If there is a theme to this “State of Service Academy Football” series this year, it’s change.
Army dealt with a head coaching change last season, and a new offense– whatever it may be– is on the horizon for 2008.
Air Force had to replace a legend in 2007, and will head into spring practice with one of the youngest teams in school history.
And then there’s Navy. With five head coaching switches in the last 20 years, change isn’t exactly unusual at the Naval Academy. What’s unusual this time around are the circumstances; for the first time since George Welsh left for Virginia, a Navy coach moved on because someone else actually wanted him. And with six years of accomplishment at a school where accomplishing anything is extraordinarily difficult, it’s no surprise that someone finally bit the option bullet and went after Paul Johnson.
Biting that bullet probably became a whole lot easier after this season too, not that Johnson’s record as a head coach shouldn’t have been enough to get the attention of college football’s big names. With Navy’s defense taking an inexplicable nose dive, it was up to Johnson’s offense to come up big if Navy was to have any chance of winning. And great googly moogly did they ever. Navy became the first I-A team in history to lead the nation in rushing for three consecutive years. They were 22nd in total offense as well, and finished in the top 10 in scoring offense– all with players that most I-A schools wouldn’t even sniff at. Navy walked away with wins at Pitt and at Notre Dame, two teams that even in their worst years would never trade the talent on their roster for that of Navy’s. The Mids won their 5th straight Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, went to their 5th straight bowl game, and was the victor in the highest-scoring game in I-A history. A few ADs finally figured it out. The 5 teams ranked directly behind (!) Navy in scoring offense in 2007 were LSU, Oregon, Arkansas, Texas, and Kentucky. Those are the kinds of names with which schools like Georgia Tech would like to be mentioned; and if Paul Johnson could do it at Navy, it’s difficult to comprehend the kind of carnage he’ll leave in his wake with access to ACC talent.
Difficult to comprehend, but imminent nevertheless as Johnson left for Georgia Tech after a week of barnstorming between Annapolis, Dallas, and Atlanta. Now that the inevitable has happened (I’m still amazed that it actually took 6 years), Navy is looking to regroup under new head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
The first question on every Navy fan’s mind is, “What’s going to change?” Niumat’s answer comes straight from the “ain’t broke and not gonna fix it” department. In a podcast with CSTV’s Greg Amsinger, Coach Niumat said that some things might evolve as it’s up to him to handle various situations in his own way over time, but he isn’t looking to do anything differently right off the bat. Of course, that’s not entirely true. The most obvious departure from Paul Johnson’s formula is that Niumatalolo won’t act as his own offensive coordinator. That honor falls to Ivin Jasper, the quarterbacks coach under Johnson who along with Niumatalolo was one of Johnson’s top two offensive assistants; and it’s in playcalling that we find the most immediate change under Niumatalolo.
While I was in San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl, someone talked to me about what I thought was a very interesting point. How many games over the last 6 years did Navy win almost entirely because of Paul Johnson’s playcalling? Just look back at 2007, with plays like the two QB draws at the end of the Duke game, or bringing in the wide receivers tight to the formation against Notre Dame, or calling plays we’ve never seen before in the Northern Illinois game; Paul Johnson always seemed to know exactly what adjustments to make. That, and he had an incredible memory. Ask Coach Johnson why he made a particular adjustment in a game, and he would probably say something along the lines of, “Well, Middle Tennessee tried the same thing against us on defense back at Southern in ’86 and I didn’t really have an answer for it. But I saw it again when we played Middle Tennessee in ’93 and I was at Hawaii, and we were ready. I just did the same thing here.” Johnson’s memory for detail made him a sort of football savant. He knew what to do because in the 20+ years that he has been running this offense, he has seen every possible way a defense can line up against it.
But there’s the rub. Johnson has seen defenses line up against this offense for two decades. Ivin Jasper and Ken Niumatalolo have not. The two of them are as well-versed in the fundamentals of Paul Johnson’s offense as anyone other than maybe Mike Sewak, but do they have the same mastery of adjusting on the fly? Maybe, maybe not. Both have had the chance to run offenses on their own before; Niumatalolo replaced Johnson as Navy’s offensive coordinator in ’97, and Jasper ran the offenses at both NAPS and Indiana State. There’s no doubt that the two of them have picked up on some things, but 20 years of experience is hard to replace. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that there will be a learning curve as Niumat and Jasper take charge. That doesn’t have to mean disaster, of course; Navy was 7-4 in 1997, and Georgia Southern won two national championships in PJ’s first two years as offensive coordinator.
