Fortitude has never been in short supply on the Navy football team, which despite a disparity in size, speed and athleticism against virtually all opponents has managed to become among the winningest programs in the nation over the last decade.
But following a season in which Navy (5-7) had its first losing record since 2002 and dropped five games by a combined 11 points, Coach Ken Niumatalolo called on even more fortitude from himself and his players heading into the start of spring practice on Monday.
“First and foremost I look at myself, and I felt like I got soft,” Niumatololo said. “I thought I lost sight of the toughness side of it for us. We were still tough, but not like I would like us to be. For us, in close games, we’re normally the team that mentally doesn’t break down or finds a way to make a play, and in our close games, we didn’t get that done.”
One significant measure Niuamatalolo is implementing during spring practice to get his players’ attention on that front is allowing contact on the quarterback. In previous spring practices, Navy quarterbacks wore green jerseys over their uniforms, indicating they were off limits, but this year, first-time regular starter Trey Miller won’t have that luxury.
“Our quarterback needs to know what it’s like” to get hit, Niumatalolo said. “Like I said, it’s taking a risk playing live, but I think we’ve got to do it.”
Miller takes over the starting job from graduated Kriss Proctor, who was at his best in the triple option as a runner. Miller, a junior, falls more into the mold of Ricky Dobbs, who started for two straight seasons before Proctor and became one of the program’s most decorated players also because of long pass plays down the field.
That doesn’t mean Navy is going to throw the ball 20 times a game, but Niumatalolo said he’s looking for more diversity in the triple option with Miller directing the offense. Last season in a 38-35 loss to East Carolina, Miller relieved an injured Proctor and completed 5 of 12 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns in nearly rallying Navy to a victory.
“I thought Trey had a good offseason,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been impressed with him, just kind of his leadership, his coming out of his shell, so to speak. I think he understands that it’s his time, and he’s working really hard to step into that leadership role.”
In addition to a new starting quarterback, the Midshipmen also are undergoing an overhaul along the middle and right side of the offensive line, which had been among the most stable and dependable positions in the previous two seasons.
Sophomore Bradyn Heap is first on the depth chart at center, sophomore Jake Zuzek is the starter at right guard and senior Andrew Barker is the right tackle. Only Barker has starting experience. Zuzek played special teams last season, and Heap is a newcomer.
“I think the good thing is offensively we do the same things over and over, so these guys understand our system,” Niumatalolo said. “I feel like they’ve got the tools to be good.”