Army-Navy a celebration of the triple-option offense

In spread-happy college football, not many teams run the triple-option anymore. Army and Navy do.

It did not take long for Ken Niumatalolo to believe.

He'd never played a down of triple-option football before a 29-year-old offensive coordinator named Paul Johnson showed up at the University of Hawaii, where Niumatalolo was the quarterback. The Rainbow Warriors had lost several NFL talents from the previous year's team but within a few games, they were scoring more points than they had before switching to Johnson's beautiful math equation of an offense, known as the flexbone.

"I could tell what he was doing was pretty special," Niumatalolo recalled. "We could move the ball against anybody. So I knew then that this wasn't a gimmick offense."

Almost 30 years later, Niumatalolo runs the same basic attack at Navy. So does his Army counterpart, Jeff Monken, who worked for Johnson as an assistant at three schools.

When Army and Navy renew their rivalry for the 117th time Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, they will celebrate the sacrifice and courage of young people committing to military service.

But they will also celebrate an offense that still churns out rushing yards like no other, despite the fact many fans regard it as a relic from a past age of college football.

Army ranks second in the nation in rushing yards per game, Navy third. Air Force, which also runs an option offense under coach Troy Calhoun, ranks fourth. The nation's leading ground attack, New Mexico, runs the triple option out of a pistol formation under former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie.

The offense yields more than yardage. Army, Navy, Air Force and New Mexico are all headed to bowl games.

"It still works," Niumatalolo said. "The core is the same. Other things come and go, but option football, it's sound. "

The offense has flourished as an equalizer for the academies, which generally can't win recruiting battles against Power 5 schools because of academic and service requirements. Those same talent-laden teams aren't used to playing against the triple option, so when Army or Navy pop up on the schedule, the powerhouses are in for nasty surprises.

"Frankly, we don't have the same guys," said Monken, who has Army headed to a bowl for just the second time in 20 years. "So we have to do something completely different."

The very sort of people attracted to the academies — disciplined, resourceful, committed to a mission greater than themselves — happen to be perfect fits for the triple option.

It's an offense mastered through months of meticulous repetition but one that also requires players to make quick decisions based on what the defense does. If you're a running back or receiver who wants to become a superstar, it's probably not for you. Not enough carries or receptions to be had for any one player.

"It's assignment football," said Niumatalolo's longtime offensive coordinator, Ivin Jasper. "Most offenses now are designed to get the ball in the hands of a great athlete in space. We don't have those kinds of kids here. A lot of people didn't want [the players we have]. But they fit our system."

Former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, perhaps the school's greatest practitioner of the triple option, went to Annapolis in part because most other coaches wanted him to switch positions. He felt an urge to prove doubters wrong and said that was a motivation he shared with many teammates as they bought into the Navy system.

"You got a bunch of guys who have chips on their shoulders, who've been told they weren't good enough to play, weren't fast enough, weren't big enough," Reynolds said after finishing practice with the Ravens on Wednesday. "They have an opportunity to play big-time ball, they're very disciplined with the military factor, and that offense takes discipline. You've got guys who buy in because they know if they buy in, they have a chance to beat teams they grew up watching. So you throw that all in a mix and you get the success of the triple option."

The theory of the offense is simple: You only have to block nine of 11 defenders because you neutralize the other two by "reading" them.

The quarterback first reads the defensive end, handing off to his fullback or carrying up the middle if the defender stays outside and moving to the outside if the defender darts toward the middle.

From there, if the next unblocked defender commits to the quarterback, the quarterback responds by pitching the ball to an uncovered slot back. If the defender commits to the slot back instead, the quarterback runs the ball himself. Meanwhile, blockers create extra space because they're free to double team multiple spots.

Various coaches have added wrinkles over the years, running the offense from different formations or incorporating more downfield passes. But the basic equation hasn't changed.

Army and Navy both run more than 50 times a game, but when they do pass, home-run plays often result because defenses are caught off guard. Navy ranks third in the nation in yards per catch, Army fourth.

