Being a midshipman at the Naval Academy during the 2020-21 academic year was difficult to say the least.
Deep in the heart of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, the Annapolis service academy operated under tight restrictions. There were lockdowns, quarantines and all sorts of other unique factors that made life on the yard an overall unpleasant experience.
Navy’s current football seniors were plebes that year and it was no way to get introduced to what is an incredibly challenging atmosphere under normal circumstances. It was no surprise to academy leaders that attrition was abnormally high within the Class of 2024.
On July 14, 2020, Navy football announced an incoming recruiting class of 51 players representing 21 states. Considering the circumstances, it’s actually rather amazing that 25 members of that class are still part of the program.
Navy football will honor its seniors during a ceremony prior to Saturday’s final home game against East Carolina. It will be a typically emotional event with the seniors being introduced individually and striding onto the field flanked by their parents and other loved ones.
This group of Navy seniors has endured many trials and tribulations beginning with navigating the Naval Academy during the pandemic. As plebes, they were not allowed to start practicing with the football team until midway through August and therefore fell behind right off the bat.
That 2020 season was a nightmare with Navy only playing 10 of 12 scheduled games. Following a widespread outbreak of coronavirus on campus, the Midshipmen went almost a month (Oct. 31 to Nov. 21) without playing a game.
Air Force had two months to prepare for Navy as the service academy showdown held on Oct. 3 in Colorado Springs was its season opener. Starting quarterback Dalen Morris couldn’t make the trip due to an altitude-related illness and the Falcons routed the Mids, 40-7.
Navy was forced to play archrival Army on its home field at Michie Stadium in West Point. It marked the first time since World War II the Army-Navy game was played on the campus of either service academy. Freshman Xavier Arline started at quarterback for the Mids as they were shut out by the Black Knights, 15-0, under a thick layer of fog.
Navy football finished that miserable 2020 season 3-7. The Midshipmen followed with 4-8 marks in consecutive campaigns and the three straight losing seasons led to the departure of longtime head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
This current club owns a 4-5 record and must beat East Carolina if the seniors hope to conclude their careers with a winning record.
First-year head coach Brian Newberry described the 25 seniors still in the program as a “bunch of tough dudes who have gone through a lot together,” noting 26 of the original classmates are no longer on the roster.
Newberry was hired as Navy defensive coordinator in 2019 and this will be the second class of seniors he has seen complete four years at the Naval Academy. He understands the football members of the Class of 2024 have endured an unprecedented pandemic, three losing seasons and a coaching change.
“I can’t say enough about this senior class. Just their work ethic, their attitude, their leadership and their resilience have been really, really good,” Newberry said. “This senior class means a lot to me personally and has been an inspiration to the entire coaching staff. It’s a tough group that has gone through a lot and stayed the course.”
Winning on senior day was an annual tradition for Navy football for a long time. The Midshipmen won their final home game 17 straight seasons from 2003 through 2019. That streak was snapped in 2020 by a 19-8 loss to Tulsa.
East Carolina beat Navy on senior day in 2021 in dramatic fashion as kicker Owen Daffer drilled a 54-yard field goal as time expired.
Last season, backup quarterback Xavier Arline was the hero as Navy beat Temple. Arline entered late in the first quarter after classmate and starting quarterback Tai Lavatai suffered a season-ending knee injury. He wound up scoring on a 23-yard run in overtime and cornerback Dashaun Peele clinched the victory by intercepting a pass to the end zone.
Newberry said the senior day festivities mark the “culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs.” He noted that winning on senior day is just as much of a motivating factor for the underclassmen as it is for those being honored.
“I want these seniors to finish this thing out on a positive note. It’s important to the seniors, but it’s just as important to all the other players and the coaching staff. It’s a big deal and will be emotional and exciting at the same time,” Newberry said.
There are nine senior starters — five on offense and four on defense. They are Arline, wide receivers Jayden Umbarger and Camari Williams, offensive linemen Sam Glover and Josh Pena, defensive linemen Donald Berniard Jr. and Clay Cromwell along with linebackers Will Harbour and Xavier McDonald.
Just two other seniors — offensive lineman Mike Petrof and safety Eavan Gibbons — are listed second string for Saturday’s game.
Two of the four senior captains — starting center Lirion Murtezi and starting defensive end Jacob Busic — sustained season-ending injuries. Starting long snapper Cole Williams is another senior who suffered the same fate.
“I’m just really proud of that whole class and the way they’ve stuck together and the example they’ve laid out for the younger guys as far as how you respond to adversity. They’re going to leave a legacy in that regard,” Newberry said. “To stick through it the way they have under difficult circumstances says everything about this class. It’s not necessarily the most vocal senior class. I think they lead by example and are not afraid to hold guys accountable.”
East Carolina comes to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with what Newberry believes is a deceiving 2-8 record. The Pirates played an extremely tough nonconference schedule and have lost three American Athletic Conference contests by a touchdown or less.
“East Carolina is a really good football team despite the record. They’ve had an extremely difficult schedule,” Newberry said. “They’re really, really good on defense and are getting better every week on offense. “It’s a tough, physical football team that plays hard. They’re blue collar and it’s always been a battle whenever we’ve played them.”
East Carolina is coming off a 22-7 upset of Florida Atlantic and is two weeks removed from almost stunning No. 17 Tulane, narrowly falling 10-7. The Pirates rank 25th nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 114.3 yards per game on the ground.
Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell previously served in the same role at Kennesaw State and The Citadel. He has extensive experience defending option offenses.