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2021 Season Preview

When it comes to evaluating the 2020 Navy football season, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that it was a disappointment. There is a lack of a consensus, though, when it comes to explaining why.

The Mids limped to a 3-7 record last year behind an offense that averaged an unthinkably bad 177.6 rushing yards per game. While the defense made significant improvement at the end of the season, they started the campaign by giving up 250+ rushing yards in five of their first seven contests. The quarterbacks looked overwhelmed, the offensive line couldn't block anyone, and the defense didn't rise to the physical level of their opponents until the end. There were bright moments, to be sure: the comeback against Tulane, late-game heroics against Temple, the rise of the defense over the last three games. Nevertheless, there is no sugarcoating how bad the season was on the whole.

When it was revealed that Navy hadn't had any contact in practice leading up to the opener against BYU, it should have been a signal that things were about to go sideways. I just accepted it. With so much getting canceled at the time, I was thankful for whatever football we got in 2020. I wasn’t naive enough to think that my sanguine approach would be the norm, though. Once games were played, fans and media would react-- and overreact-- the way they always do. That meant hot takes, and when it came to Navy, there was no shortage.

To be fair, not every concern was a hot take. While the 2020 season's miscues were jarring after such a triumphant 2019 campaign, one could argue that it wasn't an outlier. The Mids started a skid in 2017 that lasted through a miserable 2018 season. Was 2019 the aberration? In the context of the last four years, it was. In that sense, it's fair to wonder if something is wrong with the Navy program. There's certainly no shortage of rival fans wishcasting Navy's demise, and the Mids were voted to finish tied with ECU for eighth place in the American's preseason media poll. However, while it's understandable to have doubts based on Navy's results, there is more to the story. A deeper insight into what has gone wrong since 2017-- and what went right in 2019-- will lead one to believe that Navy's prospects for 2021 are much better than naysayers anticipate.

A narrative has developed around Navy football in the wake of last season, coming from fans and media alike. According to popular opinion, Navy barely even runs the option anymore. That drumbeat got particularly loud during last year's SMU game when the Mids threw 30 passes. Instead of running the option, Navy just looks for an exceptional talent at quarterback to drop back and do his thing. Without that, the offense just can't function since talent across the board has fallen off.

We've all heard these things, and some of you might even be starting to believe it. Indeed, there was a kernel of truth to some of it at one point. Back in 2018, we discussed some of the issues plaguing the Navy offense at the time. The root cause of those issues, I said, was that Navy was trying to do too much. They didn't stop running the option; they just didn't execute it very well anymore. The problem, in my estimation, was with preparation. By trying to do too much, Navy didn't spend as much time perfecting their bread and butter. As a result, they played slower and made more mistakes. Teams used to have difficulty preparing for Navy because there was no way their scout team could replicate the speed and efficiency with which Navy ran their offense. That stopped being the case. Cincinnati defensive lineman Cortez Broughton said as much after the Bearcats' 42-0 walloping of the Mids. "As far as our scout team and the look we had this week, they moved faster than Navy did," he said. "So when we went up against Navy, it was second nature.”

Navy's offense had been evolving for years as new solutions were found to the various obstacles presented by opposing defenses. The defenses that usually posed the biggest challenges, at least schematically, were those from the other service academies. Most of the adjustments that Navy made were in response to those games. One particularly effective adjustment was the outside zone.

As a complement to the triple option, the outside zone can be devastating to defenses. When the quarterback gets the same read from his keys consistently, it can open up complimentary plays. For example, if the dive key is squatting, that opens up the fullback trap. The outside zone can be employed similarly if the dive key consistently takes the fullback, allowing the offense to get outside without a read.

The key to stopping the outside zone is for the defensive end to not allow a blocker to seal him off on the outside. His goal is to string out the play. For a player that is repeatedly crashing inside to take the fullback, that is an impossible ask.

Sometimes, when the dive key is particularly aggressive in taking the fullback, you can even leave him unblocked to give yourself an extra downfield blocker.

The play was so effective that, over time, it became more than just a complement to the triple option. It became a staple of the offense. At first, it wasn't that big of a deal; players that had gone through spring and fall camps running primarily triple option were able to do both effectively. After those players graduated, their successors didn't have the same option foundation, which led to the slower, sloppier play. There were other changes, too. Line splits became narrower. Double flex formations became the norm, with receivers lining up next to the tackles looking to seal off defenders instead of having quarterbacks read their way outside. What was once a spread offense became a lot more compact.

That's what changed offensively in 2019. Navy's resurgence wasn't simply a matter of having an exceptional quarterback, especially considering that the same quarterback started the previous year. Instead, it was about trimming the fat. Navy still ran some of the same bolt-ons to the offense, but they didn't rely on them. The heart of the offense was once again the triple option, and the team's execution reflected that.

All of this might seem like old news, but there is an obvious parallel here to the 2020 season. If the Navy offense wasn't able to execute properly in 2018 due to the lack of a real "option boot camp" style of spring and fall practice, then it should be no surprise that canceling spring practice altogether and going without contact in the fall would make things even worse.

Sometimes the obvious answer is, in fact, the answer.

