With Notre Dame playing Navy so late in the season this year, the penultimate scheduled game, the best way to learn about the Midshipmen during the next three months will be to tune in to Showtime every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. The “A Season With” series that began with the Irish in 2015 will now feature the Midshipmen.
If it takes Navy a while to get back to a conference championship game, 2016 will be looked at as a lost opportunity. After a strong season in which the Midshipmen did not shy from any opponent, they never genuinely contended with Temple in the AAC title game, starting a three-game losing streak to close the season.
To start the season, Navy earned some national headlines while routing Football Championship Subdivision’s Fordham 52-16. Why in the world would such a lopsided game warrant attention? When the Midshipmen lost their starting quarterback for the year in the second quarter and struggled with some play after that, they quite literally pulled a player from the stands to take the snaps in the fourth quarter.
From there, Navy won its next two, including a 28-24 victory over former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Connecticut team, aided by truly disastrous clock management by the Huskies offense. Navy finished the season 5-3 in one-possession games, including its 28-27 victory vs. Notre Dame and, more impressively, a 46-40 win over Houston when Houston was at its peak.
A week later, Navy beat Memphis, putting the Midshipmen in the driver’s seat in the AAC’s West Division. That positioning led to the chance against Temple, a game in which, again, Navy lost its quarterback, this time to a broken foot. Then-sophomore Zach Abey struggled to find a groove, part of why the Midshipmen never got closer than 24-10 in the eventual 34-10 defeat.
A week later, Navy lost its second military matchup of the season, falling 21-17 to Army. (Navy lost 28-14 at Air Force in the fourth week of the season, a week before the Houston game.) To complete the disappointing close, the Midshipmen lost to Louisiana Tech 48-45 in the Armed Forces Bowl on a field goal with no time remaining.
WHAT NAVY LOST
Will Worth was not expected to lead Navy last season. That was supposed to be Tago Smith, but when Smith went down in the season opener, it was eventually Worth who caught on at quarterback. He finished the year with 264 carries for 1,198 yards and 25 touchdowns, adding eight more scores through the air.
The vast majority of Worth’s passes went to Jamir Tillman, arguably the only true contributing receiver. Tillman finished second in career receiving yards at the Academy, only 110 from the top spot. In 2016, he caught 40 passes for 631 yards and two touchdowns, good for a 15.8 yards per catch average.
Naturally, Navy spreads the ball around in the running game. All its Nos. 3-5 rushers departed — they combined for 1,740 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Midshipmen also lost starting center, left guard and left tackle.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Amos Mason, the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 56 takedowns, two sacks and 6.5 more tackles for loss, was the only expected departure of Navy’s top-eight tacklers.
Such attrition, especially on the offensive side, tends to be the norm at Navy. It is partly a symptom of the Academy’s design, and it is partly how head coach Ken Niumatalolo has constructed his roster.
What is not the norm is a star freshman departing after just the one season. In this case, it will not only help Notre Dame when the Irish face Navy in November. It will help Notre Dame long afterward. Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman finished second among the Midshipmen with 76 tackles, adding five tackles for loss and five pass breakups, before transferring to Notre Dame this summer.
WHAT NAVY GAINED
The Midshipmen roster is always one of the country’s biggest, but not every year sees five separate three-star recruits join the team. While it will still be hard for any of those freshmen to find much playing time — such is the nature of being a plebe at a military institution — they certainly offer promise for the future.
At first glance, receiver Mychal Cooper stands out among those three-stars, not only because he is listed at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, but also because the loss of Tillman should create an opportunity at the position. Yet, his is not one of the names Niumatalolo has highlighted this summer. In fact, Cooper is not even listed on the most-recent depth chart.
Freshmen Dalen Morris and Evan Fochtman, both running backs, could conceivably see playing time if reading that depth chart with any validity.
Niumatalolo enters his 10th year at Navy, presiding over one of the most-stable programs in the country. The Midshipmen have endured a total of one losing season since 2003, a 5-7 mark in 2011. Niumatalolo has taken brief looks at other opportunities in recent years, but for now he continues to rack up the wins with Navy, averaging 8.6 per year in his nine years.
Well, it’s the triple-option, obviously. Can that be enough for this section? No? Really? Well, if insisting …
Navy will likely lean heavily on senior fullback Chris High this season. A year ago, High took 85 carries for 546 yards and seven scores, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Along with senior running back Darryl Bonner, the backfield will try to support Abey as he tries to get off to a better start than he did in unexpected duty last fall.
In some ways, the Midshipmen success from 2016 was a surprise, having lost all five offensive linemen entering the season. With two returning this year, that is infinitely more experience, plus senior left guard Robert Lindsey will return from an early-season back injury, essentially making for a third starter.
Despite that trenches turnover, Navy averaged 37.9 points per game last year. That is exceedingly unlikely to continue, but it was the fourth year in a row with more than 30 points per game. However far the Midshipmen scoring average does or does not fall, the passing yards per game will certainly plummet. On the strength of the Worth-to-Tillman connection, Navy averaged 128 passing yards per game in 2016, the first time north of 100 yards per game since 2012’s 105 yards per game.
The loss of Gilman will hurt Navy. Discovering a freshman adept at handling the passing game was an unexpected delight for the Midshipmen, who often struggle developing a strong secondary considering they rarely practice against a true passing attack.
The strength of the defense this season will come at the second-level. Injuries over the last few years have created linebacker depth at this point, led by senior Micah Thomas, who finished last season with 107 tackles. Though he hardly brought down ballcarriers in the backfield or broke up passes, Thomas seemed to always find himself around the ball.
Led by Thomas, it is highly probable Navy’s defense improves as a whole in 2017. It gave up 31.0 points per game last year, nearly 10 more points than the previous year. Expect that metric to fall somewhere in the mid-to-high 20s this season.
Injuries limited Navy in 2016, and Niumatalolo made understanding that issue an impetus for the offseason. That is a difficult task to quantify, but if successful, it could prove to be the difference for a team facing an over/under win total of seven.
Looking at the schedule, Navy’s season may reach make-or-break status in two road games, at Tulsa on Sept. 30 and at Temple on Nov. 2. Those, along with the annual Army tilt, will determine how the season is viewed in four months.
Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Tuesday: North Carolina State
Wednesday: Wake Forest
Yesterday: Miami (FL)
Tomorrow: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)