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Niumatalolo pleased with progress during opening week of Navy camp

Navy football completed its first full week of August training camp on Saturday morning with a spirited practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium before a large contingent of season ticket holders that were invited to a barbecue luncheon.

In between practice and the barbecue, the Midshipmen were treated to an inspirational speech from the new Naval Academy superintendent. Vice Admiral Sean Buck strode into the locker room wearing fatigues, and by all accounts got the entire team fired up with his comments.

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“I’m really excited about our new superintendent, a very passionate man who loves the academy and loves sports,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We were honored to have the supe speak to the team and he was awesome.”

Navy practiced Monday through Saturday this week, moving into full pads on Wednesday. Niumatalolo is pleased with the progress the team has made in advance of the August 31 season opener against Holy Cross.

“To this point, I’m very encouraged. I can only relate to my past experience, but from what I’ve seen so far I’m very encouraged by what we’re doing both offensively and defensively. There are a lot of signs that make me feel encouraged,” Niumatalolo said following Saturday’s session.

Navy is ahead of schedule in terms of installing the offensive and defensive systems, the 12th-year head coach said. The Mids are adding elements of a run-and-shoot passing game to go along with their patented triple-option rushing attack.

“We’re putting in more stuff to go along with our base package and the players are picking it up well,” Niumatalolo said.

Meanwhile, first-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry was pleasantly surprised by how much of the new system he installed during spring camp has carried over to August drills. Newberry figured there would be a period of review, and that has not been the case.

“The great thing is the retention from the spring was unbelievable. Our players really put a lot into their offseason preparation,” Newberry said. “They watched film, did seven-on-seven sessions, did individual fundamental periods together. They improved over the summer without the coaches, which was really encouraging.”

Coming off a disappointing 3-10 campaign that took everyone involved with Navy football by surprise, Niumatalolo has spent considerable time preaching the intangibles. Teamwork and chemistry were critical factors in Navy posting winning records in 14 of 15 seasons, but Niumatalolo thought both were lacking in 2018.

“I really like where we are culturally. Our guys have been very no-nonsense, just keeping their mouths shut and grinding away,” he said.

Navy emerged from the first full week of camp without any major injuries, just the normal bumps and bruises that arise. Niumatalolo immediately said “knock on wood” when talking about that topic.

Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has spoken positively about the development of Malcolm Perry, who has taken charge of the huddle and is playing with great confidence. Perry has developed a solid understanding of the option system and seems comfortable with the run-and-shoot passing schemes, Jasper said.

Jasper admitted on Saturday morning that Navy has a long way to go before identifying a backup quarterback. Junior Dalen Morris was given every opportunity to win the job during spring practice, but did not do so. Sophomore Tyger Goslin has closed the gap on Morris while freshmen Perry Olsen and Massai Maynor are also in the mix.

Olsen (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) is a graduate of Yukon High in the Oklahoma town of the same name and a product of the Naval Academy Prep School. Maynor (6-0, 180) is a direct-entry recruit from St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey.

“It’s kind of a tossup right now. No one is making good decisions,” Jasper said of the backup quarterback candidates. “They’re not doing what it takes to win games so we can’t really trust any of them right now. They’re all still a work in progress.”

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Navy emerged from spring camp with a starting offensive line consisting of left tackle Kendel Wright, left guard David Forney, center Ford Higgins, right guard Peter Nestrowitz and right tackle Billy Honaker.

That unit remains intact at this point, although Forney has been sitting out with an injury and replaced at left guard by T.J. Salu.

Jasper feels good about the slotback corps led by projected starters CJ Williams and Tazh Maloy along with backups Keoni-Kordell Makekau and Myles Fells. Maloy is a senior while the other three are all juniors.

“We have a group of solid veterans at slotback,” Jasper said.

Junior Nelson Smith is the lone fullback with varsity game experience, having rushed for 411 yards on 78 carries last season. However, Smith is getting pushed by sophomore Isaac Ruoss, who impressed the coaching staff during spring drills and has picked up right where he left off.

“We’ve got pretty good competition going at fullback. Nelson needs to work harder and we’re on him to do that,” Jasper said. “Isaac is looking really strong and we’re very excited about him. He’s a hard-nosed kid and a smart runner. He knows where all the soft spots are. It might not look like much and somehow he picks up four yards.”

Ruoss was named Berks County Back of the Year after rushing for 1,789 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Governor Mifflin High in Pennsylvania. Classmate James Harris II was listed as the backup fullback going into preseason camp, but has missed some time with an undisclosed ailment.

Newberry identified outside linebackers Nizaire Cromartie and Jacob Springer along with inside linebacker Diego Fagot as defensive players that have stood out so far.

Fagot moved to the MIKE position prior to spring practice and quickly developed into a disruptive force. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Florida has repeatedly blown up offensive plays by timing the snap count and crashing the interior line of scrimmage.

“I think Diego has a chance to be a really special player. He’s smart, practices at a high level, is big, strong and can run. I’m very excited about him,” Newberry said. “Diego can do a lot of things. We’ll have him rush the quarterback and bring him on blitzes to plug the A and the B gaps. He’s just a very talented, very physical player.”

Springer switched from safety to the hybrid position known as striker, which requires a versatile sort who can rush the passer, hold up against the run and cover slot receivers. Springer, like Fagot, has been given the freedom to make things happen.

“I think Jake Springer’s had a tremendous camp. You want a guy that’s playmaker, a guy that’s a trigger-type player at that position,” Newberry said. “You want a guy that has a knack for making things happen and Jake fits that profile.”

Newberry’s defensive system, which is best described as a 4-2-5 with the ability to morph in and out of multiple fronts, features a position called bandit. Senior Elan Nash and sophomore Kevin Brennan are engaged in a great battle at that spot, the defensive coordinator said.

The Midshipmen have solid depth in the secondary with Evan Fochtman and Noruwa Obanor both playing well at free safety. Micah Farrar and Michael McMorris, currently listed as the starting cornerbacks, both saw significant action a year ago.

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“Evan Fochtman is a solid, steady guy who’s had a really good camp. Elan Nash is a leader back there and is doing good things. Kevin Brennan has also played really well,” Newberry said. “I feel really good about our depth back there. We’ve got a lot of competition.”

Newberry cited the WILL inside linebacker position as being wide-open at the moment. Senior Tyler Pistoria came out of spring practice as the starter, but is being challenged by junior Austin Talbert-Loving.

There isn’t a whole lot of separation at defensive end where junior Jackson Perkins is trying to hold onto the starting spot over senior Denzel Polk and others.

Niumatalolo said five freshmen are pushing for immediately playing time. Linebacker Tama Tuitele, an imposing 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Aurora, Colorado, has inserted himself into the competition at WILL linebacker. Chelen Garnes, out of North Point High in Waldorf, has the makings of becoming a big-time striker. Alefosio Saipaia, a 280-pounder from Fort Collins, Colorado, has proven the rare plebe capable of holding up at nose guard.

“We identified all three of those guys early on. They kind of separated themselves from the other freshmen,” Newberry said. “I think all three of those guys can help us this season.”

Wide receivers Mark Walker and Devin Mathews are the freshmen making noise on the offensive side of the ball.

“Mathews is a big, tall kid who is doing a lot of good things,” Jasper said of the 6-foot-4, 194-pound resident of Palm Coast, Florida.

Season opener

HOLY CROSS@NAVY

Aug. 31, 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBSSN Radio: 1090 AM

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