There’s nothing like looking to the future to help us forget the past. And for we Navy fans, 2020 was about as forgettable as it gets. I don’t recall a season being so frustrating in the last 20 years. So I’m going to forget it the best way I know how. And that’s by doing a 2021 Navy Football preview.
This post consist of two parts. First, we’ll take a snapshot of the 2020 offense compared to 2019. Then we will examine the reasons why the downturn occurred and what it will take for the Mids to bounce back and return to form.
A Tale of Two Seasons
I think the best place to start is to review some basic numbers. Yeah, I know in some cases, numbers can be manipulated. But trust me, that’s not the case here. So brace yourselves. This is going to hurt a little . . .
|Navy Football Key Statistics||2019 Season||2020 Season|
|Average Points / Game||37.2||16.6|
|Average Yards Rushing / Game||360.5||177.6|
|3rd Down Efficiency||79-171 (46.2%)||47-139 (33.8%)|
|Red Zone Opportunities / Scores||49 / 47||21 / 17|
|Red Zone Touchdowns Scored||39||13|
|Overall Record||11 – 2||3 – 7|
This huge drop off in production blew me away. Now, it’s worth noting that the Navy played two fewer regular season games this year. Both Lafayette and South Florida were cancelled due to the pandemic. It probably wouldn’t have changed the game averages that much overall. But saying Navy would have likely won both games is a fair argument. It’s been a long time since they’ve lost to an FCS opponent. And South Florida had an even worse year than the Mids.
But as you can see, the scoring and rushing numbers in 2020 weren’t even half of what the team produced in 2019. They definitely paint the picture of an offense that never found any kind of consistent rhythm the entire season.
So we’ve seen the numbers and the impact they had on what turned out to be a very bad season. But before getting into the Navy Football preview for next year, we need to take a look at why this all happened.
Before I get started, I want to make it very clear that I’m not here to assign any kind of blame. To be honest, it bugs me when people start looking to point fingers before looking at a situation from all angles. In my estimation, it comes down to more than just one thing. So let’s go ahead and get into them.
The 3 Big “Whys”
In breaking everything down, the one thing I tried to remember is that the team is basically made up of kids 17-22 years old. I recall what I was like at the same age, and I wonder how I would have reacted if I had gone through the same thing. The truth is I don’t know for sure. But this first “why” would have hit me pretty hard.
Tragedy Strikes the Program
Dave Forney was one of Navy’s best offensive lineman in 2019. The senior worked his way into the starting line up after three years on the team. Along with Ford Higgins, Billy Honaker, Kendal Wright and Peter Nestrowitz, he was part of an offensive line that produced a record-breaking season.
Forney had such a great year that he generated some interest at the NFL level. In fact, he had received permission to continue working out at his playing weight in case any teams wanted to bring him in for a look.
On February 20th 2020, exactly 51 days after Navy’s 20-17 win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, Dave Forney tragically passed away due to a cardiac arrest. Just like that, he was gone. And the entire team was devastated.
It’s true that Forney was graduating, so he had no direct impact on how the 2020 season would have gone. But his untimely passing rocked the Navy Brotherhood right down to its foundation. The entire Navy Football family, as well as the Academy mourned Forney’s loss. Then things went from bad to worse.
The Pandemic Hits Home
The Mids were due to start spring workouts in late March. But by then, the COCID-19 pandemic was exploding across the country. And most of the programs including Navy, canceled all spring practices in the interest of safety.
Clearly, it was a necessary move. But it wound up having implications that extended through the entire 2020 season, in my opinion.
Spring workouts are the best time to get a preliminary assessment of returning talent. That includes getting into the nuts and bolts of teaching the triple option offense. Defensively, it allowed potential starters in coach Newberry’s system to develop that chemistry and sense of trust that made that unit so successful during 2019.
In the blink of an eye, all that quality time was lost. The entire Brigade completed the rest of the semester through distance learning. For the football team, the spring meant tons of Zoom meetings and individual workouts.
Compounding the problem was the fact that all the gyms were closed. So those workouts were taking place at home in environments that didn’t come close to replicating what was available at Ricketts Hall.
No Contact Drills = A Rocky Start
By the time the team returned to begin pre-season practice, there were still many unknowns. It was here that Coach Niumatalolo made a decision he wishes he could have back. This was the 3rd “Why.”
