Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navy football team’s preparation for the 2020 season has been different than in any other time in the history of the program.
But on Sept. 7, Navy will face BYU in a game that’ll been seen nationally on ESPN with Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit on the call. And even though the Midshipmen will be playing football for three-plus hours, as many precautionary measures as possible will still be in place on the sidelines and in the locker room.
That dichotomy wasn’t lost on Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo when he was discussing how to go about the 2020 season as safely as possible with team doctors and head trainer Jim Berry.
“I watch the NBA. They play normal basketball, then they go on the side and then they sit apart,” Niumatalolo said on Glenn Clark Radio Sept. 4. “I go, ‘What’s the sense? They just swapped sweat and now they’re sitting apart from each other?’ And they said, ‘Well, any time you can mitigate it, you try to.’”
As such, the Midshipmen are doing just that. Instead of gathering indoors for team-building activities, those happen outside after practice; players take their shoulder pads, spread out, relax and interact with each other. And only a certain number of players are allowed in the locker room at one time, so players are required to enter in waves and not spend much time in the room.
It also helps to be at the Naval Academy, where none of the players live in off-campus housing. The amount of time players have to spend online for classes and football meetings is a challenge — Niumatalolo said his players are a little more anxious than usual because they haven’t been able to get out much — but the reward is being able to play BYU Sept. 7.
“I think because of the discipline of the type of people that go to school here — the Midshipmen, our football players — it’s allowed us stay pretty disciplined in our COVID-19 protocols,” Niumatalolo said. “… I think this school allows you to stay a little bit safer than most places just because you can control a lot more variables. From that standpoint, it’s probably been a little bit easier.”
Game day will also look a little bit different for Navy. Instead of benches on the sideline, there will be chairs so players can spread out. Niumatalolo won’t be able to dress players who don’t figure to play because there simply isn’t enough room to accommodate everyone. Navy also can’t test every player for the coronavirus before a game, so those who aren’t tested can’t play.
But the biggest difference in Navy that observers will see Sept. 7 is the change at quarterback. With Malcolm Perry, now a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, having graduated after a historic 2019 campaign, the next man up is senior Dalen Morris. Sophomore Perry Olsen and junior Chance Warren were listed ahead of Morris on the depth chart entering fall camp, but Morris outplayed both.
“We go through practices and you’re watching Perry and he’s doing OK, but Dalen’s play was so powerful and so strong and so obvious,” Niumatalolo said. “It put a spotlight on him — just like, ‘Wow, he just stood out.’ I guess more than any of Perry or Chance losing the job, it kind of felt like it was more Dalen won the job outright here. He earned it. He’s an impressive young man. The kids on the team love him.”
Niumatalolo is also excited about the possibilities this season will bring on the defensive side of the ball. After a rough 2018 season — the Midshipmen allowed 427.1 yards per game — Niumatalolo hired Brian Newberry away from FCS Kennesaw State as his new defensive coordinator. The move paid immediate dividends. Navy’s defense improved immensely — it allowed 314.2 yards per game in 2019 — and helped key an 11-2 season.
Now, with Newberry back and contributors like linebacker Diego Fagot having returned as well, Niumatalolo believes his defense that can be even better than it was last year.
Newberry is “a super creative mind so you can even do more things,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s kind of crazy, I thought we did a lot last year but the guy’s constantly coming up with stuff. So that’s the encouraging part. The second year, he can kind of expand things a little bit more and be creative. So that’s what we feel good about.”
For more from Niumatalolo, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Alex Edelman/PressBox