It wasn’t surprising that the Navy defense struggled in its season opener last year.

The Midshipmen did not hold spring or summer workouts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When they finally gathered for preseason practice, there was no live contact.

“I wouldn’t call what we did practice when we finally came back. We were practicing social-distance football,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said Aug. 7 during the team’s annual media day. “That doesn’t work in football. This isn’t a social-distanced game. This is the most physical game there is. We’ll be back. We had young guys on defense and we were not prepared.”

In their 55-3 season-opening loss to BYU last season, the Midshipmen allowed 580 yards of offense. Zach Wilson, the eventual second overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, completed 13 of 18 pass attempts for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns while the Cougars rumbled for 301 yards on the ground that day. Navy’s youth and lack of real practice were too much to overcome.

Niumatalolo said he made the decisions he did out of an abundance of caution. He had many questions about the safety of practicing during the uncertainty brought by the pandemic. The 14th-year head coach asked trusted medical professionals, but no one at the time had the answers he sought.

“All these young men, I know their parents, I feel like I’ve got to take care of them,” he said.

Navy went 3-7 overall and 3-4 in the AAC in 2020, allowing 30.3 points and 385.5 yards per game along the way. In 2019, when the Midshipmen went 11-2 overall and 7-1 in the AAC, they allowed 22.3 points and 314.2 yards per game. But as the 2020 season rolled along, play improved on the defensive side of the ball.

“I felt like the first half of the season was our spring ball, was our summer workouts, was our camp,” senior linebacker Diego Fagot said. “In the first half of the season, to be honest, we didn’t play Navy football at all. We didn’t play well. [BYU] ran up 55 points against us in the first game. In the second half … we played really, really good defense.

“At this stage, we’re just looking forward. We’re not looking to 2020 anymore, it’s all about 2021. We learn from 2020, but we’re just going to keep pressing forward.”

Niumatalolo noted impressive statistics brought to his attention by defensive coordinator Brian Newberry, whom he described as a “mad scientist” and as creative a defensive coordinator as there is in college football.

“The last three games of last year, we were No. 1 in the country in total defense and scoring defense, No. 1 in pass defense,” Niumatalolo said. “[We] played really, really well at the end of the season and we have a lot of those guys back.”

Navy held its opponents to less than 300 yards in each of its final three games. The Midshipmen return nine starters defensively, led by captains Fagot and senior safety Kevin Brennan. Thirteen returners started two or more games on defense last year.

Fagot was recently named to the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is presented to the best defensive player in college football each year. He was also selected a third-team Preseason All-American by Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine, which also named him first-team All-American Athletic Conference. The star linebacker has led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons despite dealing with injuries throughout 2020. His three sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last year also topped Navy’s defense.

Brennan and Fagot are joined by wide receiver Mychal Cooper and slot back Chance Warren as team captains ahead of the Midshipmen’s Sept. 4 opener against Marshall.

“It’s a huge honor to be voted captain at the academy, just being a leader amongst leaders. Everyone at the academy is a leader, especially on the football team,” Brennan said. “To be seen by the younger guys, my classmates and the senior class, as one of those leaders, it’s a huge deal to me. It’s a huge honor, honestly, probably one of the biggest honors of my entire life. I’ll definitely keep it with me my entire life.”

To the captains and their head coach, the upcoming season feels more like 2019 than last year’s 3-7 campaign. Brennan said the difference between the last two years defensively came down to execution. He said Navy football builds its defense each year around the acronym E.A.T.: Effort, attitude and toughness.

“The 2019 team was really close,” Fagot said. “Just having that unity, having the closeness is key, especially on defense. When you trust that guy that’s right next to you to do his job and he’s going to trust me to do my job, that’s really fundamental. In the 2020 year, we didn’t have that opportunity to get to know each other, really get to create a bond and have that trust.

“I’m excited to see how far we can go as a defense. Schematically, Coach Newberry was only able to put in maybe half of the defensive plays that we now have.”

Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics

Issue 270: August/September 2021

Originally published Aug. 18, 20201