*Note: This is the last of our 12 opponent previews. We really appreciate your guys' feedback and clicks over this lengthy series. If you haven't gotten a chance to read the other previews, here they are:
Enjoy our last preview of this series, looking at the Midshipmen of the US Naval Academy.
When the United States Naval Academy joined a conference for the first time in over 100 years of playing football it was a surprising and ambitious move.
In 2015 the Midshipmen were one loss away from an AAC West division title, falling to eventual league champion Houston in the last week of conference play.
The next year the Mids defeated a top 5 Houston team, won the AAC West and in my opinion were a Will Worth injury away from winning the league title (not to mention keeping Army from breaking a decade plus win streak in the Army/Navy game). It wasn’t absolute perfection, but you couldn’t ask for a whole lot more from a new member than what the Mids gave the AAC in their first 2 years.
I am not sure you can call 2 years a ‘trend’, but the last 2 years have been less encouraging. The 2017 team went to a bowl and went a respectable 4-4 in league play but lost to Army for the 2nd straight year. Last year the bottom truly dropped out and the Mids had their worst season in many years, finishing with a 3-10 record while having the worst offense and defense since Ken Niumatalolo took over as head coach.
This kind of decline has spawned narratives about Navy’s viability in a competitive league like the AAC. I believe that line of thinking is hasty. In the last couple of years Niumatalolo has also been critical about academy leadership not taking seriously his requests for infrastructural improvements.
Last season’s decline and Army’s dramatic improvement seem to have gotten the attention of USNA leadership and football facilities will apparently be a prominent part of a larger $20 million Physical Mission Center in Annapolis.
The big picture is starting to get addressed and in the smaller picture Niumatalolo overhauled his staff (primarily on defense), including bringing in a successful FCS defensive coordinator and a veteran power conference assistant with a history in Annapolis.
Clearly some of the right ‘buttons’ are now being pushed by Niumatalolo and the academy leadership. How much that will all translate to on-field improvement in 2019 is still a big unknown and turning things around quickly at a service academy may not be realistic.
The Midshipmen Offense:
Before getting into the specifics of the offense, I’ll note that the way I approached previewing Navy was different than the prior 11 teams in this series.
Service academies almost always skew more senior-heavy than your standard Division 1 FBS team. Therefore, me writing something about how the offensive line lost 4 starters isn’t useful analysis. For most teams that kind of loss of experienced players might be a big issue, but at a service academy it’s what happens more years than not.
That kind of turnover, along with other factors like the service academies’ unique offensive style, makes it hard for advanced metrics like S&P+, FPI and others to accurately predict these teams from year to year. In almost every case the predicted results will be pessimistic because you can’t bake in math for service academies being dramatically different institutions than their 127 other ‘peers’.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I am fumbling in the dark even more than usual with this specific preview. To Navy football’s ceaseless credit, they do an excellent job identifying players by specific position (not just by group) on their roster and even published a post spring practice depth chart.
For the 2nd season in a row senior Malcolm Perry will get the first crack at winning the starting quarterback job. Perry was productive as a slot back in 2017, rushing for 1,182 yards on 8.6 yards per carry. He started the first 5 games at quarterback last year, managing a 2-3 record and was moved to slot back after a blowout loss to Air Force where the Midshipmen scored only 7 points.
Things were even worse with Perry not at QB and the Mids finished the year winning 1 of their last 8 games while alternating between 2 graduated seniors (Zach Abey/Garret Lewis).
Niumatalolo was frank when addressing his decision to bench Perry with the Capital Gazette:
“I don’t know if I made the right decision last season. We did what we felt was best for the team at the time, but when I go back and look at our games I’m not sure it worked out very well.”
Perry did struggle throwing the ball, even in a flexbone that places a low emphasis on efficient passing. What made the Navy offense basically unstoppable in 2016 was QB Will Worth was both a human battering ram running the football and completed 60% of his passes. If Perry could blend his explosive running with just a 50% completion rate on 9-10 deep balls per game, then Navy’s offense will be hard to stop.
Niumatalolo has talked a good game about how he and OC Ivin Jasper are going to adjust the offense. I think everyone concerned benefits from the fact that, unlike last year, Perry is clearly the man and doesn’t have 2 seniors breathing down his neck the first time he struggles.
