This is a stressful time for all citizens of the United States, Navy football players included.
Since mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic has completely altered life in America. Nationwide lockdowns have caused businesses to close, resulting in massive job losses and producing widespread depression. Normal routines have been disrupted and stay-at-home orders often lead to isolation.
Midshipmen returning to the Naval Academy in July were placed under restriction of movement orders for two weeks, basically confined to dormitory rooms in Bancroft Hall along with one roommate.
Factor in the demands of playing big-time college football to such an environment. It’s clear why Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo is extremely worried about his players’ psychological well-being.
“It’s a huge concern. I don’t think any of us realized the depression and anxiety that comes from being isolated,” Niumatalolo said. “One thing that’s become abundantly clear to me as a coach is that being isolated is hard. Our players are stuck in their dorm rooms all the time and I’ve seen the toll that takes on them.”
Even after quarantine, midshipmen have not been allowed to leave the academy campus. They continue to spend considerable time in Bancroft Hall taking online classes, and the camaraderie that normally comes from gathering for meals in King Hall has also been disrupted.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner involve picking up to-go boxes, and by all accounts, the meals leave a lot to be desired. An in-depth article in The Capital quoted midshipmen as saying morale was low and many were concerned about classmates’ mental health moving forward.
Liberty is a precious commodity at the Naval Academy as midshipmen are, for the most part, not allowed to leave the Yard during the week. Getting away on weekends, either going home or to a sponsor’s house, is a breath of fresh air.
“These kids are human. They want to get away from here,” Niumatalolo said. “Normally, you’d go downtown to eat at Iron Rooster or Mission BBQ. Not being able to leave is mentally taxing.”
Navy football has implemented numerous protocols aimed at getting through the season safely. One important element has produced unintended consequences.
Because the locker room is an ideal incubator for the coronavirus, players have been required to change in shifts before and after practice. It must be done quickly as each shift is given 15 minutes to get in and out.
“You don’t get the locker room time anymore and that’s a big deal,” Niumatalolo said. “All the things you would normally do in the locker room, hanging out with your buddies talking about girls or politics, we’re missing that now. We’re having to fabricate that as a staff.”
Niumatalolo has been ending practices after about an hour and a half. The 13th-year coach wants the players to have time to hang out on the field to get the social interaction that would normally take place in the locker room.
“I’m finishing early so the players can sit around and talk. I tell the coaches to stay away, to give the players their space,” Niumatalolo said.
Coronavirus and its impacts are not the only reason for anger, depression and anxiety these days. Systemic racism and social justice issues also upset players, while the contentious political environment can be another negative factor.
“There’s a lot of tough stuff for people to deal with,” Niumatalolo noted.
Navy’s coaching staff is doing all it can to help boost morale, holding a talent show among players as a form of team entertainment, then taking a fishing trip to Hospital Point that included a barbecue lunch. Niumatalolo has authorized team managers to play a wide variety of music during practice.
“We’re doing a lot more activities on the weekends, and we’ve been having our daily Kool-Aids, which are motivational talks,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo has asked assistants to check on the players in their position group and talks about mental health concerns all the time when addressing the entire team.
“I’ve had to deal with a lot more anxiety, depression and other mental things. I’ve had to send more people to our sports psychologist more than ever,” he said. ”Mental health is a real issue and not something you can see with your eyes. We’ve had to look out for the psyche of our players.”
By far the biggest shoes to fill on the defense came at nose guard, where Jackson Pittman was a three-year starter and dominant performer as a junior and senior. There were times last season when the athletic and agile 6-foot-3, 300-pounder dominated the interior line of scrimmage.
Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry moved Mike Flowers from defensive tackle to nose guard as a hand-picked replacement for Pittman. He made that decision based off a strong recommendation from assistant Jerrick Hall, who coaches the tackles and nose guards.
Flowers spent the past month justifying the coaching staff’s faith in him, performing at a high level throughout training camp, and solidifying his hold on the starting spot.
“I think Flowers had a really good camp. He trimmed up some and is moving really well, a lot better than he was at this time last year,” Newberry said last week. “Flowers is playing with a lot more confidence. He’s gotten much better and I’m excited about where he’s at.”
Flowers played tackle at 318 pounds last season and recorded six tackles and a sack during limited action in six games. He shed 10 pounds for the purpose of improved agility and it appears to have made a difference.
Newberry announced that Tommy Lawley will get the start at the outside linebacker position known as “raider” for the season opener versus BYU. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound junior did not see any varsity action his first two seasons in Annapolis.
Lawley overtook classmate John Kelly III, who was atop the depth chart to open preseason camp.
Sophomore Alefosia Saipaia will see plenty of action as the backup nose guard, while Kelly III will share time at raider. Newberry said the defensive staff will be using a lot of bodies in the season opener since Navy has not been practicing live and the sudden contact will wear down players.
“We’ll probably play two-deep at every spot going into this first game,” he said. “For us to play at the elite effort level we want, we need to be at least two-deep at every position.”
Niumatalolo announced Friday that sophomore Daniel Davies won the punting competition. Davies beat out junior Ben Fee during a training camp battle that went down to the wire.
Davies was named the 2017 City Special Teams Most Valuable Player after a strong senior season at J.J. Pearce High in Richardson, Texas. He got an opportunity to attempt punts and placekicks during junior varsity games as a plebe at Navy.
“[Davies] won it in camp by punting the ball really well and being consistent,” said Niumatalolo, who likes the height Davies gets on punts.
Slotbacks Myles Fells and Chance Warren will handle punt and kickoff returns, Niumatalolo said.
Plebes will play
Due to special rules implemented by the Naval Academy leadership, plebes were unable to practice with the football team for most of training camp. When the incoming recruits were finally allowed to suit up, they had to go through the five-day acclimation period mandated by the NCAA before putting on pads.
That lack of practice time and the coaching staff’s inability to conduct evaluations initially prompted Niumatalolo to declare it was unlikely any freshman would play in the opener. However, during a Friday virtual news conference the veteran coach reversed course.
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“We’re going to play some but I’m not going to tell you because I don’t want BYU to know,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re really excited about some of our plebes. I do wish we had more time with them.”