For Mids, an Altered Running Start
Friday, August 1, 2008
A timed shuttle run has long been a staple of Navy's media day-fan fest, but Coach Ken Niumatalolo decided to change it up this year, his first in charge of the Midshipmen.
Instead of having the players gather on the practice field early in the morning and complete the 300-yard running test with only their teammates and coaches watching, Niumatalolo had the players do it in the afternoon, inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and in front of the roughly 600 fans who gathered to meet the players.
"Before we started everyone was like, 'Aw man, we're running in front of everybody?' " senior wide receiver Tyree Barnes said. "But then people started buying into the concept that Coach is trying to say: that this is our home field and from Day One we need to be ready. We have to defend this. When we're here, we have to make sure we're working hard."
There are going to be some changes this season for Navy, which finished 8-5 and led the nation in rushing last season. Former coach Paul Johnson -- who led the Midshipmen to a 45-29 record, five straight Commander-in-Chief trophies and five straight bowl games in six seasons -- is now at Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo, who played for and coached with Johnson for 17 seasons, has taken his place and is charged with maintaining that success.
Niumatalolo realizes he is going to face a certain amount of scrutiny and that comparisons are constantly going to be made between the two men. During yesterday's news conference, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was asked to compare the two coaches, and before the senior quarterback could answer, Niumatalolo stepped in with, "I'm better-looking."
"We're not going to totally revamp stuff," said Niumatalolo, who coached the Midshipmen during the Poinsettia Bowl last season. "I'm going to build on the base that Paul set. I'm not going to break down any walls, because Paul set a firm foundation. We were very successful. . . . All the things I've learned from Paul, all the things I've seen him do in the years I've been here, the things that worked, I'm going to keep doing it."
The running test is a good example of the kind of changes that Niumatalolo likely will make. Johnson instituted the shuttle run in 2002, his first season in Annapolis; Niumatalolo simply switched the time and location of it, and he did so for a specific reason: Last year, Navy lost more games at home (three) than it did on the road (one).
"Sometimes we've come here to fan day-media day, and it's kind of been our guys jumping on slides and doing boxing, signing autographs," Niumatalolo said. "I want to take that atmosphere out of it, so our guys realize that first and foremost anytime we come to the stadium, it's business. That was the main reason behind it, just so we get in a frame of mind that this is our house and every time we come here we're going to compete. Our guys answered the call."
While Johnson's departure is significant, the Midshipmen can rely on plenty of continuity, both on the sideline and in key positions. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green is in his seventh season with Navy, and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who will take over play-calling duties, is in his ninth. Kaheaku-Enhada has started 17 games at quarterback over the past two seasons, and senior fullback Eric Kettani led the Midshipmen with 880 rushing yards last season. Explosive slotback Reggie Campbell is gone, but senior Shun White (620 rushing yards) is back.
"It's not like we're starting from scratch," Barnes said. "It's a real good transition, and [the continuity] helps out the team tremendously. For the seniors, it's also a change of pace. We've been around Coach Niumat for so long, it's nice to see him in charge."
The Midshipmen have questions on their offensive line and on defense, and they have 25 practices and two scrimmages to find answers. But one thing is certain: This group of seniors does not want Navy to falter. This senior class is 6-0 against Army and Air Force, has played in three bowl games, and has beaten Notre Dame. The past two senior classes graduated having never lost to another service academy.
"I don't want to let those guys down, because they put so much work into getting the program to where it is," said senior Jarod Bryant, the team's offensive captain. "The least we can do is take it to another level. We can't let it drop."