Sometimes he’s a grocery store shopper on a mission: “Or it’s like, ah — I like that ingredient, I like that over there, but you don’t know it until you see it,” Niumatalolo said, his hands balled into fists this time, as if pushing a shopping cart, as he intermittently points up to an imaginary shelf in his imaginary store.
Occasionally, though, Niumatalolo is a regular old football coach, and it’s then that the details of his search for Brian Newberry fall into place.
After posting a 3-10 record in 2018, Navy’s 12th-year coach combed the country looking for a coordinator who could bring to life his vision of a defense that was flexible yet solid, that could baffle opponents yet could be realistically explained and installed in a few months and that would be effective against the option offenses used by Air Force and Army.
He liked what the Cougars were doing up at Washington State and what Coach Rocky Long was running down at San Diego State. He admired elements of coordinator Jay Bateman’s defense at Army. All that cross-country research led him to an FCS powerhouse in Georgia, where Newberry had been running what looked a lot like Niumatalolo’s dream defense for four years at Kennesaw State.
“You don’t know exactly what you want until you see it, and then you’re like — that’s it. Right there,” Niumatalolo said.
Newberry’s dynamic scheme has done exactly what Niumatalolo hoped, helping keep the Midshipmen in contention for the American Athletic Conference title game until Friday, when Memphis, No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings, clinched a spot by beating No. 19 Cincinnati at home. Even though the dream of playing for a conference championship for the second time since Navy joined the AAC five years ago — it lost to Temple in 2016 — is gone, the Mids have plenty to play for. Should they beat Houston on Saturday, they will own a share of the AAC’s West Division title. Should they win their final three games of the season — the bout at Houston in addition to the Army-Navy Game and a bowl game — they will tie the school record for wins in a season with 11 and take the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“I said this earlier today, and I really believe this,” Niumatalolo said Tuesday, “Malcolm Perry and Brian Newberry are the reasons we’re at where we’re at this year. Those two guys have changed our football program."
Perry’s improvement as a quarterback and a leader has added an edge to Navy’s triple-option and much-needed steadiness on the offensive side of the ball; Newberry remodeled the Mids’ entire defensive identity.
In years past, Navy’s defense has been solid enough to complement the triple-option. This season, Newberry, along with four new defensive assistants, has employed multiple schemes and taken advantage of a big and strong defensive line to play a more aggressive style that has Navy ranked in the top 25 in the country in many key metrics.
The Mids are 15th in rushing defense (up from 90th in 2018) and 24th in third-down conversion defense (up from 121st) and total defense (24th, up from 86th). Their 63 tackles for a loss (they had 37 all last year) are the most by a Navy team since 2008.
On Tuesday, Newberry was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, which honors the top assistant coach in college football, alongside some distinguished company. Other semifinalists include LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch — the same coach who created the Washington State defense Niumatalolo admired from afar last offseason.
“Coach Newberry did a really good job with teaching us,” said junior Jacob Springer, who plays the striker position in Newberry’s scheme, something of a hybrid safety-linebacker. Springer leads Navy with 12½ tackles for loss and seven sacks. “The fact that we picked it up and we were able to get so deep into our playbook early into the season, or into our scheme, just getting comfortable with it — now it’s like, we throw in stuff that we learned back in spring ball and nobody even thinks twice. I like playing in it, I like how aggressive this defense is.”
Last weekend, the defense, like the rest of the team, had to rebound from a 52-20 loss at Notre Dame that left Newberry thinking he had gotten a little too complacent with taking chances that had previously worked for the Mids.
SMU traveled to Annapolis with the seventh-best passing offense in the nation and sixth-best total offense — yet had a difficult time deciphering Navy’s defense in the Mids’ 35-28 win. The game was the Mustangs’ worst rushing performance of the season, and they accumulated the fewest yards of offense (344) and fewest first downs (15).
“Getting your butt kicked at Notre Dame, that'll do it for you,” Newberry said. “Sometimes a loss comes at certain time of year that you really need, maybe, or that helps you in the long run in the home stretch of the season. Things get exposed, some holes in the boat you have to get patched before you move on."
Newberry said both he and his players have absorbed the lessons of Notre Dame and the defense is ready for Saturday’s game at Houston — no matter the stakes. While the AAC title is no longer a possibility, the Mids want to finish strong, and the biggest game of the year remains Army on Dec. 14.
“Our kids were humbled a little bit [at Notre Dame],” Newberry said. “We got a little happy. We’ve got to get back to playing with a chip on our shoulder, with an edge, because that’s what’s gotten us where we’re at.”