July 25, 2012
By Bob Socci
Every square foot of Ken Niumatalolo's office doesn't just imply, but proudly proclaims that Navy's head football coach is no ordinary neatnik. It's pristine enough to make Martha Stewart blush and Felix Unger honk with envy.
Considering his uncluttered surroundings, it makes perfect sense that Niumatalolo completed preparations for preseason practices, which begin in exactly one week, months ago. His plans for the Midshipmen are as well organized as the space he occupies on the third deck of Ricketts Hall.
"We've had camp planned for a while," Niumatalolo said Tuesday by phone from his room with a view of Annapolis harbor. "Buddy (Green), Ivin (Jasper) and I sat down in May."
Conferring with Navy's defensive and offensive coordinators, Niumatalolo started mapping out the summer after the end of spring practice.
"We tried to go back to the basics in the spring," he says. "I was pleased with the spring. I thought a lot of guys developed."
The Mids finished the preceding fall at 5-7, experiencing the program's first losing season in nine years. Five of the seven defeats were decided by a total of 11 points. Mindful of those near misses, Navy's staff worked on each player's development from the head down.
"The big thing is our mentality," Niumatalolo said last March. "We have to have an attention to detail, the little things, starting with the toughness factor. So we don't crack under pressure, we have to make sure mental toughness is embedded."
One way of doing that was to demand more physically. And one example of doing that was the decision to move up the Mids' so-called Fourth Quarters. In previous years, two weeks of grueling conditioning drills straddled spring break, allowing an opportunity to work off any ill-effects of time away from the Academy. But last spring the Mids trained for two continuous weeks, took their break and reported for spring camp. What kind of shape they were in upon return to Annapolis indicated just how dedicated they were to the coming season.
Posing a test of willpower, Niumatalolo was pleased with the results. Today he finds it even more encouraging to see that their level of commitment was unwavering over the summer.
"Mike (Brass) was very pleased with how hard the guys worked," Niumatalolo says, referencing Navy's Associate Athletic Director for Sports Performance. "To this point, I truly believe they've paid the price."
Though not without some extra help. During the offseason Brass's staff expanded by two. Josh Schuler and Bryan Fitzpatrick joined veterans Cliff Dooman and Kirk Woolfolk as assistant football strength and conditioning coaches. There were also upgrades made in the Ricketts Hall trainer's room.
Niumatalolo also credits team captains Bo Snelson and Brye French.
"Bo and Brye have done a great job leading us in the summer," he says.
But as well as the spring and summer have gone, there are clearly concerns regarding the fall. Foremost among them in Niumatalolo's mind are what takes place along the line; as well as seven yards behind it.
Up front on defense the Mids must fill an enormous vacancy at left end. Jabaree Tuani graduated as a four-year starter ranked among the Academy's top three in career tackles for loss (2nd) and sacks (tied for 3rd). Also gone to graduation is nose guard Jared Marks, who started 10 of 12 games in 2011. In addition, Jamel Dobbs and Joshua Jones, who made a combined eight starts at right end last season, are no longer in the program.
The 10 players listed on the D-line depth chart entering training camp have totaled seven career starts. Wes Henderson (LE) has three, while Alex Doolittle (NG) and Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (RE) have two apiece.
"A lot of guys haven't played," Niumatalolo says of a group who will play their first game together against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. "They're guys we're excited about, but it's going to be a pretty tough environment (in which) to break in."
On the other side of scrimmage, graduates Brady DeMell, John Dowd and Ryan Basford left the Academy last spring with 75 career starts between them. Like those on defense, though, there's a lot to like about the linemen competing to take their place.
The frontrunner to succeed DeMell at center is 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore Bradyn Heap, whom Niumatalolo sums up as "athletic and strong." Another sophomore, 6-0, 318-pounder Jake Zuzek, is currently atop the depth chart at Dowd's old (right) guard spot. Senior Andrew Barker, who logged six starts at left tackle a year ago, figures to take over for Basford on the right side. As for the left half, tackle Graham Vickers and guard Josh Cabral are expected to pick up where they lined up at the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, the other position Niumatalolo worries most about, placekicker, is totally devoid of any varsity experience. Which, given last season's experience, makes it his most pressing concern. The Mids missed nine kicks, including five field-goal and four extra-point tries. One of each, including an overtime PAT attempt, contributed to their most excruciating loss, against Air Force.
Junior Stephen Picchini tops the depth chart du jour, though he'll likely find himself in a camp-long kick-off to determine a starter by September. In last spring's Blue-Gold game, Picchini missed field-goal attempts of 41 and 44 yards. Still, as an Academy legacy -- his father, Ted ('83), played sprint football -- his leg was strong enough at Moorpark (Calif.) High School to drill a 48-yarder vs. Simi Valley in 2008.
At the moment, six others share his position on Navy's roster. Soon enough each will take his first swing of the leg at winning the job.
Sorting through personnel, at those and other positions, won't be nearly as orderly for Niumatalolo as plotting August practice plans. Never is, no matter how neatly you draw them up.
Regarding that head-start on late-summer itineraries, Niumatalolo had an ulterior motive. Albeit an understandable -- and enviable -- one.
"It allowed me to go home," he said Tuesday, soon after returning from a two-week family vacation in his native Hawaii.
Back from paradise, it's time to face reality. Navy's head coach is set -- has been for months, actually -- to start that process.