Mids improve kickoff coverage under Yokitis
Major service academies find early-season success
Navy had trouble covering kickoffs last season. Opponents averaged 23.1 yards per return and broke a few long ones.
The Midshipmen allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns, with both coming at the beginning of the game. South Florida’s Rodney Adams sped through a big hole and was never touched en route to returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score.
Much to the chagrin of coach Ken Niumatalolo, there was almost an exact repeat in the Military Bowl as Pittsburgh’s Quadree Henderson found a seam, then cut to the outside and raced down the left sideline for a 100-yard touchdown return.
Afterward, Niumatalolo said he was “so mad” to see his team fall behind 7-0 just seconds into a game for the second time in one season.
Keith Jones, the longtime assistant who oversaw the kickoff coverage unit a year ago, retired during the offseason. Niumatalolo put sixth-year assistant Mick Yokitis in charge of kickoff coverage, and the unit has been much better so far this season. The Mids are allowing only 14.4 yards per kickoff return, a dramatic improvement over last season.
“Coach Yokitis is doing a phenomenal job. I couldn’t be more pleased with how we’re doing in that area,” Niumatalolo said this week.
Yokitis, the wide receivers coach, played football at Navy and was a member of special teams during his career. The 2006 graduate, who was a member of three teams that captured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and went to bowl games, got into coaching after being medically discharged from the Marine Corps.
It’s no surprise that Yokitis tabbed a fellow Marine Corps officer to assist him with the kickoff coverage unit. Lt. Col. Robert Green, who coaches outside linebackers, was a cornerback and special teams performer at Navy (1998 graduate).
Yokitis and Green went back to fundamentals when beginning to address the team’s deficiencies in kickoff coverage.
“Mick did a really good job of simplifying things as far as our coverage lanes and technique,” Niumatalolo said. “Sometimes we make this game more complicated than it needs to be. Just kick the ball then tackle the guy with the ball.”
Yokitis reviewed film of last year’s two kickoff returns for touchdown and other occasions when Navy allowed a long return.
“A few times it was because the kick was placed very poorly. A lot of times it was assignment mistakes,” Yokitis said. “Kickoffs are the type of thing where, if one guy gets out of his lane, it can give the returner that little crease he needs. On the big returns we gave up last year, it was usually one guy who did the wrong thing.”
Success on kickoff coverage begins with having the proper personnel on the field. Some players are good at covering kicks and others just are not. Yokitis made some changes with regard to who played on kickoff coverage.
“We try to get guys that want to run down the field full-speed. It’s not very complicated what we’re doing. We’re just trying to find the best players we can that are willing to sell out for the team,” he said.
Ryan Harris is by far the star of the kickoff coverage unit.
Harris, 5 feet 11, 213 pounds, sent an early message that things would be different with the kickoff coverage this season. Navy kicked off to start the opener against Fordham and Harris got an unimpeded run at the returner — launching himself fullspeed into Jihaad Pretlow. It was a jarring blow that flattened Pretlow and caused him to fumble while also leaving Harris concussed.
Harris is one of three linebackers on the kickoff coverage team along with Taylor Heflin and Hudson Sullivan. Defensive Ryan Harris Mick Yokitis Saturday, 3:30 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Air Force by 7 backs dominate the unit with Sean Williams, Khaylan Williams, Jarid Ryan, Kyle Battle and Alohi Gilman all members. Slotbacks Josh Brown and Toneo Gulley round out a group that has already changed several times this season.
“This is probably the most competitive special team there is. You don’t get many chances because anyone can run down the field full-speed,” Yokitis said. “We’ve switched out about six guys already. Every single day they’re getting evaluated. We’re going to get the best guys on the field.”
Kicker Bennett Moehring has helped the cause by booming four of his 18 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Service success: This marks the first time in series history that Air Force and Navy have been undefeated going into the annual showdown. Army West Point got off to a 3-0 start before suffering a disappointing overtime loss to Buffalo last weekend.
That early-season success among the three major service academies has been a hot topic nationally this week, and Niumatalolo was asked his thoughts.
“It’s great that all three service academies are off to a great start. It’s hard to win games at the Division I level, so for us and Air Force to be undefeated and Army to have only one loss speaks well of all three programs,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo was asked whether he thought it was good for college football to have Army, Air Force and Navy all with winning records at this point in the season.
“It’s really cool to see that all three service academies are doing well at the same time. It’s three institutions where it’s about more than just football,” he said. “It’s actually more than the education. It stands for more than that. It symbolizes a lot of what’s good about our country.” Breaking out: Nnamdi Uzoma has shown flashes of ability during his time at Navy. The senior defensive end earned praise from defensive line coach Shaun Nua during preseason practice in August 2015, but wound up buried on the depth chart and barely playing.
Coming into his final season, Uzoma had played in just eight games with most of the action coming on special teams. Uzoma, 6-3, 251 pounds, was extremely motivated to get off the sideline as a senior.
Uzoma was much more consistent during August camp this year and made the depth chart going into the season opener. The North Carolina native has since worked his way up to No. 2 at right end behind Amos Mason.
Uzoma had a breakout game against Tulane with three tackles. He derailed a drive by the Green Wave by bursting into the backfield and dropping the runner for a 5-yard loss.
“Nnamdi was in the weight room all the time during the offseason and worked hard all summer. He was very determined, and I think that’s paying off for him now,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “A big thing is that he’s getting more game reps. Obviously, the more game experience you get, the better you play. I’m very excited for him.”
Pehrson said it’s rewarding for the coaching staff to see a player finally break through.
“I think Coach Nua and Coach [Napoleon] Sykes have done a great job of bringing him along,” Pehrson said. “That’s why you do this job — to see kids develop and have success, especially a guy that’s stuck to it like Nnamdi has. He’s gone up and down the depth, but has just kept working and fighting.” Injury report: Slotback Josh Walker, who suffered an undisclosed injury against Tulane, will not travel to Colorado Springs.
Walker is still listed third on the depth chart at one of the two slotback positions, and it was not clear who would replace him on the traveling team.
Meanwhile, kicker D.J. Grant-Johnson remains sidelined with a leg injury. Niumatalolo said the senior, who opened preseason camp as the starter, might be available for the Houston game Oct. 8.
Navy’s Ryan Harris tackles Fordham’s Jihaad Pretlow as he fumbles in the season opener Sept. 3. The play led to a touchdown by the Mids as Navy went on to win, 52-16.