After winning a spirited preseason battle with Xavier Arline for the starting quarterback job a year ago, Tai Lavatai suffered an immediate setback in the season opener.
Lavatai sustained a lower-body injury after being leg-whipped early in the second half of Navy’s eventual 49-7 loss to Marshall. While Lavatai only missed two games, he would later admit to not being fully healthy pretty much the entire season.
It was no surprise that Lavatai was up and down during his first season as starter, mixing solid performances in some games with uneven outings in others. He returned from the two-game absence to lead a comeback victory over Central Florida, rushing for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Two games later, he passed for just 27 yards and rushed for a net of 28 in a lopsided loss at Memphis.
Notre Dame was a lowlight as Lavatai only managed to direct one sustained drive before being knocked out of the game by an apparent helmet-to-helmet hit. However, the youngster finished the season strong as the sophomore led the Midshipmen to back-to-back wins against Temple and archrival Army.
The two-week layoff prior to the service academy showdown gave Lavatai a chance to heal and it showed. He put together a complete performance on all fronts, rushing for a team-high 62 yards and two touchdowns while completing 4 of 6 passes for 82 yards.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo noted the transformation of Lavatai over the course of the season when asked about the signal-caller during Navy football Media Day earlier this month.
“I thought the growth from the Notre Dame game to the Army game was as big a jump as I’ve ever seen in a quarterback. To see the way Tai operated in the Army game with the pressure and stress was very encouraging,” Niumatalolo said. “His eyes were a lot clearer. He knew exactly what was going on. That is what has given me hope. If you can play calm and composed in that game, you can do it in any other game.”
Lavatai is Navy’s first returning starter at quarterback since Keenan Reynolds held the job 2012-15. For a team that runs an intricate triple-option offense, nothing is more important than having experience under center. Two weeks into training camp, Niumatalolo has seen the growth in Lavatai.
“His mastery, his command of the offense is way better than it was last year,” Niumatalolo said.
Lavatai’s final statistics last season were somewhat pedestrian — 371 rushing yards and 449 passing yards. Ideally, the 6-foot-2, 221-pound junior would double those numbers this season.
Navy needs the quarterback to be a legitimate running threat in order to prevent defenses from focusing on the fullback dive and slotback pitch. After averaging just 2.2 yards per carry a year ago, Lavatai spent much of the offseason trying to become a bit more dynamic with the ball in his hands.
“It’s always a big focus for me to get better in the running portion of the game. I feel like a lot of times I could have made bigger plays happen if I had made a move. I worked on my cutting ability this offseason,” he said.
While acknowledging that Lavatai is not a “gifted” runner, Navy quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper sees no reason why he cannot be an “effective” runner.
“We spent a lot of time during the spring and summer working on his feet and ability to make cuts, make people miss,” Jasper said. “If Tai can get past the linebacker level and make some good runs, it will make us a better team.”
His performance against Army instilled Lavatai with new-found confidence. It was as though all the experience gained throughout the season coalesced in that contest.
“Going into the Army game I felt the most prepared as I have for any game,” Lavatai said. “Usually I get nervous before games. Going into that one, everything was picture-perfect. I could see it all.
“Hopefully, it will be the same way going into every game this season. I know what to expect and what I need to do out there.”
Jasper, like Niumatalolo, has been impressed by the strides Lavatai has made in terms of understanding the option. By far the most important job of the Navy quarterback is to read the defensive alignment before the snap and make any adjustments if necessary.
Lavatai feels much more confident in his overall command of the triple-option.
“Since we have a lot of young guys at [slotback] and [fullback], I felt it was important for me to know the offense inside and out.” Lavatai said. “I want everyone to trust in me that I can tell them which way to go if they don’t know.”
“I feel a million times more confident in my overall knowledge,” Lavatai said. “I could tell you exactly what every player is supposed to do on any possible play against any defense. I feel like I’ve seen everything that can be thrown at me defensive-wise.”
Jasper believes Lavatai can get Navy into the right play and make good decisions distributing the ball.
“Tai is just very mechanically sound as far as running the option, reading the defense, being the engineer, getting the ball where it needs to go,” Jasper said.
Jasper noted that Lavatai took good care of the football last season, tossing just two interceptions and being charged with only two fumbles lost. According to Jasper, Lavatai has not been responsible for a single turnover so far during preseason camp.
Lavatai has proven he can be an effective thrower, although at times last season he struggled to connect with open receivers. He needs to improve as a percentage passer after completing just 34 of 61 (55.7%) attempts last season.
Lavatai spent considerable time on his own throwing to the returning wide receivers such as Mark Walker and Jayden Umbarger, developing chemistry during spring and summer sessions.
“Tai can throw the football, he can spin it. He’s got a great release and is very accurate,” Jasper said. “It’s all about making good decisions in the passing game.”