Navy Kicks Off Spring Practice With Optimism, Urgency
Perhaps the best news coming out of Navy’s spring practice this year is that Navy is indeed having a spring practice.
That wasn’t the case in 2020. The Mids were set to begin spring ball just as the coronavirus pandemic brought the sporting world, and most everything else, to a halt. Canceling practice was the first step in a series of events that led to a disappointing 3-7 season. Without spring practice and a traditional fall camp, the Mids never established the fundamentals required to run their offense effectively.
The frustration of last season has given the start of this year’s spring practice a cathartic quality.
“I feel good about pressing forward,” said head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “We're going to be able to practice normally. We're going to have spring ball. I'm excited about that.”
Linebacker Diego Fagot shared that sentiment.
“We’re really excited to get back out there on the field,” he said. “Everyone's been really itching to play football and be together. Now we get to go out there and do what we love.”
Niumatalolo took some criticism from fans and media for having his team go without hitting during fall camp. Still, given the limited information he had at the time, he hasn’t second-guessed his decision. However, he also doesn’t deny the effect it had on his team’s performance. Navy’s lackluster play didn’t come as a surprise; Niumatalolo has been preparing teams long enough to know what would happen if the formula is altered. It was a tough decision for him, but it’s one that he says he’d make again if given the same information he had at the time.
Either way, he is glad that decisions like that are behind him and that his focus can be on the field.
“I knew what would happen if we didn't practice,” he said. “It wasn't like, ‘I wonder how it will be if we don't practice physically.’ I knew. But I wasn't going to jeopardize our players or our program. Again, this is a year ago. I just wasn't going to do that. I would rather err on the side of caution. But this year, with testing... A third of our brigade has already been vaccinated. We're going to be able to go. That's what I'm encouraged about. It's going to be back to normal football.”
Of course, not everything is back to normal. The Brigade of Midshipmen has been subject to coronavirus limitations all semester, including a three-week restriction of movement that canceled athletic practices and required mids to be in their rooms almost all day. Many of the activities in which the football team would normally participate, such as team meetings or strength and conditioning sessions, have been curtailed, if not scrubbed altogether. That leaves players and coaches alike in a strange position.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry says that the coaches had a chance to work with players individually earlier in the semester, and the strength staff assigns players position-specific workouts. It's not quite the same as working out together and pushing each other, though.
"My guys send videos of themselves working out, just kind of a proof of life kind of deal, to help hold each other accountable," he said. "Of course, it's different when you're doing it by yourself than it is when you're in a group, and you're being competitive."
Fagot has spent his limited workout time focusing on individual technique.
"Something that I've been trying to emphasize is just playing lower, trying to keep a forward lean," he said. “Most of my plays this past year, I'd stand up or have a really wide base. That would hinder me from being able to break on the ball as fast as I could. We're not really working out with the team and not really doing many team functions, so I was really harping on that, at least on my own."
While it has been frustrating, Newberry feels that the players have handled the situation well.
"It's discouraging, but I think our guys have made the best of the situation," he said. "They've done everything that they can control to come out of this ROM in as good a shape as they can."
However, spring practice, and the weeks leading up to it, is about more than just what happens on the field. This is also when members of the senior class traditionally establish themselves as leaders of the team, creating a team culture and setting an example for their teammates to follow. The lack of in-person team activities has forced Niumatalolo to come up with other ways to give his seniors that opportunity. Zoom calls have been the go-to medium for meetings during the pandemic, but Navy’s head coach knows that people tend to tune them out when they’re on too many of them or if they last for too long.
“Zoom meetings are important; you’ve just got to be careful that you don’t do too many of them, they’re not too long, you have a purpose, you have a plan,” he said.
Instead, he has his team meet for a daily Zoom meeting, but he keeps them short: about 30 minutes. The coaches talk football for only about ten minutes. The other two ten-minute periods are run by players, in what Niumatalolo calls “Kool-Aids.” A Kool-Aid is about whatever the player wants it to be, whether it’s a book he read or anything else that’s on his mind.
Niumatalolo called them “some of the best meetings that I’ve ever been in.”
“I couldn’t be more excited. Some of these motivational speeches by some of our players, we should’ve recorded them. They’ve been great.”
“It was really interesting and really cool to see guys talk from the heart and share what's been on their mind.”
While the Kool-Aids have helped the senior class to set the tone for the team, Fagot pointed out that the process really started a long time ago.
“The Naval Academy is pretty unique in the fact that naturally everyone usually looks up to the senior class as a whole,” he said. “We already were kind of in that position when 2020 ended.”
One theme that the seniors are trying to drive home is that it doesn’t take a senior to be a leader. Anyone should feel empowered to hold a teammate accountable, just as anyone should be open to receiving guidance or criticism.
“We're not going to knock a younger player for trying to lead when we all can,” said Fagot. “I mean, we're all at the Naval Academy. It’s a leadership institution, so everyone has that ability to lead.”
Part of what the senior class is trying to instill in the team is a sense of urgency. Fagot pointed out that his class has seen both the highest and lowest points of Navy football’s recent history, which gives them a good idea of what to do and what not to do to achieve success. Given the Mids’ extremely challenging schedule— arguably the most difficult of the last 20 years— getting off to a fast start is imperative. That need to hit the ground running is what inspired this year’s choice of unofficial team motto, “Burn the boats.” The mantra references the story of conquistador Hernán Cortés, who scuttled his fleet off of Veracruz in 1519. His message to his men was clear: there was no going back. They had to push forward and defeat the Aztec Empire or perish.
Fagot wants his teammates to approach the upcoming season with the same desperation.
“This idea of burning the boats is really important to us because we’ve got to do everything we can, put all of our efforts into accomplishing this one task,” he said. “We’ve got to forget everything else behind us. There is no retreating at this point.”
Without the ability to practice last spring, Fagot intends to take full advantage of the opportunity to do so this year.
“We’ve just got to work. We have this opportunity to start spring ball, which we didn't have last year. We're going to have an opportunity to work in the summer. We’ve just got to work hard and get better. It's all there.”