Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo does not look at the start of the 2013 season any differently than he did the start of the 2012 season.
It does not matter that the Midshipmen are coming off an 8-5 season instead of their first losing record (5-7 in 2011) since Niumatalolo replaced Paul Johnson in 2008.
It does not matter to Niumatalolo that Navy has an emerging star in sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who led the Midshipmen to victories in six of his first seven starts after replacing fumble-prone Trey Miller in the fifth game.
Nor does it matter that Navy will open its season on the road against perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder Indiana on Sept. 7 and then Delaware at home a week later rather than facing Notre Dame in Ireland and Penn State in State College, Pa., as the Midshipmen did last year.
"I say this every year, and I'm just telling the truth, the only game I see [during the preseason] is Indiana," Niumatalolo said Saturday in Annapolis. "I don't see any other game. I don't look and see where we're going to be in October. In this profession, in sports, you'd better look at the next task at hand. Don't look ahead, don't look back."
Numatalo recalled the opening game last season — a 50-10 loss against a Fighting Irish team that went from being unranked to playing in the Bowl Championship Series national title game against Alabama — and said he had the same feeling then that he does now.
"I thought I had the perfect camp plan, the perfect schedule, going to Ireland, everything. I've been preparing since January, and we got our butts whipped," Niumatalolo said. "That's how humbling this deal is. You got to go back to the drawing board."
But there is a difference this season for Navy — Reynolds.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound sophomore from the suburbs of Nashville, Tenn., led the then 1-3 Midshipmen on a fourth-quarter comeback and to an eventual overtime road win over bitter rival Air Force last season. Reynolds became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Navy in 21 seasons, and he also led a fourth-quarter comeback win over archrival Army to help Navy earn its first Commander in Chief's Trophy in three years.
"I think we're as talented as we've ever been," said Niumatalolo, who also was the offensive line coach under Johnson during his six years at Navy. "Obviously, Keenan gives us a lot of optimism, he's as good a quarterback as we've had here at the Naval Academy."
Asked if he is approaching this preseason camp any differently than he did a year ago, the typically humble Reynolds said, "I still want to come into camp with almost like a chip on my shoulder that I still have something to prove to my teammates."
Senior wide receiver Matt Aiken, who along with senior linebacker Cody Peterson will serve as captains this season, said Reynolds' performance last season and an experienced team surrounding him in 2014 has the Midshipmen more confident than they've been in recent years.
"I think there's a little more confidence, but we still haven't forgotten what this team kind of stands for," Aiken said Saturday. "We know we have our work cut out for us. It's good that we have more confidence in ourselves and in each other, but we can't forget who we are."
Said Peterson, a former fullback who started the last eight games at inside linebacker last season: "We're certainly not overconfident. We'll remember our last game last year [a 62-28 loss to Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl] and that one stings."
Niumatalolo said the way his team responded last season after being outscored, 84-17, in its first two games and later falling to 1-3 after a deflating 12-0 defeat at home to San Jose State didn't surprise him.
"I think it's just who these guys are, all the football players that have come through the brotherhood in years past, there are some tough kids mentally and physically," Niumatalolo said. "We're not going to quit. If we're 2-0, we're going to continue to keep battling. … We're a team of grinders. We're going to keep working and keep our mouth quiet."
Peterson credits last year's senior class for not allowing the rest of the team to quit.
"The seniors last year were a resilient group. They were always positive, and they always encouraged us when we messed up," Peterson said Saturday.
Aiken missed the first four games after hyperextending a knee on which he had undergone surgery the previous winter.
"It was hard to watch a start like that after such a great offseason," Aiken said. "But the way we fought back, that's what Navy football is all about."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun