Aug. 3, 2011
CATCHING UP WITH COACH NIUMAT
By Bob Socci
There were still another 40 hours to go before players convened early Wednesday morning, split into their position groups and faced their first official conditioning test of Navy's summer football camp.
Nonetheless, as he spoke in the middle of Monday afternoon, Ken Niumatalolo didn't need to wait for the mid-week shuttle runs, signaling the start of preseason, to confirm what he could see for himself.
An eye exam of returning Midshipmen was evidence enough; the last seven months was an offseason in name only.
"The guys have all worked hard, and they look great," said Niumatalolo, Navy's fourth-year head coach. "The people who should get a ton of recognition are Mike Brass, Cliff Dooman and Kirk Woolfolk."
They, in case you didn't know, are the strength and conditioning coaches who every winter begin shaping and molding the Mids into a faster, stronger football team in anticipation of the following fall.
"They do a lot of the things behind the scenes that people don't see, not even (other) coaches," says Niumatalolo, who joined Brass on Paul Johnson's staff in December 2001.
Brass worked under Johnson at Georgia Southern. As they moved north to Annapolis, the two were nearly inseparable in practices and on game days.
But when Johnson left for Georgia Tech after the 2007 regular season, ceding the Navy program to Niumatalolo, Brass remained at the Academy. He's stayed put, but hardly stood pat.
"His program continues to evolve, and it's reflected by our kids," Niumatalolo says. "We continue to get faster and stronger."
Though not, necessarily, bigger; at least in the body-building sense. Brass and his assistants aren't paid to sculpt the Mids into Messrs. Universe. Their intent is to train players to better perform what's required of them at their positions, consistent with Navy's offensive and defensive philosophies.
"It's more (tailored to) who we are from a physical standpoint," says Niumatalolo, citing senior David Sumrall as an example.
Standing 6-foot-5, Sumrall fills left tackle in the Mids' triple-option offense at 267 pounds. At his height, in a more conventional scheme, his position would demand pumping enough iron to inflate to around 300 pounds. Widespread passing attacks require a wider spread, if you will. The larger your mass, especially from the hips down, the more you force defenders to go around -- not through -- you.
However, executing Navy's offense is far more reliant on speed and quickness than sheer size. As a rule, offensive linemen initiate the contact, trying to beat defenders -- often linebackers -- to the punch. The Mids want more from less.
"We just want to be as strong and physical as we can be, fit to our scheme," Niumatalolo explains. "We try to keep our taller guys (like Sumrall) lean. We try to keep them fast and explosive."
Before Brass configures workouts to individuals, he fields input from Niumatalolo and fellow assistants. Their observations from last year aid his preparation for next year.
"There's a definite dialogue," says Niumatalolo, who reviews a Power Point presentation from Brass each winter before a final conditioning program is in place. "I want to be involved and know exactly what is going on. There's a lot of communication prior to the season."
Of course, complicating matters at the Naval Academy are two annual realities: 1) every player spends a portion of his non-academic year on summer "cruise" and 2) upon return, he has to pass the Physical Readiness Test.
Sticking to a football training regimen isn't so easy on a YP boat or shadowing Marines in a field for two weeks. The PRT consists of running 1 1/2 miles in 10:30, performing 40 push-ups in two minutes and completing 65 sit-ups in two minutes. You might not think it overly rigorous for highly-conditioned athletes, but it certainly is different from what football players are accustomed to.
"Most football conditioning involves all sprints," Niumatalolo explains. "It's sprint and rest; sprint and rest. Our guys also have to be prepared for the mile and a half run. Not too many (programs) have to worry about that. But Mike does a great job of not just focusing on football shape."
NO HOLD(ER)S BARRED
When junior punter Justin Haan elected last month to forgo the fall semester for an overseas religious mission, the Midshipmen lost more than the likely successor to three-year starter Kyle Delahooke.
They were also left without their incumbent holder on field goals and extra points. Last year Haan handled placements for both Joe Buckley and Jon Teague, remaining virtually anonymous in a role that goes unnoticed until disaster strikes.
Of equal priority as this preseason unfolds is identifying who has the best leg to punt and determining who owns the surest hands to hold. Entering camp, slot back John Howell and quarterback Kriss Proctor were listed as holders on the depth chart.
"It's important for Jon to get some confidence with somebody," Niumatalolo says of the senior Teague, who takes over full-time kicking duties in the wake of Buckley's graduation last spring. "(As a kicker) you just get a great feel for somebody (as your holder)."
That's why Niumatalolo sees this special-teams vacancy with an open mind. Traditionally in football, kickers are quirkiest. They can also prove invaluable. Whatever makes Teague comfortable and confident -- whether it's the way his next holder spins the laces or how he sets the ball -- will do the same for Niumatalolo.
"I'm not a kicking coach and I'm not a psychologist," he jokes, sort of. "If they tell me something helps, then I'm all for it. As long as it helps us play better."
MY EXTRA POINT
Last spring, when the NCAA Rules Oversight Panel approved several changes for the upcoming season, the effort to curb taunting attracted the most attention.
Previously, unsportsmanlike conduct was universally considered a dead-ball foul. Acts like teasingly gesturing toward an opponent en route to a touchdown resulted in a 15-yard infraction, effective on the ensuing kickoff.
This year excessive celebration after the score remains a dead-ball call, but if officials rule that taunting occurs inside the field of play, offenders will be penalized points as well as yards. Touchdowns will be nullified, and yardage will be marked off from the so-called spot of the foul.
So much as giving fans the high sign, unnecessarily high-stepping or summersaulting into the end zone can cost a steep price; conceivably as much as a victory.
On the surface, it seems a noble step toward eliminating crass behavior rampant in much of modern sport. Still, you can't help but wonder if being able to wipe points off the board gives officials too much power on a matter so subjective.
Can they really read a player's mind through actions potentially as benign as a fist pump? Are we content with the notion that taunting is like pornography: You know it when you see it?
Looking back at one of Navy's most memorable highlights of 2010, Wyatt Middleton held the ball out with his right hand as he reached Army's 20-yard line on his 98-yard fumble return. Rightfully, because Middleton never taunted the defenders, there was no flag on that play.
But, considering the new rule, the climate it creates and the vagaries of human judgement, a similar act could provoke a penalty that will now prevent a touchdown. In a different venue, with a different official, in this different season, the Mids' might get the ball on the Black Knights' 35 instead of another six points before halftime.
Then again, players can -- and should -- remove any interpretation from the equation. In other words, no strutting and gesturing. To quote Lombardi: Act like you've been there before.
As for Niumatalolo, he didn't pass judgment on Monday, but said the new anti-taunting measure will definitely be a topic of discussion with Navy players.
Looking forward to my 15th season calling Navy football on the radio, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments -- however candid -- and suggestions for future blogs are always welcome. Go Navy!