For safety reasons, he conducted practices primarily with no contact. This was due in part to the protocols that were in place at the Academy. But the bottom line was it really set the team back in terms of preparation.
This was clear almost immediately on both sides of the ball in the first game against Brigham Young. The Cougars thrashed the Mids at home 55-3 in what looked more like a scrimmage against a practice squad.
After that, it was back to full contact practices. It didn’t look like it did much good in the second game against Tulane. The offense looked just as bad in the first half and Navy quickly fell behind 24-0. But Dalen Morris returned after being removed in the BYU game to lead the team to to its biggest comeback win in program history over the Green Wave. The Mids scored 27 unanswered points, sealing the win with a field goal as time expired. Things looked to be improving.
Another hiccup followed. Morris had a medical condition that was exacerbated at high altitude. So, he didn’t make the trip to Colorado Springs to play Air Force. The Mids were soundly beaten. And they had to rebound quickly to prepare for a very physical Temple squad.
Then, the Mids played what I think was their best game of the season in beating the Owls 31-29. They followed that up with a win over ECU. Suddenly, they were right in the thick of the conference race at 3-0.
But after two losses to Houston and SMU, the pandemic decided it wasn’t finished yet.
COVID Makes a Comeback
COVID19 broke out on campus in November, and practice was suspended for over two weeks. One game cancellation (USF) and two postponements (Memphis & Tulsa) followed. That eliminated the usual two week run up to the Army game.
Interestingly, when the games resumed, the defense really rounded into form. After allowing 37 points against Houston and 51 against SMU, they gave up only 44 all together against Memphis, Tulsa, and Army (under 15 per game).
Unfortunately, the Navy offense only managed to put up a total of 13 points over those last three contests. It was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever witnessed as a fan. The 16.6 PPG average for the Mids this season was their worst in 20 years. Even when they went 3-10 a couple years ago, they still managed to put points on the board. They just couldn’t keep other teams from scoring.
In the end, it was a disappointing end to an equally disappointing season. The disruption caused by the pandemic forced the coaching staff to deal with a totally new situation. It didn’t work out the way they had hoped. That happens. As far as I’m concerned, it’s best to learn from this experience and move on. There’s no sense dwelling on the negatives. So now let’s look at our Navy Football preview for 2021 and what the offense needs to do to get back to form.
Offensive Line: Chemistry Is Key
Obviously, the quarterback is the center of attention in any offensive scheme. He is tasked with making the right decisions with the football on every play. But none of that matters if the offensive line can’t win the individual battles in the trenches.
2020 O-Line Issues
Last year’s offensive line only returned two experienced starters: Billy Honaker and Pete Nestrowitz. They began the season at right tackle and right guard. And early on, when the Mids ran the ball, they were more productive when running right.
But the left side of the line never really got settled. In 2019, left tackle Kendal Wright completed an excellent tandem with Dave Forney, but he had graduated.
Whether due to injury or a lack of performance, the left side of the line was constantly in a state of flux. Justin Self began the year at center. Later in the season, he moved to left tackle and Bryce Banbury took over at center.
By the end of the season, Honaker also moved to the left side of the line, playing guard next to Self. Kip Frankland (sophomore) took over Honaker’s spot at right tackle.
Like I said, injuries may have forced these moves. But the injury reports were tough to come by. Regardless of the reason, the chemistry never seemed to be there. The coaches tried different combinations of players at left tackle and left guard, but things just didn’t click. So, developing some solid continuity on the offensive line has to be high on the priority list for the 2021 season.
The 2021 O-Line Outlook
If the Mids have any chance of righting the ship, it starts with the offensive line. Honaker and Nestrowitz are graduating. So offensive line coaches Ashley Ingram and Danny O’Rourke need to identify the 1’s and 2’s early and coach the heck out of them all through spring practices and into the pre-season. Here are key players returning.
Pierce Banbury played well at center after Self moved to left guard. He did a nice job controlling the line of scrimmage. Banbury is a senior next year and has the most experience as a starter out of everyone returning.
Bryce Texeira can play either left or right guard. I’d have to go back and look at some film to confirm this, but his playing time might be the most of the linemen who were second on the depth chart at the end of the season.
The staff felt good about Texeira’s run blocking at the start of the season. I look for him to really step up next year to help get the offense back on track.
