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‘This guy is going places’: New Navy football assistant coach James Adams fitting in seamlessly

First-year assistant James Adams (left) jogs with senior cornerback Marcus Wiggins during a walk-through session for Navy football last week.
First-year assistant James Adams (left) jogs with senior cornerback Marcus Wiggins during a walk-through session for Navy football last week. (Navy Athletics)

Brian Newberry received the lion’s share of credit for Navy’s dramatic defensive improvement, and deservedly so.

Newberry took over as defensive coordinator and installed a new, unpredictable system that confounded most opponents, and as a result Navy finished the 2019 season ranked 16th in total defense and No. 34 in scoring defense. In 2018, the Midshipmen finished near the bottom of the 130-team Football Bowl Subdivision in both categories.

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Brian Norwood, another newcomer last season who held the title of co-defensive coordinator, also brought immeasurable experience as a 29-year veteran of collegiate coaching. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Norwood, a former defensive coordinator at Baylor, Tulsa and Kansas State who had a long-term relationship with coach Ken Niumatalolo, left Navy after just one season to become assistant head coach, passing coordinator and defensive backs coach at UCLA.

Niumatalolo believes Navy found someone with similar qualities to replace Norwood. In mid-February, it was announced that Navy had lured James Adams away from Western Michigan to serve as cornerbacks coach.

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“Losing Brian Norwood, my dear friend and a really good coach, was hard. However, I feel like we landed in a good spot with James coming in,” Niumatalolo said. “Just a good person, man of integrity, man of faith, great teacher.

“I feel like we hit a home run with James.”

Adams was recommended by Newberry, who had developed a relationship with the North Carolina native.

Newberry was working as defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State when he first met Adams, who was secondary coach at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte at the time. They shared a common bond, having both been part of coaching staffs at schools that started football from scratch.

“I remember being really impressed with James as a person, just the way he handled himself,” Newberry said of the initial meeting.

Adams and Newberry got to know each other better during a clinic conducted by Georgia Tech. Adams served as a presenter and once again left a favorable impression.

“I was really blown away by his overall football knowledge and the way he was able to communicate,” Newberry said.

Newberry has a close friend that worked with Adams at Western Michigan who “raved about him as a person, a coach and a recruiter.”

Based off that background, Newberry encouraged Adams to apply for the vacancy at Navy. The second-year defensive coordinator joined Niumatalolo in meeting with Adams when the prospective assistant visited Annapolis and said “it was one of the most impressive interviews that I’ve ever sat in on.”

Adams was on the road recruiting for Western Michigan, a member of the Mid-American Conference, when he received that text message from Newberry informing of the opening and asking if he had any interest.

“I pulled off the highway immediately and texted coach Newberry right back,” Adams admitted. “I’ve always known the Naval Academy was a special place, an institution like no other. This is like a bucket list job for me. You have to listen when Navy calls.”

Navy football assistant James Adams
Navy football assistant James Adams (Phil Hoffmann)

Adams initially learned more about the Navy football program while serving as an assistant at Wake Forest, his alma mater. The Demon Deacons came to Washington, D.C., to meet the Midshipmen in the 2008 EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium. He has followed the Midshipmen ever since and was aware of the sustained success under Niumatalolo.

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“Coach Niumat is so well respected in our business. I’ve heard many, many people in this profession express admiration for what he’s all about as a person and a coach,” Adams said.

Niumatalolo has stated many times he hires assistants based off an evaluation of their character more than simply their résumé. He has worked hard to build a certain culture that defines Navy football and wants coaches that espouse the same values.

“Coach Niumat wanted to know more about me as a person, as a husband and a father,” Adams said. “That meant a lot because my family is why I get up every day motivated to do what I do to the best of my ability.”

Adams grew up in Durham, N.C., and described himself as a late bloomer as a three-sport athlete (football, baseball, track and field). He grew four inches while at Northern Durham High and improved enough to draw the attention of Wake Forest.

As a backup linebacker and special teams performer, Adams saw action for the Demon Deacons before a knee injury cut short his collegiate career. Playing for coach Jim Grobe and Brad Lambert, the longtime defensive coordinator at Wake, made a lasting impact.

Adams said Grobe, who led Wake Forest to an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and berth in the Orange Bowl during a 13-year tenure, “had a huge influence on my decision to get into coaching.”

Adams was working in the education field when Grobe called out of the blue and offered a position as assistant recruiting coordinator.

“To be honest, at the time, I really had no interest. I wasn’t super excited about the hours, just the overall time commitment it took to be successful coach at this level,” Adams said.

Adams was set to marry his high school sweetheart that summer and she encouraged him to give college football a shot. He spent two seasons at Wake Forest, serving as offensive graduate assistant in 2009.

Adams left his alma mater to accept a full-time job at Wofford, coaching the cornerbacks for two seasons and helping the program capture the Southern Conference championship.

When Lambert was hired to lead the fledgling Football Bowl Subdivision program at UNC-Charlotte, he hired Adams as one of five original assistants.

Adams coached the secondary at UNC-Charlotte from 2012 to 2018 and learned a ton from Lambert, a college coaching lifer and currently defensive coordinator at Marshall.

Lambert did not have his contract renewed following the 2018 season and Adams landed at Western Michigan, which he helped lead to a 7-6 record and berth in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl last season.

Adams spent one month settling into the Navy football office on the top floor of Ricketts Hall before the coronavirus pandemic prompted the entire coaching staff to work from home. Needless to say, it’s been a unique and interesting introduction to a new program.

“It’s been a little different, but the primary mission is still the same,” Adams said. “I’ve been doing my best to connect with the players through our [video] meetings. I’ve been hitting them on Twitter and Instagram, just trying to build a relationship.”

Adams has worked hard to get to know all the cornerbacks and is grateful to seniors such as Cameron Kinley, Micah Farrar and Marcus Wiggins, who are part of a “leadership council” at the position.

“These older guys have it together and really understand the importance of setting their goals every day,” he said. They are a great representation to the young guys of what it takes to be successful here.”

Adams has worked hard to study the Newberry defensive system, which can appear complex. He says he and Newberry “speak a lot of the same language in terms of technique.” Newberry said the transition from Norwood to Adams has been “seamless.”

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Niumatalolo is already worried about how long he can retain his new assistant, saying he envisions big things for Adams down the road.

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“Mark my words: This guy is going places,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I turn on the television someday and hear: Introducing the head coach of the Denver Broncos, James Adams. He’s a special, special football coach and a great man.”

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