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No body contact. First team vs scout team. It’s the new normal at ‘bizarre’ Navy football practices.

Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, seen at a walk-through in late July, said, “Listening to our doctors and trainers, keeping people separate and in small groups is the best thing. Obviously, it’s not the best thing for football."
Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, seen at a walk-through in late July, said, “Listening to our doctors and trainers, keeping people separate and in small groups is the best thing. Obviously, it’s not the best thing for football." (Navy Athletics)

Could coronavirus turn Navy into more of a passing team in 2020?

That prospect may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

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Coach Ken Niumatalolo said so himself during a Zoom press conference with various media members on Wednesday.

Niumatalolo addressed the idea while discussing practice protocols he’s implemented to significantly limit interaction among players. To that end, the 13th-year mentor has decided not to conduct live scrimmage situations among front-line players.

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“Our medical personnel are telling us any face-to-face interaction could constitute contact tracing,” Niumatalolo explained. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

That means the starting offensive line will never go head-to-head with the starting defensive line. Same is true for the second and third units consisting of players that would likely get into games.

“If you’re doing a two-on-two, offensive line versus defensive line pass protection, if one of them tests positive, the other three guys are out,” Niumatalolo said. “They all have to be out for 14 days of quarantine.”

Navy held its fourth practice Wednesday, its second in shells. Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen are hitting bags only.

“We’re not hitting anybody, there’s no body contact,” he said. “Our defensive guys are tackling a lot of bags; Our offensive guys are blocking a lot of bags. We’re doing the best we can without being able to hit live bodies.”

When Niumatalolo returned to Navy as assistant head coach under Paul Johnson, he personally tutored the offensive line. The college football lifer is accustomed to preparing those men in the trenches through trial by fire.

“As a former offensive line coach, it’s just bizarre to me. You’re used to one-on-one pass rush with the defensive linemen. Right now, I’m staying away from that stuff. When you do that you are taking a risk,” he said.

Upon hearing that, CBS Sports Network color commentator Randy Cross immediately realized the skeleton passing drill would work under such conditions. Cross, starting center for the San Francisco 49ers during the glorious years of the 1980s when the franchise captured three Super Bowl championships, asked Niumatalolo if Navy is “chucking it around more.”

“We’ve definitely done more skelly. We’re planning to do more seven-on-seven stuff. I feel like that’s the one thing we can do against each other and still stay safe,” Niumatalolo confirmed.

Niumatalolo said Navy is essentially holding two separate practices per day to reduce the total number of players and coaches out on the field. The starting offense goes against the scout team defense, and the starting defense goes against the scout team offense. Further than that, position groups are divided for the purpose of going through most drills.

“Listening to our doctors and trainers, keeping people separate and in small groups is the best thing. Obviously, it’s not the best thing for football,” he said. “I’m trying to keep our team as separate as possible, so if someone happens to test positive it doesn’t take out our entire starting offensive line.”

Because of the unique format, Navy has not been able to practice at the high pace to which the coaching staff has become accustomed. Niumatalolo initially vowed to make up for lack of physical contact with conditioning work, but quickly realized that was easier said than done.

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“My thinking was that we’re not going to be at pad rate because we’re blocking and tackling bags, but we’re going to be in phenomenal shape. Then we realized our groups are so small we could not practice as fast as we normally do,” he said. “We’ve had to adjust and slow down the pace of our practice. We can’t wear people out.”

Niumatalolo noted that decision was informed by the strength and conditioning staff, which uses GPS monitors to measure each player’s work-to-rest ratio.

Watching the Midshipmen go through individual and position group drills, the veteran head coach wondered if his team will be prepared to play an actual football game. Navy’s offense is running repetitions of triple-option plays at half-speed against scout team players holding bags.

There will be no live scrimmage situations between the starting offense and defense so the coaching staff can gauge whether each unit is ready for the Labor Day season opener against BYU.

“I don’t know that it’s football, but you do the best you can. This is my 31st year of being a coach and I’ve never seen a camp like this before,” he said. “It’s like getting ready for a big play, but everyone practices their singing or dance number separately. On game day, we’ll bring them together and hopefully everything comes out correctly.”

It’s a similar story off the field as Navy continues to conduct all meetings virtually. Players don’t shower in the locker room on the first floor of Ricketts Hall, returning to the Bancroft Hall dormitory to do so. Coaches depart practice and go directly home instead of the football offices on the top floor of Ricketts Hall as usual.

Niumatalolo said the energy level of Navy practice improved noticeably following last week’s announcement that BYU would replace Notre Dame as the season opening opponent. Previously, there had been a sense of unease as the players knew the contest with the Fighting Irish was in jeopardy.

“Our guys want to play. I think they’re excited that we’re still standing, so to speak,” Niumatalolo said. “They’ve seen the great lengths that our school, our program and our medical department have gone to keep them safe. Right now, our guys are encouraged. They want to play the first game.”

Niumatalolo believes the safety protocols Navy football is following are working. Naval Academy officials are regularly testing athletes and the football coach indicated the results have been encouraging.

“That was one of our rallying cries was that hopefully our discipline would help us stay safe. I think with the early case of testing that’s come to fruition,” he said. “Our team is doing really, really good that way.”

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