"We're not throwing little bubble screens," Niumatalolo said. "When we throw it, we mean it. We're going downtown."

When it's working, the triple-option can answer any question a defense poses.

"You can't really stop it," said Navy senior Jamir Tillman, a fleet, 6-foot-4 receiver who has sacrificed many touches to the altar of the triple option. "If we win our individual matchups, there's no way to contain everybody."

Once upon a time, the triple option — specifically, the wishbone variation of it — ruled college football. From Bear Bryant at Alabama to Darrell Royal at Texas to Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, many of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport used the offense to rack up yards, points and victories.

It offered an appealing blend of innovation and conservatism, forcing defenses to deal with a variety of possibilities on each play but also prizing ball control.

Switzer says he'd still use the offense if he coached today. "Without a doubt," he told USA Today in October, shortly after he'd posted an appreciative tweet about Navy's offense. "There's no magic playbooks. If you have good talent, the option game is still — it's a great offense."

The run-heavy offense went out of vogue in the 1990s, as more and more coaches turned to pass-first attacks such as the West Coast offense, the run-and-shoot and eventually the air raid.

It was the very same period when Johnson seeded the coaching tree that has kept the triple-option alive and kicking. His offenses ran up huge numbers everywhere from Hawaii to Georgia Southern to Navy, and he's still running the flexbone at Georgia Tech, where he's coached the Yellow Jackets to eight bowl appearances in nine seasons.

"That offense is kind of how we all grew up," Monken said.

Johnson's disciples give him enormous credit for sparking their own devotion to the triple option.

"He's one of the smartest men I've ever met," Niumatalolo said. "Now that I look back over 27 years of coaching, there are some coaches who make the game way more complicated than it is. But coach Johnson was always a clear, simple, precise teacher, and so the game was very simple."

Niumatalolo and Jasper, who also learned the triple option at Hawaii under Johnson, have tried to maintain that plain-spoken approach in teaching a new generation of Midshipmen.

Again and again, through spring practice and then through each week of the season, the Midshipmen drill the same basic plays.

"It's repetitive," Jasper said. "But we get good at them."

Most players arrive in Annapolis with little or no experience running the option, and many say it takes a year for the offense to feel like second nature.

"It was like trying to drink from a fire hose on my first day," recalled senior slotback Dishan Romine. "It's very rare to see a freshman come in and totally understand it."

But players come to appreciate the offense because they not only learn what to do on each play but understand why they're doing it.

"Fundamentally, the only thing the option requires is for you to be knowledgeable, tough and smart enough to understand what the system is trying to do," Romine said. "You don't need a superstar."

Just look at Navy's quarterbacks. This year's team transitioned from one of the most decorated players in program history — Reynolds — to Will Worth, who won the job because Tago Smith tore his ACL in the season opener. Despite the significant style difference between Reynolds and Worth, who will miss the Army game because of a foot injury, the offense kept humming.

So if the triple option has worked for nearly 50 years, why don't we see more of it?

"People want the bells and whistles now," Jasper said. "They want to see the big play, and in their minds, our offense is just not exciting."

Outside of the Johnson coaching tree, Monken added, there aren't many people around to teach it.

"Who's left that grew up in this offense?" he said.

He and Niumatalolo both believe the triple option would be an effective counterpunch for lesser teams in the Power 5 conferences.

"If you're the other guys competing against Ohio State or Michigan, why would you do what they do?" Niumatalolo said. "That doesn't make sense because you don't have the same kind of personnel."

Meanwhile, coaches such as Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez have employed option principles as part of their spread offenses. So even if classic triple-option teams are relatively rare, the philosophy behind the offense continues to thrive.

Twenty-nine years after he began his apprenticeship with Johnson, Niumatalolo grins at the simple beauty of it.

"Option principles are based off numbers. If you do this, we do that. If you have more guys here, we go there, " he said. "Football's really not a complicated game."

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