAC. While they’ve paired well with tackle Jackson Pittman and end Jarvis Polu nicely so far, they’ll need to keep this going if they want to improve on their scoring numbers from a year ago—31 points per game for Navy opponents—and continue showing up in the backfield like they did their first two outings this year. The Midshipmen will look to corner Tyris Wooten to bolster and lead a secondary that currently ranks 38th overall in passing yards allowed; if Wooten and defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson hope to stay in that top-50 range, they’ll have to stay aggressive in the pass rush. Teams with aerial attacks as prolific as Memphis’ are coming up, and needless to say they’ll prove a bit tougher to slow down than Tulane or whatever the hell it was that Kiffin fielded.
Chris High is your prototypical option fullback—he’s got tree trunks for legs and a tank of an upper body, all of which still somehow gets rolling fast enough to leave behind athletic ends and linebackers and chew up any defensive backs that dare square their shoulders instead of kneecapping him. High started eight games in 2016, rushing for 546 yards and seven scores on just 85 attempts. Now playing with a new quarterback, High is second to Abey on the team in rushing, having gone for 112 yards and a score on 30 carries. I don’t expect him to finish with over 1,000 yards or anything like that, but he’s an integral, experienced piece in this offense, and given Abey’s butter fingers, I’d expect he’ll start getting every touch once the Midshipmen get into the redzone.
In all honesty, Navy’s first worry is making it out of its division. And that’s not a knock on the Midshipmen; the AAC just has some pretty darn good teams this year. Playing for the AAC West against Houston and Memphis is tough enough; it’s an even steeper hill when you know that South Florida will be waiting for whoever dares meet them in the title game. Given Abey’s up-and-down play, which is to be expected of a first-time starter in this system, I’d expect the Midshipmen to challenge the Tigers and Cougars but ultimately fall short of earning a date with the Bulls. Still, they’ll get their eight wins and bowl game because, after all, it’s just what Navy does.
The Midshipmen athletic department struck gold the day they hired Paul Johnson, not because he brought the option or was long for Annapolis—his steady-moving career path is proof that he was always willing to take a better offer if the right one came along—but because he brought with him a former Hawaii quarterback that not only knew how to run the beautiful system, but had also spent years of learning how to use it with teams that had limited access to top-shelf recruits.
Now the master, Ken Niumatalolo has crafted the best run of any coach in Navy’s long history, one that will seemingly only end when he chooses to step away from the game. I have no reason to believe Niumatalolo is anything less than a very intense, very talented football coach that, like his mentor, knows not just how to run a beautiful option, but how to run it to an infuriatingly high level of perfection. Also, he doesn’t like refs all that much, but, really, who does?
Sept. 1: @ FAU (W 42-19)
Sept. 9: Tulane (W 23-21)
Sept. 23: Cincinnati
Sept. 30: @ Tulsa
Oct. 7: Air Force
Oct. 14: @ Memphis
Oct. 21: UCF
Nov. 3: @ Temple
Nov. 11: SMU
Nov. 18: @ Notre Dame
Nov. 24: @ Houston
Dec. 9: Army