Navy football is well versed in Army's triple-option offense

Navy's Ricky Dobbs has rushed for 23 touchdowns this season, tying a record for quarterbacks.
Navy's Ricky Dobbs has rushed for 23 touchdowns this season, tying a record for quarterbacks. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

Whenever he gets the chance, Army Coach Rich Ellerson watches the football teams from Navy and Georgia Tech on television. He does so partly because of his long-standing friendships with those teams' coaches, Ken Niumatalolo and Paul Johnson. But Ellerson is also curious: His team, like Niumatalolo's and Johnson's, employs the triple-option offense.

"We try to see what kind of answers people are coming up with [to defend it] along the way," said Ellerson, who is in his first season as Army's head coach. "We all have a little different spin on it, we all have different assets to play with. There is no doubt that if this is a family tree, the patriarch is Paul Johnson."

Those relationships and shared familiarity with the distinctive offense could add an extra layer of intrigue to Saturday's Army-Navy game, which will be played at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. The Black Knights (5-6) have had three weeks to practice, while the Midshipmen (8-4) have had two.

"It's funny, the triple-option community is kind of a close-knit one. Everyone knows each other," said senior linebacker Ross Pospisil, Navy's defensive team captain. "I think because of that, it's going to be fierce. It's going to be one of those chess matches where each opponent has played the other many times before."

The three coaches first crossed paths more than 20 years ago at the University of Hawaii: Ellerson was the defensive coordinator, Johnson was the offensive coordinator and Niumatalolo was a backup quarterback. Ellerson was the one who recruited Niumatalolo to Hawaii, and Johnson was the one who got Niumatalolo into coaching after he graduated in 1989. For two seasons, all three men were on Hawaii's coaching staff together (Niumatalolo was a graduate assistant).

Niumatalolo eventually followed Johnson to Navy, and took over for his mentor when Johnson left for Georgia Tech in December 2007. Ellerson took a different path, spending eight years as an assistant at the University of Arizona -- where he helped develop the famed "Desert Swarm" defense -- and later taking the head coaching position at division I-AA Cal Poly. But Ellerson said earlier this week that Johnson "has got the greatest influence in terms of what we are doing and how we approach the problem right now."

"The core of what they do is the same. They branch off a little bit," Niumatalolo said of Army. "Coach Ellerson started from Coach Johnson's package, but he has other stuff in there. We're probably more similar to what Coach Johnson does."

The Black Knights have made progress in their first season in Ellerson's system. Army is averaging 212.1 rushing yards per game, which is 14th in the country, and both Niumatalolo and Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green praised the play of Trent Steelman, Army's freshman quarterback. Steelman has rushed for a team-high 690 yards and five touchdowns, and has also thrown three touchdown passes (all to 6-foot-10 wide receiver Ali Villanueva).

For the Midshipmen, preparing to defend the option is made easier by their understanding of it. They have option personnel on their team, so it's easier to simulate in practice.

"I think the one thing that helps us from an option standpoint is Coach [Buddy] Green has an idea of what he wants to do," Niumatalolo said. "We have a package to deal with option football, so it's not something we're trying to draw in the dirt."

"Everybody's got to do their job against the option," Navy senior linebacker Tony Haberer said. "Obviously we run against our option all spring and during [preseason] camp, so that helps a little bit. But when it comes right down to it, you've got to do your job. The best way to play the option is to get in a rhythm and start feeling it. That's when you start playing it well."

Army faces a similar challenge, except that the Midshipmen are more experienced at running the option. Navy ranks third in the nation in rushing (279.7 yards per game), and junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs (924 yards) and junior fullback Vince Murray (884 yards) each average at least 80 yards per game. Dobbs has scored 23 rushing touchdowns, which ties the NCAA single-season record for a quarterback.

"We're not as good at it as they are, but we're doing a lot of the same things. We both understand each other," Ellerson said. "It's one of those deals where I know that they know that I know that they know. . . . You can screw yourself right in the ground if you're not careful as a coach. At the end of the day, you're putting the game in your players' hands. It's their game."

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