As far as the other guard goes, that’s probably too early to call. Nick Bernacchi was third on the depth chart going into the Army game. He will be a senior. Nicolas Rowan is another possibility. He’ll be a junior.
Luca Frattianne saw time at left tackle during the season. But Justin Self played most of the year there. Frattianne goes 280, and is pretty mobile. He’s also a senior, so if he develops further during the spring and off season, the Mids have the potential to be pretty stout on the left side of the line.
Kip Frankland broke into the line up after Honaker moved to left tackle. He will be a junior. And he’s another big body with good footwork.
With the loss of key senior starters (Honaker and Nestrowitz), and only one experienced starter returning (Banbury), the Mids have some work to do on the offensive line. But the coaches faced a similar situation going into the 2019 season. Ford Higgins was their rock at center. And Dave Forney matured into a fine offensive lineman. I have confidence that the staff can get these guys in synch during spring ball. Then they can continue to get sharp in the pre-season before kicking things off in early September. Now, on with our Navy Football preview.
Quarterback: Nice Talent – Who Will Emerge?
Talent-wise, I think the Mids are in pretty good shape. The top candidates for the job just needed the time to develop; critical time that disappeared in 2020. I’m banking on that not happening two years in a row. So let’s start with the two front runners and go from there.
Clearly, the coaches liked what they saw in the young freshman this season. He has almost the same build as Malcolm Perry his first year. So count on him to add some muscle to that frame.
With an entire year to prepare, Arline is in a pretty good spot. There is only one potential snag. He is also a very good lacrosse player, and his desire is to play that sport as well while he is at Annapolis. At least, that was the word when he got his appointment.
Perhaps he has changed his mind, but I don’t see Men’s Lacrosse Coach Joe Amplo rearranging the spring practice season to have it mesh with the football team’s schedule. So that’s an interesting developing story.
Assuming that he fully takes part in spring practices, Arline figures to be the leading candidate for the job. He he’s quick and has excellent speed. A full spring practice should give him a chance to work on his passing skills also.
Arline still has to go out and take the job, though. That’s because there will be more than just one challenger.
We got a taste of what Goslin can do this season. The triple option fit him better than it did Dalen Morris. But he had just as hard a time with pre-snap reads. And unfortunately, he made some bad decisions with the football that resulted in crucial turnovers.
But again, Gosllin has pretty good potential. He doesn’t have Arline’s speed, but he’s capable of picking up four or five yards when he runs the ball. With the other weapons Navy has on offense, those numbers are good enough. I can’t wait to see how things develop in the spring.
Though he didn’t see much action this season, Maynor has the tools run the option. He checked in at 6’0″, 192 lbs in the fall. He ran out of a shot gun scheme in high school. But according to the coaches, Maynor adjusted nicely to the option when playing with the JV as a freshman. He earned the most valuable player award for his efforts.
This guy gets a mention because he has the most size out of any quarterback I’ve seen in the triple option era. Tai Lavatai goes 6’2″, 220 lbs. I checked YouTube for video on him. No luck though. I’m very curious about his development. He does have a running background, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him wind up at another position if that ability is good enough to get him on the field.
That’s it for the QBs. Time to look at the fullbacks as our Navy Football preview continues.
B – Backs Remain Strong
Nelson Smith has wrapped up his career. But the cupboard is not exactly bare. Here are the returning fullbacks.
The inconsistent offensive line performance clearly impacted getting the fullback established in the triple option. In fact, with Morris under center, Coach Jasper went to calling mostly designed plays.
Carothers running style is based more on speed. He doesn’t need a lot of space, but he does need some. And with the exception of a few games, it just wasn’t there this year.
But Carothers is the clear front runner for the fullback job. And deservedly so. He’s quick to get to the hole and has explosive, breakaway speed. If the offensive line can gel like they did in 2019, look for Carothers to return to form.
James Harris II
Strong performances from Smith and Carothers kept Harris from contributing at fullback, but he did play on special teams in 2020. He is more along the lines of Chris Swain in terms of build at 6’0″, 230.
And Harris has excellent speed as well. He ran track in high school and was a member of the state champion 4×100 meter relay team. If he nails down the #2 spot on the depth chart, he should see a lot of playing time based on how the coaches used the fullbacks this year.
The rest of the information on the fullback corps is a little thin. I’m sure there will be more when spring practices roll around. That leaves us with the slot backs and wide receivers in our 2021 Navy Football preview.
