Having to follow a tough act
Midshipmen must start fresh after winningest season in program history
How do you top the greatest season in program history?
That’s the challenge facing the 2016 Navy football team, which has a hard act to follow. Captains Keenan Reynolds and Bernie Sarra led the way as Navy set a singleseason school record with 11 wins, defeated Air Force and Army to win the Commander- i nChief’s Trophy, and beat Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. “It’s going to be tough. We accomplished a lot of great things last year,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Fortunately, a lot of this year’s players were on the team that was the most successful ever. That’s a positive. They’ve seen the blueprint. They know what it takes to be successful, all the little things that go into it.”
Senior co-captains Toneo Gulley and Daniel Gonzales played prominent roles in last year’s success. Gulley contributed 303 total Friday: Maryland Online: Johns Hopkins, Morgan State, Towson Toneo Gulley, being tackled by East Carolina last season, gained 303 total yards of offense as a backup slotback last season and is now a senior co-captain.
yards of offense as a backup slotback while Gonzales ranked fourth on the team with 65 tackles despite missing two games as a starting inside linebacker.
Gonzales thinks the leadership provided by the senior class was crucial in 2015.
“I think you look at last season as a standard. A lot of players on this team went through it and understand what it takes to get to that point,” Gonzales said. “This year’s seniors know the leadership that we had last year was top-notch. Bernie and Keenan set a high bar and we want to build off that.”
Reynolds and Sarra adopted “1-0” as a season slogan, sending a message that next week’s game was the most important. Gulley and Gonzales came up with “We Will” as a motto in memory of former classmate and teammate Will McKamey, who died during plebe year after suffering a catastrophic brain injury during a spring practice. Gulley said the 1-0 mentality remains. “We just have to come ready to work every day and take one game at a time like we did last year,” Gulley said. “We told everyone to remember what the  seniors taught you. They’re gone now and it’s on us. We took notes and learned from what they did last year and applied it to this year.”
One major goal eluded Navy a year ago: A loss to Houston on Nov. 27 kept it from representing the West Division in the American Athletic Conference championship game. The Cougars are favored to repeat as conference champions, with the Midshipmen picked for second in the West.
“Yes, that was a goal last year and we didn’t accomplish it. It’s a goal again this year and that’s one we would definitely like to have,” Gulley said.
Navy took the AAC by storm in its inaugural season, going 7-1 and averaging more than 38 points per game. The Daniel Gonzales (58), also a senior co-captain, ranked fourth on the team with 65 tackles last season despite missing two games as a starting inside linebacker. Midshipmen also held every AACopponent except Houston to 11 points or fewer. Everyone knows the Mids will no longer be surprising any league members.
“People in the league definitely know who we are and what we’re about now,” Gonzales said. “That being said, I still think we have an offense that is very hard to figure out, very difficult to scheme for. We have a defense that will pop you in the mouth and never back down.”
Navy opens Saturday in Annapolis against Fordham and all eyes will be on quarterback Tago Smith, who must succeed a legend. Smith, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have spent the entire offseason answering questions about losing the record-setting Reynolds, a sixthround draft pick of the Ravens.
“My goal when Keenan graduated was to let Tago know this is his show. I try not to mention Keenan’s name or anything he did,” said Jasper, also the quarterbacks coach. “Keenan was a great player, but he’s gone now. Tago is our guy. We believe in him, we have complete faith in him. I think Tago is going to have a great year.”
Throughout preseason camp, Niumatalolo has talked quite a bit about building the Navy football culture, which has produced winning records in 12 of the past 13 seasons.
“Every year you start over again. You can’t carry any wins over from the previous season,” Niumatalolo said. “The process each year is the same. You always start from scratch and build from ground zero. We have to instill in our players an understanding that the only way Navy can win is by being smarter, tougher and working harder than our opponents.”
Continuity on the coaching staff has been a big reason for Navy’s success. Jasper is beginning his 15th season as offensive coordinator. Dale Pehrson, promoted to defensive coordinator last spring, has spent 21 years in Annapolis. Six other assistants have been at Navy for nine years or more.
“Our staff has been together for a long time and we’ve been through a lot. We’ve done so much together that I knew who they are, they know who I am and we all understand the expectations,” Niumatalolo said. “As a staff, we know what we’re trying to create and what we’re trying to build. It definitely gives me a great sense of comfort that we have coaches working directly with our players who know how to get the job done.”
Rookie Keenan Reynolds (Navy) has struggled as a returner and receiver and could be cut.