Throughout last season, Navy football was unable to get one quarterback to execute the triple-option offense at an acceptable level.
After 15 productive spring practices, head coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper suddenly feel they have three signal-callers capable of leading the Midshipmen to victory.
Current freshmen Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai emerged from spring camp tied atop the depth chart, and the tight competition will continue into August training camp. Rising junior Maasai Maynor is not far behind the two plebes and has the talent to overtake them during preseason practice, Jasper said.
“The way I look at it is that we have three guys that we can go out and win a football game with,” Jasper said. “I’m excited about that. It’s a good problem to have.”
Navy started three different quarterbacks and used a total of four during the 2020 season. None distinguished themselves. Collectively, the quarterbacks amassed 312 rushing yards, far and away the lowest total of the current triple-option era. From 2002 through 2019, Navy quarterbacks never produced less than 1,000 rushing yards.
Senior Dalen Morris, who played in nine games with five starts, completed 33 of 65 passes for 579 yards and three touchdowns. Tyger Goslin, who played in four games with two starts, threw for 333 yards and three scores.
Arline, who did not even practice with the team until late August, started the final two games — three overall — and wound up third on the team with 210 rushing yards. The Long Island native flashed dynamic running ability, but only completed 4 of 12 passes for 27 yards.
Arline entered spring camp atop the depth chart, but Jasper said the competition was wide-open considering the poor quarterback play of last season. Lavatai took advantage of the opportunity and closed the gap on his classmate, while Maynor also impressed at times.
“Coach Jasper and I feel much better at this point about our quarterback situation,” Niumatalolo said.
Now in his 14th season helming the Midshipmen, Niumatalolo said the key factor for the quarterbacks was getting quality repetitions in full-speed, live contact practices. Lavatai arrived from Naval Academy Prep School, while Arline was a direct-entry recruit, but neither was permitted to practice for almost a month because of coronavirus protocols imposed on plebes by academy leadership.
Arline was given an opportunity to compete for the starting job, probably before he was properly prepared to do so. Lavatai spent the entire season working with the scout team and missed further valuable development because Navy did not play any junior varsity games.
Lavatai was the starter at NAPS and led the team to victory over the Military Academy Prep School. While that accomplishment impressed Niumatalolo and Jasper, it was the only true assessment they got of Lavatai other than tape from Creekside High in Florida.
Niumatalolo compares Lavatai to Will Worth, who rushed for 1,198 yards and 25 touchdowns during his lone season as Navy starter in 2018. Worth was also an effective thrower, completing 72 of 117 passes for 1,397 yards and seven scores.
“Tai is very similar to Will Worth — a very physical runner who can throw the ball with great touch,” Niumatalolo said. “His runs don’t look spectacular, then you realize he gained six yards. He’s a very powerful runner.”
Former Navy quarterback Garret Lewis coached Lavatai at the prep school, teaching him the mechanics and footwork required to run the option. Lavatai arrived in Annapolis weighing 230 pounds, but now checks in at 215 and is more mobile as a result.
“If you watch Tai, he looks like an option quarterback, looks very comfortable doing it,” Jasper said. “He’s a lot more athletic than people give him credit for because he’s so big. He moves really well.”
Jasper said Lavatai finished with more total repetitions during spring drills because he directed more long drives than Arline or Maynor.
Jasper and Niumatalolo emphasized that Arline also performed well and improved significantly during spring practice. It was more a matter of Lavatai and Maynor getting better and creating a three-way competition.
Arline is the most dynamic runner among the quarterbacks with the speed, quickness and moves to go the distance at any time. However, the 5-foot-9, 165-pounder clearly was not comfortable in the passing game as a plebe, and that was a point of emphasis this spring.
“Xavier’s problem is that he’s not a true pocket quarterback. When he drops back, he’s looking to take off. He’s watching the rush rather than keeping his eyes downfield,” Jasper said.
“That is something we had to address all spring: Sit in the pocket, keep your eyes downfield, find your receivers and deliver the ball.”
However, Jasper noted that Arline is extremely dangerous whenever he pulls the ball down and takes off, making numerous long runs off scrambles during the spring.
Niumatalolo sees some of the qualities of record-setting Navy quarterbacks Keenan Reynolds and Malcolm Perry in Arline. The Shoreham-Wading High product’s explosive running talent reminds the head coach of Perry, while his natural leadership ability is akin to Reynolds.
Meanwhile, Niumatalolo likened Maynor to another former Navy standout in Ricky Dobbs. Maynor (6-0, 192) has a similar build to Dobbs and is a powerful runner.
“Maasai is a strong guy who is hard to bring down,” Niumatalolo said. “He also has a quick release like Ricky. He can really sling it.”
Jasper said Maynor needs to stop making mental mistakes and find a way to transfer his meeting room knowledge to the field. The New Jersey native, who made his varsity debut during mop-up time of the Air Force loss last fall, does not see things as well live as he does on the chalkboard.
Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry challenged all three young quarterbacks with his elaborate schemes, which feature a wide range of well disguised blitzes and stunts. Niumatalolo felt Perry benefited greatly from going against Newberry’s “voodoo” during the spring.
It was more of the same this spring with Newberry repeatedly switching from odd to even fronts and bringing pressure from all angles.
“For our young quarterbacks, going against Newberry’s defense is like going straight to calculus without taking pre-Algebra. You go straight to the top as far as learning curve,” Niumatalolo said. “Coach Newberry does more things in one practice than we’ll see in a whole season. Over the course of 15 practices, you’ll see it all in terms of stunts and blitzes.”
Jasper said the Navy offense ran 320 plays against the defense during spring camp with each quarterback getting at least 75-80 repetitions. He prepared a highlight tape for all three signal-callers that contained every single play they ran with comments about what they did or didn’t do right.
Jasper said there is no “better laboratory” for preparing a quarterback than full-contact practice against an aggressive and talented defense led by inside linebacker Diego Fagot and safety Kevin Brennan.
“We wanted to see who could deal with the pressure of Newberry’s defense, be able to see things and execute the offense without turning the football over,” Jasper said. “They all did some great things, and they all did some knucklehead things.”
Navy’s quarterback competition will continue during August training camp. In the meantime, Jasper expects Arline, Lavatai and Maynor to spend considerable time watching film and studying the playbook until then. There is a chance the coaching staff won’t settle on a starter until a couple weeks before the Sept. 4 opener against Marshall.
“It always comes down to decision-making. That’s first and foremost in this offense — recognizing what the defense is doing, making the correct reads and taking care of the ball,” Jasper said. “The key to it all is understanding what they’re looking at on game day, to be able to see a defense and get us into the right play. I never worry about the execution part because we rep that stuff every day.”
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Navy’s coaching staff felt so comfortable with Arline, Lavatai and Maynor it switched three other freshmen quarterbacks — Jayden Umbarger (Spalding), Matthew Peters and John Meagher — to wide receiver.