Crucial campaign begins
Five questions surrounding Midshipmen as preseason camp begins
This is a critical campaign for Navy football, coming off two straight losing seasons — both overall and within the American Athletic Conference.
Another sub-.500 record would make it four of the last five seasons for Mids and constitute a crisis.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo believes the coronavirus pandemic impacted Navy far more than the civilian programs in the AAC, citing a change of routine as a major reason for 3-7 and 4-8 records in 2020 and 2021.
Niumatalolo is encouraged the Mids went through a “normal” offseason for the first time since 2019 and believes that will pay dividends on the field.
Outside observers clearly see Navy football on a downward trend, with members of the AAC media picking the service academy to place 10th out of 11 schools this season.
Navy football began preseason practice Wednesday afternoon. Here are five questions that could prove decisive toward determining whether the Midshipmen exceed expectations:
Will Tai Lavatai take the next step as a triple-option quarterback?
Lavatai closed out an uneven sophomore season on a strong note, leading Navy to victory over archrival Army. That contest marked the first time the youngster was truly healthy, and it showed.
Navy needs Lavatai to build off that performance and he certainly displayed an increased level of confidence during spring camp, taking complete command of the offense. With backup Xavier Arline playing lacrosse, Lavatai became the clear-cut starter and does not need to look over his shoulder.
Lavatai’s statistics last season were pedestrian. He rushed for 371 yards and passed for 449. For most of the triple-option era, Navy’s quarterback has typically rushed for at least 1,000 yards.
It is imperative for Lavatai to establish himself as a dangerous running threat this season. AAC defensive coordinators have shown they can manage the other elements of the option (fullback dive, slotback pitch, play-action pass) if the quarterback is not a true threat.
Who will emerge as playmakers at the other skill positions?
Navy was hit hard by graduation at fullback, slotback and wide receiver, losing the top performers at all three positions.
Sophomore Anton Hall Jr. emerged from spring camp as the starting fullback. The Florida native is undersized at 5 feet 8 and 198 pounds and got just four rushing attempts last season.
Maquel Haywood, who burst onto the scene as a dynamic kickoff returner last fall, is listed as one of the starting slots. He is joined by junior Vincent Terrell II, who earned the Admiral Mack Award as Navy’s most improved player during spring camp.
Haywood showed tremendous vision, speed and moves in averaging 31 yards on 12 kickoff returns, ranking third on Navy’s single-season list.
Junior Kai Puailoa-Rojas, who emerged as a playmaker last season, returns to the slotback corps after practicing at quarterback during the spring.
The Mids have several other talented slots capable of stepping up such as junior speedster Daniel Jones along with sophomores Campbell Speights and Amin Hassan.
Senior Mark Walker would seem the most obvious candidate to succeed Mychal Cooper as the go-to receiver. Walker has made 12 starts and has shown flashes of potential, but is coming off a disappointing junior campaign in which he made just seven catches for 63 yards.
Jayden Umbarger showed star potential as a sophomore, earning the title Mr. Reverse. The Archbishop Spalding graduate was a weapon on double reverses, averaging almost 12 yards on 11 attempts. The Baltimore native figures to be targeted more in the passing game this season.
Who will replace Diego Fagot as the physical and emotional leader of the defense?
Fagot was the heart and soul of the Navy defense for three seasons, earning All-American Athletic Conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior. The rugged 6-4, 240-pound inside linebacker is now trying to make the Ravens as an undrafted free agent.
Will Harbour is slated to succeed Fagot as the starting middle linebacker. However, it remains to be seen if the 6-1, 230-pound junior can make the same type of impact, both as a tackler and a leader.
John Marshall, who has excelled at the hybrid outside linebacker position known as striker, was voted one of three team captains. The Gonzaga College graduate totaled 116 tackles the previous two seasons.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has already talked about finding ways to utilize Marshall’s talents. Expect the 6-2, 209-pound Highland native to blitz more often from different angles and be moved around the field some.
Sophomore free safety Rayuan Lane is an up-and-coming defender with a high upside. The Gilman graduate was thrust into a starting role as a freshman and recorded 37 tackles while showing superb range on the back end.
Will an unprecedented youth movement pay dividends for the defense this season?
Due to injury, attrition and performance, Navy fielded one of its youngest teams in history in 2021. The Midshipmen closed the campaign with eight freshmen and eight sophomores on the defensive depth chart.
It would stand to reason that the experience those youngsters gained in the heat of battle will benefit the entire defense as a whole. Lane, who replaced Kevin Brennan as the starting free safety, is a remarkably seasoned sophomore with potential.
Junior Eavan Gibbons, who became the starter at bandit safety after Mitch West sustained a season-ending injury, was making plenty of plays toward the end of the season, totaling six tackles and a pass breakup against Army.
Defensive tackles Donald Berniard Jr., and Clay Cromwell combine with end Jacob Busic to form a defensive line consisting entirely of juniors who grew up big-time a year ago.
Will Bijan Nichols break Navy place-kicking records?
It’s extremely rare for a kicker to be voted as a team captain of any Division I football team. It had never happened at Navy — until now.
That goes to show how much respect teammates have for Bijan Nichols, the first specialist since punter Bob Bowstrom in 1930 chosen as a captain. (It should be noted that for most of modern history, Navy football elected an offensive and a defensive captain.)
Nichols is on the verge of breaking several school records. He ranks second in points scored by a kicker with 204 and only needs 19 to surpass Bennett Moehring.
Nichols also stands second in field goals (33) and extra points (112) in a career. Moehring and Steve Fehr hold those marks with 42 and 141, respectively. The Texas native converted 15 field goals and 28 extra points last season, so both records are attainable.