Kai Puailoa-Rojas sold the fake that he was a blocker in pass protection, slipped off the line of scrimmage then ran a sharp crossing route.
It was a well-timed play and quarterback Tai Lavatai tossed a short pass to Puailoa-Rojas, who caught the ball in stride and turned upfield for a 21-yard gain. That play set up a 33-yard field goal by Bijan Nichols during Saturday’s 27-20 loss to No. 2 Cincinnati.
That was one of two catches made during the game by Puailoa-Rojas, who is quickly becoming a valuable weapon in the passing game for Navy football. Coach Ken Niumatalolo called the exact same crossing route in the fourth quarter and the the California native picked up 26 yards with the catch-and-run to set up another Nichols field goal.
Puailoa-Rojas is gradually emerging as a playmaker for the Midshipmen, who are using the youngster more and more as the season goes along. The sophomore slotback scored his first college touchdown off a 37-yard pass from Lavatai against SMU.
“I always knew Kai was going to be a great player. Now, he’s still learning and there’s a lot of growth still to be done, but I’m not one bit surprised to see what he’s done so far,” said Navy assistant Joe DuPaix, who coaches the slotbacks.
Puailoa-Rojas, who played quarterback at St. Bonaventure High in Ventura, was recruited as a slotback and began learning the position at the Naval Academy Prep School. He did not see any varsity action while serving on the scout team as a plebe and came out of spring practice third on the depth chart.
“I didn’t know whether I was going to travel or not. I worked really hard all offseason and it feels really good to be out there and able to contribute,” Puailoa-Rojas said.
When Puailoa-Rojas was a senior, St. Bonaventure High had another quarterback transfer in and they split time at the position. When not playing quarterback, Puailoa-Rojas moved to either wide receiver or running back, so the adjustment to slot was not too difficult.
“Kai is a very talented individual. He has good size and length, runs well and has solid ball skills,” DuPaix said.
What has impressed DuPaix the most is the intelligence Puailoa-Rojas brings to the game along with the work ethic and desire.
“When you have an individual like Kai who cares about the game, cares about the team, cares about his responsibilities and seeks to improve every day, you’re going to see rapid development,” DuPaix said.
Puailoa-Rojas is of Filipino descent on his father’s side and American Samoan descent on his mother’s side. His name might not be as difficult to pronounce as former Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, although it’s close.
ESPN play-by-play announcer Dave Flemming nailed it each time during the Cincinnati telecast.
“A lot of the players have been pronouncing it pretty well recently. Even my parents were excited the announcers picked it up pretty quickly,” Puailoa-Rojas said.
Navy has several talented young slotbacks and another flashed during the Cincinnati game. Freshman Maquel Haywood has taken over as the primary kickoff returner and broke one for 48 yards against Cincinnati. That was the longest kick return for the Midshipmen since Malcolm Perry brought one back 58 yards against Temple in 2017.
Haywood is a product of Wake Forest High in the North Carolina town of the same name and has clearly regained his speed after suffering a torn ACL twice. He rushed for 2,047 yards and 33 touchdowns in high school despite missing many games because of the injuries.
“I’m super excited for Maquell. He brings a lot to our room,” said DuPaix, noting Haywood possesses all the skills necessary to be a returner. “He’s got good hands, great speed and sees the holes well.”
Added Niumatalolo: “I’ve been really impressed with [Haywood] returning the ball. He’s made good decisions. The kid has a bright future as a return man and also as a slotback.”
DuPaix pointed out that another plebe, Amin Hassan, is the off returner on kickoffs. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound product of Gulliver Prep in Miami, Florida amassed 1,277 yards on 73 career catches as a wide receiver as a four-year varsity performer.
“The trust we have in those two guys is high or else we wouldn’t put them out there,” DuPaix said of Haywood and Hassan.
Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Umbarger has become Navy’s designated reverse runner. The Spalding product set up the team’s initial touchdown against Cincinnati with a 19-yard run off a reverse, just the latest big gain he’s made on that type of trick play.
Umbarger picked up 18 yards on a pair of reverses against Central Florida and gained 28 yards off a reverse in the season opener versus Marshall. The 6-foot, 190-pound Baltimore native is ideal for such plays as he’s got great speed and moves.
“I’ve been very impressed with Jayden. He’s very athletic and has some make-you-miss ability,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m excited about Jayden. His future is bright.”
Umbarger earned first team All-County honors from Capital Gazette and was a first team All-Metro selection by The Baltimore Sun after a prolific senior season as the starting quarterback for Spalding. He also played wide receiver and safety for the Cavaliers.
Recruited as a quarterback, Umbarger played that position at the Naval Academy Prep School and as a plebe in Annapolis. He switched to wide receiver before spring camp and quickly ascended the depth chart.
Navy unveiled some short passing concepts during the Cincinnati game, and they succeeded in producing nice plays.
In addition to the two crossing routes to Puailoa-Rojas, Lavatai slotback Chance Warren for a catch-and-run that went for 11 yards. Niumatalolo called two pass plays on first down with slotback Tyger Goslin getting open along the sideline for a 4-yard gain and wide receiver Mark Walker picking up 9 yards off a down-and-out.
Those short passes have always been part of the playbook, although not used often by Navy. Niumatalolo put them into the game plan during the week, knowing he would need to keep an aggressive Cincinnati defense off-balance.
“Just something to get the ball out of my hand quick, so I didn’t have to take time sitting back in the pocket waiting for something to come open,” Lavatai said. “Just getting the ball out on the perimeter and letting the guys make plays.
“I like some of the concepts coach Niumat and coach Jasper have put in. We threw more shorter routes to keep them on their toes. I think it helped us with the run game, too,” Lavatai added.
Arline stays ready
While Lavatai has settled in as the starter since returning from a leg injury suffered during the season opener, backup Xavier Arline continues to practice as though he is No. 1 on the depth chart.
Arline played most of the second half against Marshall after Lavatai went down then started and went the distance versus service academy rival Air Force as well as during a road game at Houston.
Lavatai was back under center when Navy hosted UCF on Oct. 2 and has taken every snap from center over the last four games.
“What I’m pleased about with Xavier is that he’s not hanging his head,” Navy quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said. “Xavier is practicing his butt off and playing at full speed. When his number is called again, and it will be at some point this season, he’ll be ready to go.”
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