Midshipmen Coach Ken Niumatalolo hired Maher this year as assistant athletic director for dietetics and sports performance for the same reasons that have made dietitians an established presence on other major college football staffs: to help players not just eat better but also recover quicker from the physical toll of games and practices.
But Navy presents challenges unfamiliar to most other programs, among them dining options that are dictated by the academy, not the training staff; smaller players; and larger rosters.
And perhaps most unusually, before Maher’s hiring, Navy football players essentially were on their own when it came to diet. Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk addressed the oversight following offseason meetings with Niumatalolo. Navy eventually plans to employ an entire staff devoted to sports nutrition.
“We’ve always lifted hard and run hard, but you just know it’s all about recovery,” Niumatalolo said. “Everybody has it now. There are a lot of dietitians out there, but this guy’s really good. Just been really impressed with him. He’s organized. He’s detailed. He’s educating our guys."
During preseason camp, Maher spends virtually his entire day with the team, from the moment players arrive in the locker room. He makes a point to monitor each player’s dietary needs, depending on whether the goal is weight gain or loss or simply maintenance.
Navy lists more than 160 players on the training camp roster, leaving Maher with little free time. (Because service academies don’t offer athletic scholarships, they are not bound by NCAA roster limits.)
“Nutrition is something that happens 24 hours a day and when I’m not around,” Maher said. “I have to explain how it’s going to affect their performance, how it’s going to change their body composition and just overall make them a better, stronger-performing athlete.
“That is a process that takes the whole summer, the whole year, and it’s really never-ending for the entire four years that they’re here.”
Maher came to Annapolis after working at Rutgers, where the average build of its football players is far larger than at Navy. The Scarlet Knights, for instance, list four starting offensive linemen who weigh at least 290 pounds. On its most recent depth chart, Navy lists one starting offensive lineman weighing that much.
Another significant difference at Navy is that all academy midshipmen dine together at King Hall, where Maher has no say with regard to the menu. Other major college football programs have dedicated dining halls for the team, allowing the nutrition staff to plan each meal.
Thus, Maher only can offer advice to Navy players on which foods are best for peak performance.
“At Rutgers, you’ve just got some big kids, but the principles of nutrition don’t really change depending on the kid,” Maher said. “It’s just individual goals will change, so we’ll have to maybe, if this kid has a higher body fat percentage, we’ll have to tighten up his diet a little bit more. Maybe this kid is a bit smaller, so we’ll need to squeeze some extra calories in there somehow.”
To maintain proper hydration levels, Maher takes a urine sample from each player at the start of each day of training camp, and players weigh themselves before and after workouts. There is a fueling station available at practice for the first time.
“It’s something that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t an expert,” Higgins said. “It’s something that’s going to be super beneficial for us. Excited to take advantage of him and his knowledge. Obviously [Niumatalolo] is extremely excited about it, and we are, too.”
Higgins has consulted regularly with Maher since the nutritionist started in June. In previous seasons, Higgins said, he had trouble gaining the extra 10 pounds or so he needed to reach his desired playing weight of around 260.
With Maher providing target calorie counts for each meal, Higgins indicated he has reached that number in less time than usual without relying on the hamburgers, pizza and fried foods most college students crave.
Still, Maher’s diet plans aren’t meant to serve as nonnegotiable marching orders. He instead places most of the responsibility on players.
“I’m not the food police,” Maher said. “I’m never going to tell a guy they can’t have something, but I will ask them: ‘Is that the best choice? Do you need that right now?’ I try to make them think, and then I let them answer the question. If they decide they want it, that’s on them.
“You can focus on the healthiest food in the world, but they’re college kids. They’re going to eat what they want to eat, and if I just try to feed them hummus and vegetables all day, I promise you, A) They’re not going to eat, and B) They’re not going to meet their caloric energy needs.”
The same outlook informs Maher’s advice regarding alcohol consumption, which players said they are taking to heart after the Midshipmen’s worst record (3-10) since 2002 and their third consecutive loss to archrival Army.
“We’ve got these young adults who like going out,” Midshipmen senior linebacker Paul Carothers said, “and so [Maher] taught us that there’s like a 72-hour period, like if you drink more than four [alcoholic] drinks, that you kind of lose the ability to recover well.
“Where I saw that was on the weekend where we really took a priority to be the best we could. Him showing us how important it was, that was really all he had to do, but he’s done more than that. Whatever you put into your body is what you get out, and he’s really helped us with that.”