Other than the delegation of playcalling duties, the other obvious change is that there are four new assistant coaches on the staff and some reassignments of coaches who are returning. Jasper is not only the offensive coordinator, but he will retain his duties as the quarterbacks coach and coach the fullbacks as well. Jasper coached both positions at Georgia Southern and in his previous stint at Navy, so the move is a natural one. Chris Culton moves from fullbacks to the offensive line, a position he coached for Tim Stowers at Rhode Island. Niumatalolo will continue using two offensive line coaches, and Culton will be joined by another former Rhode Island offensive line coach, Ashley Ingram. Ingram spent last season as Bucknell’s offensive coordinator. Another I-AA offensive coordinator also joined Niumatalolo’s staff as Joe DuPaix left Cal Poly to coach the Navy slotbacks. Danny O’Rourke moves from defense to offense, replacing Brian Bohannon as the wide receivers coach. On the defensive side of the ball, Steve Johns fills the void left by O’Rourke at inside linebackers. Tony Grantham returns to Annapolis to join Keith Jones in coaching the outside linebackers. Justin Davis is now assisting with the defensive line.
DuPaix and Johns appear on the surface to be great hires. DuPaix’s offense led all of I-AA last year in total yardage, and he was considered to be a front-runner for the head coaching job at his alma mater, Southern Utah. But DuPaix’s biggest shoes to fill might not be in coaching players, but recruiting them. Bill Wagner makes the excellent point that DuPaix is taking over Todd Spencer’s recruiting area in Texas. Spencer had been recruiting Texas since Paul Johnson’s first stint in Annapolis and had built several contacts over those 11 years. Not coincidentally, the Navy roster is loaded with Texans every year. It will be up to DuPaix to make sure that things stay that way.
For Johns, recruiting is apparently right in his wheelhouse. Coach Niumatalolo was responsible for west coast recruiting under Johnson; now that he’s taken over as head coach, that area of responsibility will fall to Johns. Johns came to Navy from Grossmont Junior College, a national JUCO powerhouse. According to Wagner, Niumat feels that Johns’ time there, coupled with his six years as UNLV’s recruiting coordinator, has helped him build relationships with area high school coaches. While Navy hasn’t packed its roster with west coast players, they have had their share of impact players from the region– guys like Kaipo, John Chan, and Marco Nelson. It’s a valuable pipeline.
On the player side, the biggest losses are on the offensive line and Reggie Campbell. The core group of Kaipo, Eric Kettani, and Shun White are as good a returning group as the Mids have had for a while, but their performance in 2008 will depend on how well Navy can replace one of the best offensive lines ever to play in Annapolis. Anthony Gaskins returns after starting all year at guard, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move to center in the spring. It could be one of many position changes as the coaches try to find the right mix of players up front. On defense, just about everyone returns. Irv Spencer won’t, obviously, but Clint Sovie will after missing most of 2007. Jeff Deliz will too. How effective Sovie and Deliz will be after their injuries is a big question mark. The defense as a whole played its best games at the end of the year, so it’s easy to be optimistic about how they’ll do next year. Maybe too easy.
The biggest obstacle facing Navy next year might be their schedule. With trips to Ball State, Duke, and Wake Forest, and a home game against Rutgers squeezed in the middle, it isn’t hard to imagine Navy being 1-4 going into the Air Force game. And even that game is on the road, followed up with home dates against a more mature Pitt team than last year and an SMU team that will now be coached by June Jones. All subject to change, of course… But as it stands right now, that’s no cakewalk. It’s possible that the team could be better next year but still end up with a worse record. Keep that in mind when you set your expectations. Navy should still win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy again next year assuming that everything keeps humming along under Niumatalolo the way they did under Johnson. But it’s reasonable to expect some growing pains.