Mids im­prove kick­off cov­er­age un­der Yoki­tis

Ma­jor ser­vice academies find early-sea­son suc­cess

Baltimore Sun - - NAVY FOOTBALL - By Bill Wag­ner

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.

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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.

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