Xavier Arline enters Navy spring football practice as the clear-cut starting quarterback, largely because the competition consists of players with little or no game experience.
Tyger Goslin, the only other quarterback on the roster who has seen meaningful snaps, has been moved to slotback.
Arline played in five games with three starts as a freshman, flashing dynamic running ability at times while also displaying some leadership skills.
In a testament to the massive struggles of the Navy offense throughout last season, Arline finished as the team’s third-leading rusher with 210 yards on 59 carries. Most of that came against archrival Army when the 5-foot-9, 165-pounder ran for 109 yards.
Arline reminded observers somewhat of former Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry when he broke loose for a 52-yard gain against the Black Knights, showing some shake and sudden cutback ability in juking multiple defenders.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo is hopeful the promising plebe can build on that performance during spring drills, which will now begin next Monday since Navy athletics remains on pause. Arline is listed atop the depth chart at quarterback with classmates Jayden Umbarger (Spalding) and Tai Lavatai joining sophomore Maasai Maynor to provide competition.
“I see Xavier as the leader and he’s going to get every opportunity to be the quarterback, but those other guys are going to get reps,” Niumatalolo said Monday during an online news conference to preview spring camp. “Right now, Xavier’s in the lead, but we’re really excited about the other guys.”
Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper feel good enough about the young quarterbacks to take Goslin out of the mix. The 5-foot-11, 181-pound rising senior played in four games with two starts last season and finished second on the squad with 333 passing yards.
Navy issued an updated depth chart in advance of spring practice and Goslin is listed third at one of the slotback spots. Niumatalolo said Goslin reminds him of Jarod Bryant, who played both quarterback and slotback as a senior at Navy in 2008.
“He’s an athletic kid, a tough kid,” Niumatalolo said. “When I talked to [Goslin] about moving he obviously wasn’t happy but said, ‘Coach, I’ll go wherever and do whatever it takes.’ He’s embraced it and continued to lead.”
Niumatalolo noted how Goslin helped Arline after being beaten out for the starting job down the stretch last season. The 14th-year coach called the California native “one of the best kids on our team.”
“The Tyger Goslins of the world are the type of kids this school is about. Just true leadership,” Niumatalolo said.
Arline operated out of shotgun formation at Shoreham-Wading River High School, where he amassed 8,621 all-purpose yards and 124 touchdowns. Navy’s triple-option offense requires the quarterback to take snaps under center and Arline still must get comfortable doing so.
Niumatalolo reminded the media Monday that Arline was not allowed to start practicing with the Navy football team until late August.
“You’re talking about a guy that played in the Army game and wasn’t even here for fall camp. He was watching from the bleachers,” said Niumatalolo, noting that had never happened during his 24 years with the program.
When Arline started the second game of the season at Tulane, the coaching staff was forced to alter the offense and have him mostly run read-option plays out of the shotgun. Spring camp will be “Triple Option Football 101” for Arline, who will have four weeks and 15 practices to learn the mechanics of the intricate offense from Jasper.
“It’s the foundation of how we teach option football. You start off with the triple under center,” Niumatalolo said. “We were teaching [Arline] how to take snaps under the center during the season. By necessity, we had to be in the shotgun a lot for him last season.”
Arline was ranked the No. 5 overall recruit in the Class of 2020 by Inside Lacrosse and initially committed to North Carolina for the stick sport. However, the Long Island native wound up signing with Navy because the service academy offered an opportunity to play football and lacrosse.
For now, Arline has decided to focus fully on football and solidifying his grasp on the starting quarterback spot. Niumatalolo indicated Monday that no pressure was applied by the football staff on that front.
“I’m actually excited that Xavier’s practicing. I didn’t know if he was going to play lacrosse or not,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo sees Arline as “kind of a combination” of two record-setting Navy quarterbacks — Perry and predecessor Keenan Reynolds. “He has the elusive, cutback running of Malcolm and the leadership stuff similar to Keenan,” said Niumatalolo, adding that Arline has the “it factor” as well.
Jasper, who personally coaches the quarterbacks, was impressed by Arline’s development over the course of last season. Niumatalolo said Arline has “come a long way” with regard to overall knowledge and understanding of the offense.
All agree Arline must improve as a passer after completing just 4 of 12 attempts for 27 yards last season.
“We’ve got to get Xavier to the point he feels comfortable and we can throw the ball. We have to be effective and keep that threat alive because you don’t want 11 guys up on the line of scrimmage,” Niumatalolo said.
Assistant Billy Ray Stutzmann, who played wide receiver in a run-and-shoot system at Hawaii and later coached that position at his alma mater, will assist Jasper in developing Arline as a passer.
Lavatai, out of Creekside High in St. John’s, Fla., was impressive as the starting quarterback at the Naval Academy Prep School in 2019. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder led Navy to victory over Army at the prep school level.
Niumatalolo likened Lavatai to Will Worth, who did most of his damage between the tackles in rushing for 1,198 yards and 25 touchdowns as Navy’s starting quarterback in 2016.
Umbarger also spent the 2019 football season at the prep school. Niumatalolo described the Baltimore native as “a really good athlete, a fast and athletic kid.”
Lavatai and Umbarger missed out on valuable experience by not being able to play in junior varsity games last season. Navy normally plays a handful of JV games, which gives sophomores and freshmen assigned to the scout team an opportunity to develop.
Maynor got into the Air Force game at mop-up time and completed 2 of 3 passes for 14 yards. The New Jersey native also tossed an interception during his varsity debut.
Maynor may be the best thrower among the group of young quarterbacks and drew comparisons to former Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs. “Maasai has a quick release and can really spin it. He’s also a strong, physical runner,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo is certain the four inexperienced signal-callers will benefit from taking live reps against the Navy defense led by standout inside linebacker Diego Fagot. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry disguises coverages by using stunts, blitzes and other methods to confuse quarterbacks.
“I know that’s what these young quarterbacks need: to see Newberry’s guys moving all over the place and coming hard off the edge,” said Niumatalolo, who felt Perry benefited greatly from doing so in 2019. “They need someone running at them full speed and hitting them in the face.”
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Navy’s quarterbacks, including Arline, will not be wearing red jerseys designating them as non-contact this spring. “Nobody is off-limits. We’re going to play normal football this spring. We’re blocking and tackling,” Niumatalolo declared.