Some support returns in the form of 2 slot backs with a fair amount of experience: senior Tazh Malloy and junior CJ Williams. The slot backs may feature more now as Perry is more of an outside runner than his immediate predecessors.
The use of this position group was way down the last few years as the Mids offense relied way more on quarterback and fullback inside runs. I expect junior Keoni-Kordell Makekau to get a fair amount of time on the field as well.
Speaking of the inside running game, the Mids do return last year’s #2 fullback junior Nelson Smith who rushed for 411 yards last year (3rd on team) and was easily the most explosive fullback on the team. Much as I think Perry will create a lot of his big plays on the outside, I expect Smith to be the kind of effective short yardage specialist Navy always seems to have on the roster.
Not that they’ll ever be the focus, but there’s an impressive amount of experience returning at receiver. Sophomore Mychal Cooper is the leading returning receiver with a total of 5 receptions last year. That is a laughably low total for those of us more used to the Air Raid and Run & Shoot, but Cooper was 2nd on the team in receptions last year. Junior Ryan Mitchell and senior OJ Davis (a former linebacker) should also play a fair amount at receiver.
The one returning every game starter on the offensive line conveniently enough is the center: senior Ford Higgins. In addition to playing such a critical spot on the line, Higgins was named a team captain along with Perry.
Even though he only has one game of starting experience senior David Forney has played in every game of the last 2 seasons and goes into fall camp as the starter at left guard. The 2 other linemen on the roster with starting experience: senior left tackle Kendel Wright and junior right guard Peter Nestrowitz, were also listed as starters on the post spring depth chart.
The floor and ceiling on this year’s Midshipman offense is incredibly high, because the floor and ceiling on Malcolm Perry is incredibly high. If he’s able to translate his incredibly playmaking ability to quarterback I believe the supporting cast around him won’t hold him back and Navy will return to being a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
But if Perry struggles, last year may end up being eclipsed by the coming season for offensive futility.
The Midshipmen Defense:
Navy’s defense last year was bad by any metric and their woes were certainly exacerbated by an offense that didn’t possess the ball nearly as much as previous Midshipmen offenses.
The struggles were bad enough that previous defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson called it a career and Niumatalolo brought in 5 new defensive assistants, highlighted by defensive coordinator Brian Newberry.
Most recently Newberry was the DC at Kennesaw State, a program that’s only competed collegiately since 2015 but made the Division 1 FCS playoffs the last 2 years. Newberry’s defenses allowed fewer than 16 points per game each of the last 2 years and forced 56 turnovers over that period. He also dealt with the idiosyncrasies of coaching against a flexbone/option offense in practice and still doing well against opponents who ran radically different offenses.
This new defense will be very multiple and according to the new DC will blend 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 concepts. Last year the Midshipmen were awful at creating pressure, only managing 10 sacks and 13 QB hits the entire season.
Newberry wasn’t the only intriguing coaching addition as Navy brought back Brian Norwood as a co-DC. Norwood coached the Midshipmen cornerbacks in the late 1990s and in the interim held a defensive coordinator title at Baylor, Tulsa and Kansas State.
Up front the Mids return an uncommon 3-year starter: senior nose Jackson Pittman. Last year Pittman had 35 total tackles (24 solo) and 3 TFLs while starting all 13 games. He’ll be joined in some situations on the interior by senior Marcus Edwards who played in every game as a reserve last year and was listed as starting defensive tackle going into the fall.
One of the Navy program’s best recent recruits junior Jackson Perkins, a 6’6” mid 3-star from Illinois goes into fall as the starting defensive end. Perkins chose the Midshipmen UCF, Illinois and most of the MAC and Ivy League.
The Navy defense features some hybrid positions and the first one I’ll mention is RAIDER, which appears to be a hybrid of outside linebacker and defensive end.
Senior Nizaire Cromartie, who started every game last year at outside linebacker, is the post-spring starter at RAIDER. Cromartie had a team-best 3.5 sacks last year to go along with 58 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs (2nd among returners).
The other hybrid position is STRIKER, a hybrid of linebacker and safety. Junior Jacob Springer started 4 games last year and was would have led all returning defensive backs in tackles (36 total), but now his role is less clearly defined. The roles are unique enough that the RAIDER and STRIKER positions each have their own dedicated position coach.
In last year’s Army/Navy game the only plebe starter on either side of the ball was sophomore Diego Fagot, who appeared in every game last year. The primary position Fagot played last year was STRIKER, but he goes into fall as the starting middle linebacker.
Speaking of things that you don’t often see at a service academy, the secondary returns two non-seniors with starting experience at cornerback: sophomore Michael McMorris and junior Micah Farrar. McMorris made 4 starts and had 2 fumble recoveries last year, while Farrar has only missed 1 game in the last 2 years.
The least experienced player projected as a starter in the secondary is maybe the most intriguing one. Sophomore Kevin Brennan is the listed starter at Bandit safety and was Navy’s top recruit in the 2018 class. Brennan was a high 3-star and according to 247Sports is the program's #3 all-time recruit (or at least since the advent of recruiting rankings).
At all levels there’s enough experience for me to believe a big turnaround on this side of the ball is possible but I don’t believe one is especially probable.
Bringing in a successful lower level coordinator and being more exotic are steps in the right direction. Any noticeable improvement from the offense would obviously be hugely critical to making any progress on this side of the ball.
The Midshipmen Special Teams:
Navy returns one of their two specialists, specifically senior punter Owen White who averaged 41.3 yards per punt last year (36.3 net yards).
Last year’s placekicker/kickoff specialist Bennett Moehring was ultra-reliable (11-13 overall) but he’s graduated, and the new starter is senior JR Osborn, who missed most of 2018 with injury.
Jacob Springer is the top kick and punt returner out of spring practice and led the team in punt return average and was 2nd in kick return average behind Malcolm Perry.
Senior Michael Pifer is the returning starter at long snapper after playing in every game last year.
The Season Outlook:
Like I have beaten to death in this preview, out of all the teams I’ve written about in this series Navy has the most potential to be unpredictable.
Malcolm Perry is a big part of that as he could be one of the conference’s most exciting playmakers or could struggle like he did last year. I am probably not giving enough credence to the fact that Perry’s struggles last year could have also been related to his supporting cast.
I think the defense bottomed out last year and will improve at least marginally, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough to make a big difference. The talent is good on that side of the ball and there’s some experience at every level.
Looking at the pre-season win probabilities, Navy only has 3 games on the 2019 schedule where they have a greater than 35% chance of winning: Holy Cross, ECU (which is a coin flip at 51%) and UConn. Their first 2 weeks’ games feature two of those of teams and if the Midshipmen get some confidence then a 4-1 start with wins over Holy Cross, ECU, Air Force and Tulsa isn’t wildly unrealistic.
The rest of the schedule, outside of UConn in week 9, is challenging and finding 6 wins is tough. The home schedule in the 2nd half of the season features USF, Tulane and SMU who will all be tough. And the Mids also have roadies to Notre Dame and Houston and the specter of an Army program that will be playing for their 4th straight win in the series.
Improvement of some kind feels likely. But improving enough to get back to bowl eligibility feels like too much of a stretch for me to confidently predict it.
Matching Up with Houston:
At the risk of accidentally praising Mark D’Onofrio’s coaching ability, Houston’s last 2 games against the Navy flexbone have been good efforts. The Coogs allowed 24 points last year before garbage time and only 14 points in 2017, both in winning efforts.
A healthy part of that success was the Cougars having a human wrecking ball like Ed Oliver who could neutralize the inside running game by himself. No matter how positively I feel about the incoming and returning players, none of them will be Ed Oliver.
Navy will do something completely different offensively than any of the first 11 opponents UH will face and that’s why Navy week will always be more stressful than average.
I have a hard time seeing the Midshipmen’s new look defense keeping the Cougars out of the end zone too often. How I feel about this game is influenced heavily by the fact that this is the Cougars’ last regular season game of 2019 and it’s in Houston. The Coogs threw for 413 yards when these two teams met last year, and I expect a similar result this year.
But that offense Navy runs is the great equalizer and if the Coogs can’t corral Malcolm Perry on the outside, then this quickly becomes the kind of anxiety-inducing contest I expected annual from Navy when they joined the AAC.
I feel good about the Cougars’ chances but won’t feel anywhere close to ‘good’ I am sure as I watch this game happen in real time.