Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo made the unusual decision to go “live” with his quarterbacks during spring workouts.
This meant they were fair game to be tackled to the ground, a rarity for the position in any football practice.
The risks associated with the move are obvious, but the 14th-year head coach needed to evaluate his young quarterbacks in that scenario.
“That’s the first time we went live with the quarterbacks in a long time, but I wanted to see,” Niumatalolo said Aug. 7. “I wanted to see who could take a hit, who could make somebody miss, I wanted to see people’s toughness. That’s the only way you can see.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of Navy’s 2020 spring workouts. When the team finally gathered for preseason practices last summer, Niumatalolo decided there would be no live contact. During the program’s media day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, he continually expressed confidence in where his team is following a traditional offseason.
Sophomores Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai entered this preseason tied atop the Midshipmen’s quarterback depth chart. Junior Maasai Maynor is listed as the third-string quarterback.
Arline made three starts as a freshman and became just the fifth freshman in program history to start against Army.
“We were struggling last year. That’s the truth. We were trying to get a spark,” Niumatalolo said. “It wasn’t looking to the future, we were trying to win that game. You don’t think about the next game, you win the game at hand and we thought he gave us the best chance.”
Arline finished the season as Navy’s third-leading rusher with 210 yards on 59 attempts as part of the Mids’ triple-option offense. He completed four of 12 pass attempts for 27 yards.
“I’ve been impressed with his attention to detail. I think he’s learned a lot from these guys, what it takes to win and how to work,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been impressed with his maturity for a young man. I see what he does and he’s competing right now. I think he looks forward to the competition that he has for this position.”
His competition, Lavatai, played well enough during the spring to pull even on the depth chart for the starting quarterback job after not seeing any game action as a freshman.
The struggles at the quarterback position last season led to Navy’s worst offensive season in recent memory. The Midshipmen averaged just 275 yards and 16.6 points per game, both among the 10 worst in FBS. Niumatalolo isn’t worried that it will carry over into 2021.
“People that don’t know anything about sports think you can just show up and do things,” he said. “Our offense is so intricate in the triple-option stuff. You can’t just roll the ball out and start operating. We’ll be back. I’m not worried about that.
“You look at all the records in scoring offense at this school and it’s been during the time of coach [Ivin] Jasper being the offensive coordinator. The guy knows what he’s doing. Look at besides , we’ve averaged over 30 points per game for a long time. We’ve been a top offense for decades.”
Niumatalolo did not give a time frame for naming a starting quarterback, but he added that the earlier a player distinguishes himself as the front runner the better for the sake of developing offensive chemistry. He stressed the importance of having both sophomores ready to go because of the hits quarterbacks take in the Navy offense.
“The timeline for us is when the guy distinguishes himself, when it becomes clear cut. I was really impressed with both of them this spring and what they did this summer and seeing where they’re at,” Niumatalolo said. “When you have pure competition, the cream always rises to the top. People start to separate themselves.”
Update: A previous version of this story stated that Arline was the first freshman quarterback to ever start against Army. He was the fifth. It has been corrected.
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