Spring practice and fall camp are where a team’s foundation is built. It’s where the offense takes repetition after repetition working on the fundamentals until they can run their base plays with the speed and efficiency necessary to win. It isn’t something that you can catch up on over the course of the season. By the time games are being played, the basics are supposed to be taken care of; your practice time has to be spent on putting in the game plan each week. Last year, Navy never reached that point, and it showed.

Here's an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about. On plays like the fullback trap or the counter option, a guard pulls to trap the dive key. In 2019, you can see how quickly the guard could get in front of his assignment to make a cut block.

Everything in the Navy offense starts with offensive linemen firing at the snap, both to reset the line of scrimmage and to get proper body position for cut blocking. Last year, on the same plays, they were blocking at the hip.

You could have put Malcolm Perry in that offense, and nothing would have changed. The talking point that Navy lives or dies by its quarterback is lazy analysis. Their problems were more elemental. This is what happens when a team goes without normal practice. They will be a step too slow off the snap, forced to take shortcuts, and never quite as physical as they need to be. It was also problematic for the quarterback development since they need real reps to prepare for things to happen at game speed. They didn’t get them until it was far too late.

“Option football, for a guy to get used to those stunts, you need live reps,” said Coach Niumatalolo. “You need somebody running at them full speed and whacking him or coming at you and tackling you. We couldn't do that during the season.”

I know everyone is sick of talking about 2020, but it’s important to establish what last season was and what it wasn’t. It was not an indication of the Navy program’s direction. It was an unprecedented situation, with on-field problems that were the product of off-field decisions. Coach Niumatalolo has said more than once that he knew what would happen if the team didn’t prepare correctly. He just did what he felt in his heart was right and took his lumps. Maybe you disagreed with the decision. That's fine. Just don't read more than you should into the result.

While I argued at the time that Navy needed a more back-to-basics approach in 2019, the coaches didn't like to use that term. Niumatalolo preferred to frame it as a matter of finding a style to fit Malcolm Perry's strengths. I'm not sure why; perhaps he just didn't want to tip his hand. Whatever the reason, there is no such spin this year.

"We've all been doing this a long time, and there's obviously a lot of different approaches," said run game coordinator and offensive line coach Ashley Ingram. "My thought process is when things don't go the way you want them to go-- and I think Coach Niumat feels the same way, I think Coach Jasper feels the same way-- instead of going out and looking to add a lot that's new, is kind of get back to the basics, get back to the fundamentals, Simplify things, then focus on the things that we need to do to win games here.

"I think our approach has been great. The way our guys have responded has been perfect. I think we're going to see a different brand of football than what we saw last year, and I think it's going to be a little more accustomed to what we're used to seeing."

This is exactly what you want to hear if you're a Navy fan, and it bodes well for the upcoming season. It does, however, come with a caveat.

The point I am making is not that 2020 would have been a repeat of the phenomenal 2019 season if only Navy had normal practices. Every team is different, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. My point is that without normal practices, we never got a chance to see what those strengths and weaknesses would have been. There is a certain standard to which every Navy team plays, but the lack of preparation meant that the Mids couldn't meet that standard. For 2021, Navy fans can expect the team's floor to be raised to its usual baseline, particularly on offense. Now, it's a matter of finding out what this team's strengths and weaknesses will be.

The most pressing question is at quarterback, where Xavier Arline, Tai Lavatai, and Maasai Maynor have been competing for the starting job since the spring. They each bring a different style that Niumatalolo compares to past Mids. Arline, who was the starter at the end of last year, is a slasher along the lines of Perry, but not quite as fast in a straight line. Lavatai has been compared to Will Worth, while Maynor has been likened to Ricky Dobbs. Arline and Lavatai are reportedly neck-and-neck in the race to start week one, although both Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper have expressed confidence in all three.

We likely won't know who the starter will be until the team takes the field against Marshall. Navy's offense has shown that they can win games with any style, so that won't be a deciding factor. The most important quality in Navy's quarterback has to be consistency.

Everyone remembers Malcolm Perry's spectacular, ankle-breaking runs, but his ability as a ball carrier might have led people to overlook just how good he was at leading the offense. Perry wasn't just a runner; he was a true option quarterback.

Here are a couple of quick examples. In this play, Perry reads the defense, checks to the right play, and gets the ball to where it’s supposed to go.

He also did a good job of making his option reads. On these plays, he reads the EZ stunt, where the dive and pitch keys exchange responsibilities:

This is what Navy needs out of the quarterback position: someone who can consistently get the ball where it's supposed to go. He doesn't have to be an elite ball carrier for the offense to succeed. As long as the offense can consistently get 4-5 yards at a time, the defense will eventually overextend itself trying to get the offense off schedule. That's when the big-play adjustments happen.

Of course, that leads to another question, which is where the big plays will come from this year. In 2019, it was Perry and fullback Jamale Carothers who provided a one-two punch. Last year, what few big plays there were came from another fullback, Nelson Smith. This year, it might be the slotbacks' turn to fill the highlight reel. Chance Warren is Navy's Swiss Army knife who does a bit of everything. He's a capable runner, has the hands of a converted receiver, and has been known to throw the ball from time to time. Daniel Jones may be the fastest player on the team and has made a good impression in camp. Wide receiver Mychal Cooper has also proven to be a playmaker throughout his career. The potential is there, but it has to start with consistent option play from the quarterback.

