Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo usually likes to jump in during practice and coach the offensive line or trot over to the sideline to put the slotbacks through a drill. But this August, Niumatalolo took a step back.
He hovered around the middle of the field this preseason, keeping an eye on everything at once. The more laissez-faire approach wasn’t so the 53-year-old coach, who will begin his 11th season helming the Midshipmen on Saturday, can transition into a CEO-type role and let his coordinators take the reins. It was so he could watch his players’ legs.
“I’m not even as involved in coaching; I’ll watch and come back to our staff meeting and say, ‘You know what? This is too much. Can we cut back here, cut back there and add there?’ ” Niumatalolo said recently in his office at the U.S. Naval Academy.
If the Midshipmen are going to thrive during a 13-game season that includes six road games, two neutral-site games and the second-most miles traveled by any team in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, they’re going to need their strength.
Navy will travel 26,496 miles this season, according to the team, thanks mainly to Saturday’s season opener at Hawaii and a late-October matchup against Notre Dame in San Diego. Only Hawaii, which will log 38,578 miles flying to the mainland for all six of its road games, will travel more.
By comparison, Memphis, the team picked to win Navy’s division in the American Athletic Conference, will travel 5,118 miles. Army will travel 10,427.
The grueling schedule informed every aspect of Navy’s preparation for this season, from Niumatalolo’s coaching style to the simplicity of the offense to getting specially approved travel apparel for the 10-hour flight to Honolulu.
“I didn’t like it, to be honest. I complained a lot in the offseason,” Niumatalolo said. “But as we got closer, I realized it is what it is. We’ve been doing everything possible. I’m trying to look under every stone, do everything we can to make sure we’re ready. If we lose, nobody cares. They won’t say, ‘Oh, poor guys, they have to travel so far.’ I’ve come to realize you just have to find a way.”
Niumatalolo and his staff knew this year they would have to play the second game in a home-and-home series against the Rainbow Warriors, an arrangement set up when Navy was an independent program looking to fill out its home slate. Navy originally had a bye week built for the week after the Hawaii game.
But the AAC has dictated Navy’s schedule since the school joined the conference in 2015, and that bye week was lost. Not only does Navy have an extra game this year because of the Hawaii commitment — most college football programs play 12 regular season games — it will fly commercial to Honolulu on Thursday, return in the early morning hours Monday and then prepare to host Memphis, the team picked in preseason to win the AAC’s West Division, on Saturday.
Once the schedule was finalized, Navy coaches sought advice from college and pro teams on how to deal with increased travel.
In the training room, that means strength and conditioning coach Bryan Fitzpatrick has the team lifting more than it usually would this time of year. The idea is to make sure players continue to gain strength throughout the season without fatiguing them by the time the Army-Navy game rolls around Dec. 8.
“We want them to make gains throughout the season so we can finish. That was the big emphasis this offseason,” Fitzpatrick said. “But it’s a fine line. It’s about not pushing them too far past the breaking point, not pushing them to a level where they can’t play football. Keep them healthy — that’s the first and most important part.”
There are also compression socks.
“It’s a little different, but yeah — think grandma’s compression socks,” said Brian Blick, the team’s director of operations.
New this year for road trips are what Blick and his staff call recovery packs, which will be distributed for the first time before the team boards for Hawaii on Thursday.
Each player will be issued a bag filled with compression socks to help with circulation on long flights, a sleep mask, a pair of earplugs, a foam roller and stretching bands for tight muscles, a lacrosse ball so they can roll out their feet on the plane, and hydration packets full of electrolytes that can be dropped into an ordinary water bottle.
“Our medical staff is going to time it so when we’re five hours out or something, this is the time you need to take your hydration fluids, and then they’ll pop it in,” Blick said. “When the guys are here at school, we can’t affect a whole lot because of their daily routine, so when we get on the road, we want to try and structure it as much as possible and maximize that time. It goes back to developing controls and implementing them.”
Niumatalolo is micromanaging in his own way. He described walking around the football offices and banging on conference room doors to make sure players get out of their position meetings at 9 p.m. sharp so they can head back to their dorms and rest.
When he received this year’s version of Navy’s travel uniforms — the Mids always fly in uniform-compliant thick, gray sweatsuits — Niumatalolo knew his players would be too hot on the flight to Hawaii. He requested special approval from the military to travel in a collared shirt and shorts instead.
“There’s no doubt, this is the most I’ve ever done, our staff has ever done, in preparation for the season,” Niumatalolo said.
For the things he can’t control — keeping a team focused in places such as Hawaii or San Diego is tricky — he will lean on team captains Anthony Gargiulo, a senior fullback, and Sean Williams, a senior safety. Malcolm Perry, the junior speedster who rushed for 646 yards and seven touchdowns in three starts at quarterback last year, will be a steady starter this season after the carousel at the position in 2017, though Niumatalolo is reserving the right to use backups Garret Lewis and Zach Abey.
Navy’s longest road trip also could be one of its most emotional. Both Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper played at Hawaii, and Niumatalolo’s eldest son, Va’a, is an intern on Hawaii’s staff.
The Rainbow Warriors have beaten Navy both times the Midshipmen traveled to Honolulu — 48-41 in 1999 and 24-17 in 2009. Hawaii already has one win under its belt this season, a 43-34 upset at Colorado State on Saturday.
With all those factors playing into his team’s season opener, Niumatalolo is hoping his staff’s meticulous planning will prepare the Mids to thrive.
“The first thing I told them before we started the preseason is, ‘This is going to be the toughest beginning schedule, the toughest schedule that I can ever remember,’ ” Niumatalolo said. “And I feel like I really like our team. That’s why it’s my responsibility to just find a way to get our team to the gate every game as primed as possible. We’ve just got to make sure we’re not beat to crap by the time we get to Honolulu.”
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