Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said on Sunday his biggest concern was fixing the Navy defense.
Niumatalolo and the entire defensive staff will have to really cram this week to get ready for a Memphis offense that is every bit as potent as the Hawaii outfit that shredded the Midshipmen in the season opener.
Navy was befuddled by Hawaii’s run-and-shoot attack on Saturday night in Honolulu, giving up 59 points and 522 total yards of offense. While the Rainbow Warriors looked sharp, Niumatalolo knows several American Athletic Conference schools are capable of doing similar damage if the Mids don’t get some things corrected.
“We need to get our defense right because we play a ton of potent offenses in our conference. We’re not going to win another game if we give up that amount of points,” Niumatalolo said on Sunday before boarding the return flight to Dulles International Airport.
Memphis lost some big-time playmakers with the departure of quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller, latter of whom is with the Chicago Bears. The Tigers have simply reloaded with graduate transfer Brady White taking over under center and redshirt sophomore Damonte Coxie emerging as a dangerous threat in the passing game.
White completed 22 of 28 passes for 358 yards and five touchdowns to lead Memphis to a 66-14 rout of overmatched Mercer in the season opener. White, who appeared in just three games at Arizona State before suffering a foot injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the 2016 season and entire 2017 season, has two years of eligibility remaining with the Tigers after arriving in January.
White won a spirited preseason battle with sophomore David Moore to replace Ferguson, who passed for 4,257 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2017. Moore, who was the backup a year ago, immediately announced he was leaving the program with intent to transfer.
Memphis head coach Mike Norvell was very pleased with what White did in just one half of work. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder sat out the entire second half after leading the Tigers to a 56-0 lead at intermission.
“The level of work that went into his preparation (from when he arrived in January), the way he’s learned the offense, the time he’s spent building the relationships with his teammates… he’s a great young man,” said Norvell, who recruited White to Arizona State while offensive coordinator in Tempe.
“I had a great deal of confidence going into it that Brady would play well, but I was glad to see he went out and proved it on the field. I thought Brady went out and did a great job of going through his progressions and taking what the defense gave him.”
Coxie, who performed well in a limited role last season, had four receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder was the fifth-ranked recruit in Louisiana as a senior at East St. John High, where he was also a standout track and field athlete.
Memphis unveiled another track star on Saturday in tailback Calvin Austin III, who flashed blazing speed in breaking loose for an 83-yard touchdown run. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound redshirt freshman is a sprinter for the Tigers’ track and field team – a member of relays that set three school records. A product of Harding Academy in Memphis, Austin was named All-American Athletic Conference in four events this past outdoor season.
Memphis returns an outstanding tailback in Darrell Henderson, who rushed for 1,154 yards last season despite sitting out the Liberty Bowl. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound bowling ball became the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012 and has been named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List.
Henderson rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown in the opener as Memphis fell just short of setting a school record. The Tigers racked up 752 total yards (428 passing, 324 rushing), one shy of the all-time mark.
Navy coaches had the Memphis-Mercer tape loaded onto their laptops prior to takeoff from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and watched it during the 10-hour flight back.
“It looks like they haven’t missed a beat from last season – just super explosive on offense and really solid on defense. They look the same to me,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said of his reaction to the Memphis film. “Mike is a really good coach. No doubt, this is a good team with a ton of talent and a good coaching staff. That’s normally a recipe for good things: Lots of talent and a coaching staff that can put everything together.”
Memphis has been picked to repeat as West Division champion in the American Athletic Conference. Norvell, who now owns a 19-8 record in his third season as head coach, liked the way the Tigers kicked off the 2018 campaign.
“I was really pleased with our football team to start the season. I thought our players did a great job with their preparation. We challenged them to make sure it showed up when the lights came on and I thought they responded,” Norvell said. “You never know how your team is going to respond when the lights come on so I like what I saw in Game 1. We came out and started fast and played pretty dominant on both sides of the ball.”
Navy and Memphis have both been in contention for the West Division title ever since the former joined the American four years ago. The Midshipmen beat the Tigers 45-20 at the Liberty Bowl in 2015 then won by a similar score (42-28) in Annapolis the following season.
Navy went 7-1 and lost a tiebreaker with Houston for the West Division crown in 2015. The Midshipmen finished 7-1 in the league again in 2016 and represented the West in the AAC championship game against Temple.
Memphis forced five turnovers to nip Navy, 30-27, last season en route to capturing the West Division crown with a 7-1 mark. Norvell felt the Tigers changed one important narrative against the Midshipmen in the third matchup between the schools.
“When you go back and watch that game our kids played with great passion and I thought we matched the physicality of Navy, which we had not done in prior years,” he said.
Niumatalolo meticulously planned Navy’s road trip to Hawaii in hopes of lessening the impact of the long flights and ensuing jet lag on the players. The 11th-year head coach had a dual purpose in doing so – to ensure the Midshipmen did not tire against Hawaii and were able to bounce back on short rest for Memphis.
Speaking to The Capital on Sunday, Niumatalolo did not think the lopsided loss to Hawaii was the result of fatigue.
“It had nothing to do with our legs or the travel,” he said. “I still feel really good about what our strength staff did in the offseason. We had two guys cramp up and one went back into the game. It wasn’t like we died in the second half like the last time we came here.”
Navy’s return flight landed at Dulles around 6:45 on Monday morning and the coaching staff had to play catch-up the rest of the day with regard to preparing for Memphis. The Midshipmen were back on the practice field on Tuesday in an attempt to maintain a normal game week schedule.
Speaking on the AAC teleconference on Monday morning, Niumatalolo reiterated his confidence that travel issues have not impacted the team.
“Obviously, it was a very disappointing loss,” he said when asked to recap the season opener. “If there was any positive we can take away it’s that I don’t think the travel affected us very much physically.”
During the Sunday interview from Oahu, Niumatalolo expressed mixed feelings about the best way to handle the Hawaii result. On the one hand, the coaching staff must assess what went wrong and make adjustments on both sides of the ball. On the other hand, it was one of those all-around bad games you just want to flush.
“You have to be self-critical across the board – coaching, playing, the whole nine,” Niumatalolo said. Some of our issues (on Saturday night) were schematic. So you have to look closely at this game in order to correct things and improve.”
On the other hand, Niumatalolo does not want the players or coaches dwelling too much on what happened in Honolulu because this Saturday’s game could go a long way toward determining the West Division champion of the American Athletic Conference.
“At the same time, you also have to put it behind and move forward,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re going to play a very, very similar team in Memphis, another high-octane offense. We have to learn, but we also have to forget about this first game and move on. We have to find a way to bounce back against a really good Memphis team that basically cruised in its first game.”