Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's annual pilgrimage to the South Pacific has become a summer tradition since he took over as Navy football head coach in 2008. On each trip, he flies to Hawaii to spend time with his family and then to Guam to visit his wife’s family.
But there is nowhere Niumatalolo would rather be, come late July, than on the practice fields on the banks of the Severn River.
Niumatalolo is one of the few Division I coaches who allows his players and assistant coaches to take time off for most of July. He has found that the approach works: The Midshipmen have appeared in a bowl game in five of his six seasons at the helm.
“I just feel, with our guys, they go straight from finals to summer cruise to coming back here and lifting. They need a break. I feel like the coaches need a break as well,” Niumatalolo said. “I want guys to be refreshed for day one. It’s always good to get away and go recharge the batteries. I tell our coaches at the beginning of July to get out of here. But when it comes to the end of July, I want everyone champing on the bit and going full speed.”
Niumatalolo was pleased with the team’s conditioning level and again praised Mike Brass for overseeing the offseason workouts. Brass, in his 14th year as associate athletic director for sports performance, continues to raise the bar for Navy’s strength and conditioning program.
"I feel like we’ve had the best summer we’ve ever had. I know I say that every year, but I know that Coach Brass continues to evolve,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m really pleased with what we did this summer. Now we need to have a great August.”
Navy held its first of three practices in shorts and shells Thursday, with the coaching staff putting players through a fast-paced series of drills. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green was in midseason form as he repeatedly ordered his unit to perform up-downs as punishment for mistakes or lackadaisical effort.
“It wasn’t a good day. It wasn’t a bad day. It was day one,” Niumatalolo said of the opening practice. “Our approach is that we have to come every day and continue to get better. Hopefully, tomorrow we will be better.”
Niumatalolo believes this could be the most talented Navy team of his tenure. The Midshipmen return seven starters on defense, six on offense and both kicking game specialists.
Entering preseason camp, Niumatalolo said the biggest question marks are at inside linebacker and strong safety on defense and at wide receiver on offense. The Mids also must identify a new punt returner with the graduation of two-year starter Shawn Lynch.
Navy has the luxury of returning a standout quarterback in Keenan Reynolds, who amassed 1,346 yards rushing and 1,057 yards passing in 2013. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound rising junior was sensational as a sophomore, setting an NCAA single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (31) and breaking the Navy record for points in a season (188), a mark that had stood since 1917.
“I’m excited. It’s been a long time since we put on the pads for real to get ready for a game,” Reynolds said Thursday. “We do have a lot of talent, but we still have to come to work every day and grind. It’s all about how hard we work and pay attention to the little details.”
Reynolds was asked what advice he would give Navy’s plebes entering the grueling preseason camp. The Midshipmen will conduct two-a-day practices twice next week and twice the following week.
“First day is a whirlwind. You don’t know what’s going on, and everybody is running all over the place,” Reynolds said. “You just have to hang in there, and eventually it will come.”
Provided it can win the requisite six games to become bowl eligible, Navy has a contract to appear in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 at Qualcomm Stadium. Along the way, the Mids will look to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the 10th time in the past 12 years.
For now, Niumatalolo said the focus is squarely on a difficult season opener. Navy will meet Ohio State, ranked in the top 10 in most preseason polls, at M&T Bank Stadium on Aug. 30.
“Right now, we’re installing our defense and teaching our guys what we do and trying to get better fundamentally,” he said. “We also have to get guys to understand the standard for effort. A lot of younger guys don’t know what that is, and some of the older guys need it re-emphasized.”
Mid bits: Niumatalolo said Navy is very healthy entering the preseason. Slotback Colin Osborne and backup quarterback John Hendrick, both of whom are coming off knee surgeries, were the only players unable to participate in Thursday’s practice. … Niumatalolo said only one player failed the Physical Readiness Test that the Naval Academy administers. He declined to name the player, who will not practice until he passes the mandatory conditioning exercise.