Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo stood calmly in the background at practice late Monday afternoon, alternating between observing the starting defense on one field and the first-team offense on another.
Having kept to himself during the final hour of drills, Niumatalolo had his players come together when practice concluded for his customary critique. But before that began, Niumatalolo decided to move the group a bit father away from athletic department officials and reporters attending the open workout.
Then the sixth-year coach proceeded to unleash a torrent of invective, chastising his charges for a lack of focus and urgency in their first practice following their second bye week of the season. Even though the Midshipmen are off to a 2-0 start, Niumatalolo warned them that growing too comfortable with early accomplishments is a recipe for disaster, much like in 2011 when Navy finished 5-7 after opening with consecutive wins.
“We win two games, and all of sudden we think we’re Super Bowl champs or something,” said Niumatalolo, who also has been dealing with the recent death of his mother. “That’s not who we are. We’re nobody. We’re nobody. We’re a team that we’re just trying to scratch for a game and for a win. If we ever start thinking any differently, we’re in trouble.”
Niumatalolo missed several days of practice last week to be with family in Hawaii for his mother’s memorial service. Niumataolo left for his home state the day after a 51-7 victory over Delaware on Sept. 14, in which Navy amassed 589 yards.
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds completed 10 of 13 passes for a career-high 233 yards and two touchdowns and ran 15 times for 109 yards. The Midshipmen scored on their first four possessions and forced three turnovers in rolling to a 23-0 lead before their FCS opponent was able to score.
Slotback DeBrandon Sanders had three receptions for 86 yards, including a scintillating 63-yard catch-and-run midway through the second quarter, but Niumatalolo had some choice words for the sophomore Monday, reprimanding him for carrying the ball improperly during practice.
“I think we needed that,” senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson said of Niumatalolo’s tirade. “There just wasn’t a whole lot of energy out here. There’s no excuse for that. Western Kentucky [Navy’s opponent Saturday] doesn’t care if we have finals or if we have class or anything like that. We need to come out here everyday and work and clear our minds.”
There certainly was plenty weighing on players last week. In addition to the death of their coach’s mother, they also were processing the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard two days after celebrating a complete performance against the Blue Hens in the home opener.
Niumatalolo spoke about the tragedy last week with players, and the team paused for a moment of silence in honor of the victims.
“I think the most important thing was we just were trying to find out if anybody’s family members were involved, which thank God they weren’t,” said senior wide receiver Matt Aiken, also a co-captain. “It’s definitely a sobering moment for everyone. You’ve got to think about those people and their families that are going through the hard times right now.”