Tai Lavatai has seized the Navy starting quarterback job. He still has much to improve.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai picks up a first down on a keeper in the fourth quarter of a 34-30 win over UCF on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Navy football has finally settled on a starting quarterback. Now the offensive coaching staff can start tailoring the offense to suit that player’s strengths.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo said the staff has been waiting for one of its sophomore signal-callers to seize the starting job. Tai Lavatai did just that this past Saturday with a strong performance during a 34-30 come-from-behind upset of Central Florida.


Navy’s patented triple-option looked the best it has since the 2019 season with Lavatai at the controls. The Florida native took command in terms of reading the defense, making checks at the line of scrimmage and distributing the ball.

“I thought Tai did a really good job of running the offense. He got us into the right plays and got the ball where it was supposed to go,” Niumatalolo said.


For most of last season, Navy’s offense was one-dimensional, with the fullbacks doing almost all of the damage. Both the quarterback keeper and slotback pitch were missing, enabling defenses to commit more defenders to stopping the dive.

Navy (1-3, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) had all three running elements of the triple-option working Saturday, and that created opportunities for the play-action passing game.

Lavatai did a superb job of spreading the ball around as Navy amassed 406 total yards, 348 of which came on the ground. Carlinos Acie led the way as the slotbacks totaled 139 yards, while fullbacks Isaac Ruoss and James Harris combined for 136 yards.

Lavatai contributed 57 rushing yards, doing all of his damage on tough runs between the tackles. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore was personally responsible for six third- or fourth-down conversion runs and scored two touchdowns — cutting back and stumbling into the end zone from 7 yards out then later barreling in from the 1-yard line.

“We were able to get the fullbacks going, the quarterback going and the pitch game going,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s hard for the defense to focus on one thing when you’re able to distribute the ball all over the field like that. We have to continue to do that in terms of diversity.”

Lavatai praised the offensive line for controlling a UCF defensive front that featured 310-pound nose guard Kalia Davis flanked by two 290-pound players in tackle Ricky Barber and end Anthony Montalvo. Navy’s wide receivers and slotbacks deserve much of the credit for the perimeter yardage the Midshipmen were able to gain.

“It opens up everything when you have both the inside and outside running threat. You make the defensive coordinator think about what he’d rather give up,” Lavatai said. “It made it a lot easier for me to be able to see everything because we were making the defense figure out what they wanted to play more.”

Niumatalolo has been comparing Lavatai’s running style to former Navy quarterbacks Ricky Dobbs and Will Worth. That is notable because Dobbs totaled more than 2,000 rushing yards over two seasons as the starter, while Worth ran for 1,198 yards in 2016.


Niumatalolo was particularly pleased to see Lavatai convert so many third- or fourth-and-short situations, saying those are “huge because we were able to keep the sticks moving.”

“Tai kind of ran how we expected because we’ve seen that in practice. He’s a bigger kid who fits into our power running option game. He a physical runner who has a knack for getting into tight quarters and coming out.”

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai looks to pass during the season opener against Marshall.

Lavatai completed a bomb to slotback Chance Warren off play-action and the senior captain made a beautiful pirouette to lose a defender and pick up 49 yards. He also delivered a deep ball on target to wide receiver Mychal Cooper that was broken up.

Lavatai’s strong, accurate arm gives him an edge over classmate Xavier Arline, and future opponents know they now must respect the downfield passing elements of the Navy offense.

“Teams are going to do things to shore up the inside game and perimeter game, which is fine. Tai gives us the ability to throw downfield,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m encouraged from the standpoint we have all three phases of the triple-option going, and we have a quarterback who can throw it deep if teams try to come up and be too aggressive.”

After operating from the press box during the season opener against Marshall and the service academy showdown with Air Force, quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper has moved down to the sideline. Niumatalolo thinks that is helpful for a young, inexperienced quarterback like Lavatai, saying it made “a great impact.”


Lavatai agreed and said being able to speak face-to-face with Jasper on the bench between possessions was better than communicating via headsets.

“[Jasper] sees things different, so it helps to have [another] point of view,” Lavatai said. “It also helped me stay relaxed having him go over some of the things we were seeing out there.”

It was far from a virtuoso performance for Lavatai, who was responsible for two fumbles. He had the ball poked away after pulling it from the fullback on an option play and UCF recovered at the Navy 10-yard line. He also delivered a bad pitch that the Midshipmen were fortunate to recover.

“Going back and watching the film, there was definitely some mistakes I wish I could have back. I missed a couple reads, I fumbled the ball a couple times, I didn’t call the right plays sometimes,” Lavatai said.

Lavatai acknowledged he needs to get the shoulders squared and turn upfield before deciding whether to keep or pitch the ball. Too often on Saturday he tossed to the slotback before forcing the defender to commit.

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai pitches to Carlinos Acie in the third quarter of Saturday's win over UCF.

Lavatai also needs to work on the fullback mesh, as there were some hiccups in that department as well. He knocked knees with Harris on one play and fell to the ground for a loss.


“I need to do a lot better job of getting off the mesh. I’ve struggled with that on our midline stuff. I need to do better with my footwork,” he said.

Niumatalolo also wants Lavatai to take better care of the ball and take charge in the huddle.

“My thing about Tai is the leadership stuff. He’s such a fun-loving, easy-going kid; sometimes you have to be dialed in and focused. You have to show the leadership of an admiral or a general,” Niumatalolo said. “As a quarterback, you need to have the face and demeanor of an assassin.

“I thought Tai played really well from a temperament standpoint. He was calm and collected [on Saturday].”

Lavatai hails from St. Johns, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville. Many of his friends from Creekside High attend UCF and bet against Navy, which was a 16-point underdog. Lavatai smiled during an online press conference when saying, “I ruined it for them.”

After the game, Lavatai found his mother in the stands and gave her a big hug along with the game ball. Gina Toney Lavatai makes the 10-hour drive to Annapolis for every Navy home game and her youngest of two sons is appreciative.


“She’ll always be my biggest fan and biggest supporter. She’s been there every step of the way,” said Lavatai, who called the post-game exchange Saturday “very emotional.”

Lavatai, like Niumatalolo, is of Samoan descent. Gina Toney Lavatai often wears a Navy t-shirt that reads “Throwin’ Samoan” with Tai’s No. 1 between the two words.

Lavatai earned his first career victory as a college quarterback Saturday and Navy athletics multimedia director Phil Bergman captured the moment he celebrated with his mother.

“Watching Tai realize his dream since he was 5 years old and playing Pop Warner was surreal,” Gina Toney Lavatai said. “I feel so blessed to be present for such a special game. Hugging and sharing tears with him was everything.”

Lavatai’s older brother Toa, who was an offensive lineman on Valdosta State’s 2018 Division II national championship team, watched the game from home along with their father Tafilele.



Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Line: SMU by 13 1/2