Head coach Ken Niumatalolo made a surprising announcement to the Navy football team following practice on Wednesday. The 10th-year head coach informed the players that Friday's scheduled practice had been cancelled, abruptly bringing an end to spring camp.
Niumatalolo had vowed to use all 15 spring practices allowed by the NCAA, but apparently had seen enough and decided to reward the Midshipmen.
Not that Niumatalolo is completely satisfied and thinks Navy is where it needs to be.
"We still have a long ways to go," Niumatalolo told his troops following Wednesday's workout.
Niumatalolo gave a lengthy speech following the final practice and emphasized that players should spend the next two months focusing on their academic and military responsibilities. Players should come to Ricketts Hall to work with the strength and conditioning staff only if they have their other priorities in order, Niumatalolo said.
Much of the media focus this spring was on starting quarterback Zach Abey, who was seeking to gain a greater command of Navy's triple-option offense. It was an up and down camp for the Archbishop Spalding product, who alternately drew praise and criticism from offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper.
Jasper was upset with Abey's decision-making following an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, April 1. One week later, the quarterbacks coach was much more pleased with what he saw out of the Pasadena resident.
"Consistency is the biggest thing with him," Jasper said earlier this week. "Right now he's making progress. I will say the past few days have been very promising, getting us in the right play, certainly asking really good questions, so I'm pleased but still got a long ways to go."
Abey, who started the Army-Navy game and the Armed Forces Bowl, remains well ahead of the competition. Jasper has proven a master of developing Navy's quarterbacks over the years and Niumatalolo has no doubt Abey will be prepared for the 2017 opener at Florida Atlantic.
"Coach Jasper is always going to be a perfectionist with him, which we need him to be," Niumatalolo said. "He's got [areas] to improve on, but he works hard. He's got a great attitude. He's a great kid. He's got all the tools, and Coach Jasper is going to be on him. He's not ready right now, but a couple more practices, all the summer, he'll be ready for FAU."
Don Abey attended Navy's practice on Wednesday and told The Capital he has spoken regularly with his son this spring. The elder Abey said he can always tell whether Zach had a good or bad day of practice, and sensed a lot more confidence in the youngster toward the end of camp.
"It got started off a little rough," Abey said of spring practice. "Our defense always comes after us. They always come after us early in the spring, but once our offense settles down, we start getting the ball rolling. This spring, it's taken a little time to get our offense going. Coach Jasper, he's been hard on me. I've got a lot of stuff to learn, but I think we're starting to get the whole thing down."
Niumatalolo and Jasper agreed the defense got after the offense during all three intrasquad scrimmages. Things were ugly at times last Saturday as the offense had trouble mustering a first down and failed to score a single touchdown.
"I like what I see from the defense. We're playing really aggressive on that side," Niumatalolo said. "I think the defense is playing well. They're doing a lot of good things. I like the way they're playing right now."
However, Niumatalolo noted there were other times during spring camp when the offense got the better of the defense. It should be pointed out that Navy's defensive players know the triple-option very well and did not really need to respect Abey as a running threat since he was wearing a green jersey signifying non-contact.
Navy's front line offense was also missing several key parts as starting left guard Robert Lindsey, starting fullback Chris High, starting wide receiver Tyler Carmona and backup slotback Josh Brown were among those who did not participate in full-contact drills.
"In these scrimmage situations, you play everybody. So it's hard to judge the whole totality of the scrimmage because you're playing everybody in order to get an evaluation. You just kind of evaluate it in parts," Niumatalolo said. "Half of the young guys have no clue how to run the plays. They just get up there and go."
Kelly is a longtime friend of the program, having initially attended spring practices in 2014 while with the Eagles. That was the year freshman slotback Will McKamey died from a brain injury after collapsing on the field during a Saturday morning scrimmage. Kelly made McKamey an honorary member of the Eagles and presented a No. 41 Philadelphia jersey to his parents. McKamey wore No. 41 during his brief time with the Navy program.
Kelly was considered one of the most innovative offensive minds in football during his time as head coach at the University of Oregon. Even New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has met with Kelly to discuss his no-huddle, up-tempo, spread attack.
"Some of the things Coach Kelly did at Oregon revolutionized football," Niumatalolo said after Monday's practice. "Everybody's doing no-huddle, one-word concepts. His offseason stuff, his up-tempo stuff, a lot of the things that he implemented, literally high school, college and pro guys are doing it. He's definitely a trendsetter."
Kelly, who was fired after one season in San Francisco, has imparted many words of wisdom to Niumatalolo over the years.
"Obviously one of the best coaches in the game," Niumatalolo said of Kelly. "For us to have an opportunity to be around him, learn from him, we're just trying to soak in as much as we can."
ADMIRAL MACK AWARD: Rising junior fullback Bryan Hammond was presented with the Vice Admiral William P. Mack Award on Thursday.
The Admiral Mack Award is given annually to the most improved player during spring football drills as voted on by the coaching staff. Hammond is just the second fullback to win the award in the 42 years it has been given out, joining Bert Pangrazio (1988).
"Bryan is a guy that entered the spring not on the depth chart and finished the spring in the mix for playing time in the fall," Niumatalolo. "He came to work every day and has shown great improvement. He has good speed and I think he has a chance to help us this year."
The Capital will run an in-depth feature about Hammond in Saturday's edition.