Sept. 2, 2011
By Bob Socci/A View From The Booth
Speaking from his office Tuesday afternoon, Ken Niumatalolo looked on the bright side of being left in the dark by Hurricane Irene.
Facing the same predicament as communities from the Carolinas to the Canadian border, left without life's usual modern conveniences, Niumatalolo found fulfillment in old-fashioned dialogue. Less than a week from opening his fourth full season as Navy's head football coach, and a few days after Irene provided the real aftershock to a recent earthquake, he also took time for reflection.
"You actually have to talk to your family, and there's nothing wrong with talking to family," said Niumatalolo, whose nest is nearly empty, now that he and wife Barbara have seen two of their three children go off to college. "Something like that happens and you look at things that are way more important than (football). It makes you reassess things."
For the introspective Niumatalolo, who always seems to practice what he professes when it comes to family, it also lent a somewhat meditative calm to the current of questions he's been asking himself before facing Delaware tomorrow afternoon.
Balancing what he does -- coach football -- with who he is -- husband and father -- keeps Niumatalolo from becoming consumed by any pressures of the profession he chose.
"Otherwise, the job becomes overwhelming," Niumatalolo says of his daily commitment to loved ones. "I try to make my son's (football) practices, go out out for dinner or have a family meal at home. I have to get away from (the job)."
In those hours not included in family time, what exactly occupies Niumatalolo's mind these days?
"The biggest thing for me is, do I have our team prepared for the season?. You try to turn over every stone, dot every i, cross every t," Niumatalolo said. "Did we tackle too much? Did we tackle enough? Did we game plan too much? Did we game plan enough?
"It's just me second-guessing myself," he continues. "You always wonder if you've done enough. Are we prepared? What will we do on our first fourth-down situation?"
And so on, and so on.
Of course, Niumatalolo worries about the running of Blue Hen Andrew Pierce (please see below) behind the blocking of a senior-laden offensive line. And surely, there's angst over the pedigree of Navy's first opponent, a program within a point last year of its seventh national championship.
FCS or Division I-AA; however you classify the Blue Hens, Niumatalolo is perfectly aware that they "know what it takes to win football games." He saw it firsthand as an assistant when Delaware left Annapolis victoriously in 2003 and 2007.
But mainly, Niumatalolo is concerned about his Midshipmen.
This year he launched into game prep for the opener earlier than his previous three seasons as head coach. He also closed two scrimmages from the public, otherwise conducting them to simulate "game-like" situations as closely as possible.
"I wanted to make sure we covered everything," Niumatalolo said. "It has more to do with our team this year (than anything learned from past seasons). I thought our team needed it and our staff needed it."
Speaking of his staff, this year's scrimmages were equally vital in preparing coaches and players alike to execute their game-day roles. Since the end of last season, Niumatalolo lost an assistant (Joe DuPaix), added a new coach (Mick Yokitis) and redefined the duties of another (Danny O'Rourke).
In the past, DuPaix communicated from the field with coordinator Ivin Jasper in the press box, and delivered play calls to the huddle. Meanwhile, O'Rourke joined Jasper upstairs. Now he'll be tasked with dispatching both plays and personnel.
Potentially complicating matters, Navy coaches are utilizing a new system of headsets this season. With new switches in different places, they'll take some getting used to.
With so much to consider, from macro to micro, no wonder Niumatalolo channeled extra energy into dry runs for Delaware, even while being left powerless by the winds and rain of Irene.
UNDER CENTER FOR UD
Unknown all week, at least to team outsiders, is the identify of tomorrow's starting quarterback for Delaware. What's been obvious all along, however, is that whomever it is, he'll be a trend-breaker.
For the first time since K.C. Keeler became his alma mater's head coach in 2002, the Blue Hens do not have a transfer quarterback on their roster. Refusing to disclose his choice to date, Keeler will turn to either redshirt sophomore Trevor Sasek or junior Tim Donnelly.
Both are `home grown' products of a program that previously imported its quarterbacks from major programs.
Competing at the level formerly known as Divison I-AA, Delaware takes full advantage of NCAA rules allowing transfers from Division I schools to contribute immediately. When a player leaves one D-I program for another, he must sit out a season before becoming eligible to play.
From 2002-10, the Blue Hens started Andy Hall (Georgia Tech), Sonny Riccio (Missouri), Joe Flacco (Pittsburgh), Rob Schoenhoft (Ohio State) and Pat Devlin (Penn State) under center; all of whom began their collegiate careers in power conferences.
Sasek is more experienced, coming off seven appearances in 2010, including a start vs. Duquesne. He also relieved an injured Devlin vs. James Madison, completing 13-of-21 passes for 124 yards and engineering a late game-winning field goal drive.
Donnelly graduated from Stephen Decatur High on Maryland's Eastern Shore, after attending Punahou Academy in Honolulu for two years. His two career outings for the Hens occurred against Towson.
Either one, Niumatalolo believes, will be well prepared. Neither one affects what he expects of Delaware.
"Their quarterbacks have always been well coached," he says. "They know what they're doing. I don't think they'll change offenses."
For the most part, one or the other will hand the ball to Pierce, a preseason co-offensive player of the year in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"(Pierce) is the centerpiece, and he's behind a very good offensive line," Niumatalolo says. "It's definitely a tall order. Pierce is the real deal."
Given the nature of Navy's triple-option, both teams should be well grounded.
"I imagine they'll be very similar (to us), very patient with the ball," says Niumatalolo. "Both teams will try to limit possessions."
RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
Tomorrow's strenuous assignment against the run is the first of three such tests that Navy's largely inexperienced defense encounters this month. Consider the caliber of the featured running backs they'll try to contain in Weeks 1-3:
Andrew Pierce, Delaware (5-10, 200, So.): Lightly recruited out of Cumberland Regional High School in New Jersey, he debuted with the Blue Hens last year by winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the Colonial Athletic Association. Pierce totaled 1,655 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing, while reaching the 100-yard mark seven times. He is among the 20 players on the `Watch List' for the Payton Award, which is given to the FCS (Division I-AA) offensive player of the year.
Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky (5-8, 205, Sr.): His 340 carries last season led the nation, while his average of 137.4 yards per game trailed only Oregon's LaMichael James (144.3) and Connecticut's Jordan Todman (141.3). Rainey rushed for 1,649 yards overall and was named Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year. In a 38-22 loss to the Midshipmen in 2009, he gained 99 yards on just 14 carries ( 7.1 yards per rush) and made a 13-yard TD reception. In Thursday's 14-3 loss to Kentucky, Rainey ran for 105 yards, recording his sixth straight 100-yard outing.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (6-0, 232, So.): As SEC Freshman of the Year, he rushed for 1,197 yards, made 29 receptions and scored a school-record 19 TD (17 rushing). And by the way, he missed a game and a half due to an ankle injury. Only George Rogers amassed more yards in a single season among all-time Gamecocks. Rogers did it twice, in 1979 and as the Heisman Trophy winner in 1980. Lattimore led Carolina to the SEC Eastern Divison championship with a school-record 40 carries for 212 yards and three scores in a win over Florida.