The perimeter game practically disappeared from Navy’s triple option attack in 2020. The offense never consistently established the fullback, which is an absolute must.
And if the defense doesn’t believe the quarterback is a serious running threat, that makes things much tougher. They can key on the slotbacks to eliminate the pitch option because they know that the QB isn’t going to run away from them.
But if the offensive line works effectively as a unit to get the fullback going , the slotbacks can cause a lot of problems.
A’s Make Plays
Myles Fells and C.J. Williams will be graduating. But the Mids have been historically deep at this position, and next season is no exception.
Chance Warren has the most experience of the bunch. He didn’t get the ball nearly as much as we all wanted this season. He emerged as a big play maker last year, and can throw the ball as well.
Warren is a threat to go all the way to the house when he gets out in space. I hope to see him have a chance (no pun intended) to do that more than once next season.
Carlinos Acie will be a senior and saw action in all ten games this year. He’s 190 lbs., so he’s bringing more weight than the average slotback. And from what I saw, he is a very good blocker. Acie has great all around skills. He and Warren could cause defenses a lot of problems if they can get the ball in their hands.
Devon High will also be a senior next season. He saw action in 9 games and got touches against Air Force and Houston. High did make the most of them, breaking off runs of 9 yards against the Falcons and 10 yards against the Cougars. He also caught a pass for a short gain in that very forgettable BYU game.
The Mids have the makings of a solid rotation here. And sophomore Daniel Jones is another player to watch. Overall, the slotbacks look to be in good shape. They just need to get the ball more.
We’re almost finished. There is only one more group we need to discuss in our 2021 Navy Football preview.
The Wide Receivers
Without question, this group of wide receivers is the best I’ve ever seen at Annapolis. Ryan Mitchell will be graduating, and his production will certainly be missed. But here is who the Mids have returning.
Mychal Cooper is a big target at 6’5″. Dalen Morris found him for the game tying TD in the comeback against Tulane. Cooper averaged over 16 yards per catch and led receivers in touchdowns. He has great hands, good speed and blocks exceptionally well.
Mark Walker emerged as Navy’s other go to receiver when Ryan Mitchell got injured. He also has a great pair of hands. He will be a junior next season, so this shows the kind of depth the Mids have begun to develop at this position.
Devin Matthews is another big target at 6’4″. He played in all 10 games and hauled in 3 passes. He also blocks pretty well. I really like his potential to contribute next year.
Coach Niumatalolo and Coach Jasper will no doubt go over the offense with a fine tooth comb. As competitive as they are that process may have already started.
As I mentioned to one of my classmates, the triple option always needs to be the foundation. But when things aren’t clicking, successfully executing a Plan B that make use of the weapons they have at wide receiver would be awesome to watch.
Just Thinking . . .
Coach Billy Ray Stutzmann is a Run and Shoot guy, and he played a role in making Malcolm Perry more of a passing threat last year. I think he can do the same next season by designing some packages that can get the ball to the receivers quickly.
I look at guys like Cooper, Walker and Matthews and think how much fun it would be watching them break into the open field off a quick hitting pass. Next season may be an opportunity to see that happen.
That wraps up our Navy Football preview for 2021. I’m already looking ahead to spring practice to see how things develop.
When it comes to the teams I follow, I like to think I’m an optimist. For example, I felt pretty good about Navy’s chances in 2019 when they came off of that 3-10 season. Other fans may not have been there at the start of the season. But it turned out to be arguably the best year in the program’s history.
And as disruptive as 2020 was, it’s pretty easy for me to write it off. But I can tell you this. Coach Niumatalolo and his staff are very good at what they do. So they’re not going to just sit back and chalk up this subpar season to being another casualty of the pandemic.
Offensively, they’re going take a good, hard look at their talent, starting with offensive line. Coach Jasper will keep drilling on the triple option concepts with his quarterbacks. And I believe you’ll see some new wrinkles added to take advantage of their strengths on the perimeter. I’m confident they will use the spring to take a big leap forward getting the system down.
When that happens, the offense will have all kinds of weapons at their disposal: the fullback, the slotbacks, and the wide receivers. The Navy offense will be back in full force. And as far as I’m concerned there is nothing more beautiful to watch in college football than that triple option when it’s firing on all cylinders.
Until next time . . .