With Carothers now at Western Kentucky, the bulk of the fullback carries will come from Isaac Ruoss and James Harris. Both players are more in the typical fullback mold, tipping the scales at 220 and 230 pounds, respectively. Like Carothers, Mike Mauai is a converted slotback who’s just starting to learn the position. Over time, he may be able to provide a change of pace. For now, fullbacks coach Jason MacDonald has said that he’s pleased with Ruoss and Harris and doesn’t want to have too many guys in the mix. Things change, though; Carothers was a midseason switch himself. Several promising plebes could work their way onto the depth chart once their legs recover from plebe summer.

The good news is that they should all have a solid offensive line blocking for them. Niumatalolo said that this group, at least physically, has the potential to be the best line he's had at Navy. That's noteworthy considering that he is a former offensive line coach himself. After camp, Coach Ingram and Coach O'Rourke have exactly what you hope for up front: five clear starters, depth that they trust, and young guys who have tremendous potential but need polishing. Perhaps the most exciting development has been the rise of Josh Pena at left guard. Pena, a sophomore, was one of those young guys last year but quickly learned the ropes. His climb to the top of the depth chart has allowed last year's starter, Bryce Texeira, to learn the tackle position and become sort of a super-utility player. That, plus Jake Cossavella and Kip Frankland at tackle, Pierce Banbury at center, and Nick Bernacchi at the other guard spot, gives the Mids a lot of returning experience paving the way.

The Navy offense will be better in 2021, but with some of the uncertainty heading into the season, it's difficult to say how much. No such difficulty exists with the defense. They will be very, very good.

The Navy defense had the same early-season miscues as the offense last year, with the added bonus of being set back by key injuries. By the end of the season, though, they were playing as well as they did at any point in 2019. The Mids ended the season by holding their last three opponents to under 300 yards of offense apiece, the first time they had done so in a three-game span since 1997. That stretch included games against Tulsa, who played in the conference championship game, and Memphis, one of the league's most prolific offenses every year. Once the Mids were healthy and used to playing at game speed, they became the unit we all expected them to be. Many of those same players are back in 2021. Last year's injuries led to several players getting game experience: the Navy defense returns 12 players who started multiple games in 2020, including all-conference linebacker Diego Fagot, cornerback Michael McMorris, and safety Kevin Brennan.

There are some notable losses, though. The most significant is probably at defensive end after the graduation of multi-year starter and team captain Jackson Perkins. Stepping up to replace Perkins is a pair of sophomores, Jacob Busic and Max Meeuwsen. Busic, in particular, has stood out for his size, athleticism, and work ethic.

“This spring, he was always around the ball,” said defensive ends coach Kevin Downing. “He was very active. He’s really good with his hands, always making plays. He’s done a really good job picking up the playbook.”

The coaches’ confidence in Busic gives them options across the defensive front. Deondre Williams played defensive end last year but has been moved to tackle to push J’arius Warren. Both of them have started games, as have nose guards Donald Berniard and Sio Saipaia. That depth gives coaches options on which players they want to use in certain situations, as well as the ability to constantly rotate fresh legs into the game.

The Mids caught a tough break when WILL linebacker Tama Tuitele entered the transfer portal this week. Tuitele started six games for the Mids last year, collected 50 tackles, and was second in the country in forced fumbles with four. However, he was by no means assured of the starting job this season. Johnny Hodges started against Army in last year’s season finale and had pulled even with Tuitele in spring practice. Will Harbour had an excellent spring practice of his own, winning the Admiral Mack Award as the spring’s most improved player. Either of them could have been named the starter even if Tuitele had stayed.

The coaches' confidence in multiple inside linebackers addresses what was arguably the defense’s biggest weakness last year. When Tuitele and Diego Fagot were healthy, the Mids could hold their own well enough. The problems came when one or both had to leave the game. Younger players without the learning experience of normal practice would play hard, but they also gave up big plays on the ground when they ran to the wrong gap.

Last year's hard lessons are this year's depth. Navy should also have some situational flexibility at ILB, matching players to the opponent. The WILL linebacker tends to drop back into coverage a little bit more than the MIKE, but against running teams, sometimes it makes sense to have both ILBs more focused on running downhill. In 2019, for example, Paul Carothers started in the service academy games.

In a normal year, a defense this good would be able to pick up the slack for an offense that might have some growing pains early on. This schedule, though, is anything but normal. The Mids open against Conference-USA contender Marshall, then play Air Force in week two. After a weekend off, Navy has seven straight games against the American's top six teams from 2020 plus Notre Dame. There is no settling into the season. Of course, if the Mids can fight their way through a schedule like that, then the sky's the limit. One step at a time, though.

As a program, the Mids expect to be one of the top teams in the American every year. This season will be their biggest test of those ambitions. Navy is not going to look like they did last year. They will be better. The question is whether they will be better enough.

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