xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Navy QB Tai Lavatai learning on fly when it comes to reading triple-option

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai runs with the ball against SMU during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. SMU won 31-24. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai runs with the ball against SMU during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. SMU won 31-24. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez/AP)

Tai Lavatai is still a babe in the woods when it comes to being an option quarterback. Saturday’s game against SMU marked just the third career start for the sophomore, who is learning on the job in many respects.

Lavatai received a very basic introduction to the triple-option while playing in games at the Naval Academy Prep School. The Florida native did not make much progress as a plebe in Annapolis because he served on the scout team the entire season.

Advertisement

Spring football marked the first time Lavatai operated the triple-option at full speed against a varsity defense. However, that is still nowhere near the same as doing so against an opponent employing an unknown defensive gameplan.

Lavatai looked good directing Navy’s patented triple-option against Central Florida, as Navy amassed 406 total yards of offense. All four elements were working well with Carlinos Acie leading a slotback corps that totaled 139 yards, while fullbacks Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II combined for 136. Lavatai contributed 57 yards and two touchdowns on tough runs between the tackles and also completed two play-action passes for 58 yards.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Lavatai and the offense did not have nearly as good a game against SMU, finishing with just 12 first downs and 241 total yards. Lavatai led the team in rushing but averaged just 2.2 yards on 24 carries. The Mustangs succeeded in stuffing the fullback dive as Ruoss and Harris had just 40 yards on 17 totes. The Mids got 68 yards out of the slots, but half of that came on two runs.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo was disappointed the Navy offensive line took a step backward after playing well as a unit in the two previous games. Sophomore Sam Glover made his first career start at left tackle in place of Jake Cossavella, who suffered a season-ending injury the previous Saturday.

Niumatalolo said Glover did some good and bad things, then quickly added that no member of the offensive line had a stellar outing versus the Mustangs.

“They got after us, which was a little discouraging because Houston and UCF was as good as we’ve played along the offensive line in a long time,” Niumatalolo said. “We played really, really well against two really good defenses, so I was hoping that would carry over.”

Advertisement

Many opponents employ tactics designed to confuse the quarterback and cause him to make wrong reads. There are other strategies designed to make blockers miss their assignments. Niumatalolo said veteran SMU defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tried none of that.

“They were very vanilla. They weren’t trying to trick us. They were going to line up and make sure guys knew their assignments. They didn’t try to disguise things; just played fundamentally sound,” Niumatalolo said.

Lavatai did concede he had some issues reading the dive key as defensive ends Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston were not always committing to either the fullback or the quarterback. Levelston finished with 11 tackles, while Chatman contributed six and they combined to record three tackles for loss.

“When we went back and looked at it, the read key on the dive was making it look like he was coming upfield and then just falling into the mesh,” Lavatai said. “It was kind of hard to get a bead on what he was doing, whether he was taking the dive or taking me.

“I’d definitely like to get some of those reads back because I should have pulled on some of the plays that I gave it.”

Navy quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said the ability to make that read at full speed comes with game experience. He said the quarterback must rely on instincts when reading the body angle and speed of the dive key.

“Can the guy tackle the fullback? If he can’t, hand [the fullback] the football. If you feel he can, pull it,” Jasper said. “If you pull it, you better be right.”

Jasper admitted Lavatai missed a few reads but said there are instances when the fullback must make the dive key pay for not committing. “The read key came up the field and reached out and grabbed James. James has to run through that arm tackle,” Jasper explained.

That is why Jasper has been saying for years that behind every successful option quarterback there’s a great fullback.

“If you have a fullback who can run through those arm tackles, he’s going to make the quarterback right sometimes,” Jasper said. “You need to have the fullbacks run full speed through the mesh.”

There were many instances on Saturday when members of the SMU defensive front just beat blocks. Mike Williams, a 299-pound nose guard, was hard to move in the middle and finished with 10 tackles (two for loss).

“I think they had some pretty big dudes up front, and it was hard to push them around. The three-technique did a good job and really held his own,” Lavatai said of Williams. “Overall, we could have executed better; I could have executed better.”

Lavatai acknowledged he also must improve his mechanics when taking the ball to the perimeter. Too often, the SMU pitch key was not forced to commit to the quarterback or the slotback.

“I’m working at getting better at making the pitch key come to me. I feel like in that game they were slow playing me a lot, making me turn it up then coming down and tackling me,” Lavatai said. “Something I’m working on this week is making them choose whether they’re taking me or taking the pitch man, so they can’t play both.”

This past Saturday was very much a case of SMU taking away the pitch and the dive and making the quarterback keep the ball. Jasper said Lavatai needs to be a more decisive, more aggressive runner.

“I’d like to see Tai get downhill and be more of a physical runner. Take advantage of your size by lowering that shoulder and getting extra yardage,” Jasper said. “If teams are going to make Tai run the football, he needs to make them pay.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement