March 30, 2011
By Bob Socci
Ken Niumatalolo isn't concerned about the players he no longer sees in uniform. He concentrates instead on those present and accounted for.
Throughout the next month, Niumatalolo is exercising the college football coach's annual rite of spring, taking stock of his team.
In his case, overseeing the Navy Midshipmen, inventory follows an eighth straight trip to the postseason. With every intention of reaching a ninth in a row next fall.
But it also takes place just weeks before one of the most impactful classes in program history graduates from the Naval Academy, and only days after the early departure of a second starter this offseason.
Compounding the sheer quantity is the absolute quality of personnel lost. Simply reciting the list can make this March maddening for any fan of the Midshipmen.
Among those missing from offense are record-setting quarterback Ricky Dobbs and three-year starting tackle Jeff Battipaglia. Gone from the defense are three-quarters of the linebackers and secondary, most notably last season's leading tacklers Tyler Simmons and Wyatt Middleton.
Niumatalolo, though, isn't about to get distracted or discouraged by who isn't here. Rather than lament, he looks ahead.
He's experienced enough to understand that questions in April often are answered by August. And he also realizes that what appears solid today can easily unravel tomorrow.
For example, last year the Mids entered the spring with a rising junior at slot back and a senior-to-be shifting from wide receiver to cornerback. Each figured to enjoy a playmaking autumn to follow. Neither was on the roster when summer camp convened.
Conversely, knee and hamstring injuries limited linebacker Jerry Hauberger as a junior the preceding fall and left him without a bio in the 2010 spring prospectus. Four months later, he started the opener vs. Maryland, eventually becoming one of Navy's most improved - and valuable - players.
A decade after joining then boss Paul Johnson to construct a winning program in Annapolis, Niumatalolo's focus is less one of rebuilding than retooling the Midshipmen. Therefore, he sees not an empty cupboard, but one full of opportunity.
"The offseason has been going great, the workouts have been going great," Niumatalolo said late last week. "I'm very excited."
If Niumatalolo is more optimistic than hopeful, it's because of the potential he identifies, even at positions most affected by talent turnover. And it's largely due to Navy's recent track record.
Consider the situation at outside linebacker.
In March 2010, competition there was wide open. By September, Hauberger and Aaron McCauley emerged as first-time starters. A year later, with Hauberger soon to graduate and McCauley no longer at the Academy, again both starting positions are vacant.
Atop the current depth chart at those spots are two rising seniors. One seeks to replace that aforementioned p-word with another, productive, while the other looks to replicate the career paths of past teammates.
When healthy the last two years - which is to say, rarely - Jarred Shannon revealed glimpses of his mostly-untapped talent. Like as a sophomore, when his blocked punt led to a touchdown opposite Temple. And his junior year, in the split-second Shannon imposed his will on a receiver, late in a rout of East Carolina.
Now that Shannon has rehabbed vigorously from shoulder surgery, Niumatalolo thinks he "can be even more physical."
Meanwhile, Mason Graham would love to follow the likes of Hauberger, McCauley and their predecessor from 2009, Craig Schaefer. All bided their time on special teams, making the most of that time, well before earning their time at outside backer.
"Having been out on the field (on special teams), when the lights come on should give (Graham) confidence," says Niumatalolo.
He also notes that, in addition to the three sophomores and junior Keegan Wetzel listed on the depth chart, both Brye French and Craig Veech are candidates at OLB. French and Veech are occupied with other sports of the season, but can play their way into the mix when their lacrosse and baseball schedules, respectively, make room for football.
The status is nearly as unsettled in the secondary, where cornerback Kwesi Mitchell is the only regular starter set to return. There are also key losses up front, most glaringly the graduation of 2011 sack leader Billy Yarborough.
Niumatalolo and his staff must determine order elsewhere, on the other side of the ball and extending into special teams, and develop layers of depth everywhere. In the process, they'll revisit what many coaches enjoy most; teaching the basics.
But they aren't strictly demonstrating the mechanics of blocking and tackling, passing and catching. At Navy, they're conveying a fundamental approach as much as the fundamentals themselves.
"(Spring) is more about developing a mentality than X's and O's," says Niumatalolo. "Do our guys on defense know how to play physical and run to the ball? Do our guys on offense know how to play hard and take care of the football?
"We always try to create a culture of who we are and how we play. There's an effort level we need to play with consistently."
Through positive and single mindedness this spring, Niumatalolo is practicing what he preaches.
In the Navy football culture, there's no room for excuses, and no compromising on effort. Time and energy can't be wasted worrying about who isn't around anymore.
It must be devoted to the Mids who remain, ensuring that they comprehend exactly what's expected of them. Assuming they do, any hole in April should be made whole again by August.
"We're trying to create a culture of greatness, to make our guys understand the culture of Navy football," Niumatalolo says. "We have some young guys who have the size we always wanted and all the athletic tools, but we're trying to create the atmosphere that helps them learn the culture of how we want them to play. It's a mindset of toughness."