Ken Niumatalolo recently joked that the more he watches Ohio State on film, "the scarier it gets." The seventh-year Navy head coach was serious when he said the Buckeyes have the potential to "embarrass us."
Navy opens the season Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium against the Buckeyes, who are considered a national championship contender by most experts. Ohio State went 24-2 in two seasons under head coach Urban Meyer, who has recruited a slew of high school All-Americans since arriving in Columbus three years ago.
"This is the toughest opening opponent we've had in my 17 years here," Niumatalolo said. "Ohio State is super talented and extremely well-coached. It's a tough, hard-nosed football team that is really disciplined and loaded with great athletes. It is very daunting task to prepare for a team of that caliber."
However, Navy has a history of beating heavyweight opponents, having posted 21 wins against teams from the "power five" conferences since 2003. The Midshipmen defeated Notre Dame three times in the span of four years and have blown out the likes of Rutgers (54-21 in 2004), Stanford (37-9 in 2006) and Missouri (35-13 in 2009 Texas Bowl).
Navy opened at Ohio State in 2009 and came darn close to pulling a shocking upset. The Buckeyes intercepted a two-point conversion pass by quarterback Ricky Dobbs that would have given the Midshipmen the lead late in the fourth quarter.
"This is the toughest team we've ever faced. Ohio State has (high school) All-Americans across the board," Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds said. "This is actually a dream come true for me. Growing up, I was always a Florida Gator fan and loved Coach Meyer. I always wanted to play for the Gators and [Meyer] so to go against him is pretty cool."
Expectations are high for Navy, which returns eight starters on offense, seven starters on defense and five starters on special teams. The Midshipmen have a contract to appear in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl provided they secure the requisite six wins.
"It's that time of the year where I think every team starts with a lot of optimism and hope," Niumatalolo said. "I don't know in all of my years of coaching if I've ever been as excited about a season, about a team, about a group of young men, than I have this year."
Bertrand to safety
Junior Kwazel Bertrand is listed as the starting right cornerback on Navy's depth chart, but he is actually practicing at strong safety for the time being.
Navy is looking for a new starter at the position it calls "Rover" and defensive coordinator Buddy Green believes Bertrand could be the answer. The 6-foot, 186-pound Tennessee native started seven games at corner in 2013 and recorded 43 tackles.
"It's really about getting the best four guys on the field at the same time," Green said.
Green has the luxury of auditioning Bertrand at safety since Navy has significant depth at cornerback. Brendon Clements started 10 of 13 games as a freshman in 2013 and was outstanding – totaling 49 tackles, four pass breakups and three interceptions. Myer Krah started three games while fellow junior Quincy Adams has extensive experience.
Navy has posted winning records in 10 of the last 11 seasons and stability within the coaching staff is a major reason why. The Midshipmen have seven coaches who have worked in Annapolis for at least 10 years, which is the most in Division I.
Defensive line coach Dale Pehrson is beginning his 19th year at Navy while Niumatalolo has been part of the staff for 17 years. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is starting his 15th season with the Mids while Green, slot backs coach Danny O'Rourke, secondary coach Keith Jones and offensive line coach Chris Culton are all in their 12th year.
"I feel like we have the best coaching staff in the country," said Niumatalolo, who has lost just three assistants during his seven-year tenure. "I think our coaches recognize that Annapolis is a great place to live and raise a family. You are also working with great young men."
Niumatalolo joked that members of the coaching staff call their love of all things Navy football "drinking the Kool-Aid" and that enthusiasm for the job is key.
"We love coming to work. We're not punching the clock," he said. "You just wake up chomping at the bit getting ready to come to work. I know our guys love working here. The grass isn't always greener."
Navy did lose one veteran assistant during the offseason, as outside linebackers coach Tony Grantham was hired away by Louisville, where his older brother is defensive coordinator. Justin Davis was elevated to outside linebackers coach while Dan O'Brien was hired to assist at that position.
O'Brien is the son of former Boston College and N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien, a 1971 graduate of the Naval Academy who worked as an assistant at his alma mater under George Welsh from 1975-1981.
Navy unveiled its new Under Armour uniforms during the Media Day and Fan Fest event Saturday. In January, the Naval Academy Athletic Association and the Baltimore-based apparel company announced a multi-year partnership that designated Under Armour as the official outfitter for all 33 of the school's varsity teams.
The uniforms include six stripes across the front of the jersey that represent the six U.S. Navy fleets, while the pants will have the Marine Corps emblem to represent that branch of the service. Also, the Naval battle cry "Don't Give Up the Ship" is embroidered on the hem of each jersey.
"Going to Under Armour is huge for us. I think the exposure it will give us is a win-win," Niumatalolo said.
Deputy Director of Athletics Eric Ruden said Under Armour will produce special, one-time uniforms for the Ohio State and Army games. Ruden would not elaborate on the unique features planned for those uniforms.