Pick your Notre Dame-specific storyline pertaining to Navy at will. There are at least three worth mentioning this year. The micro bit will focus on junior safety Alohi Gilman, now a season removed from his time with the Midshipmen and a starter for the Irish. The focused angle recognizes Notre Dame plays Navy after the Irish bye, preferable when facing the triple-option change of pace.
The macro view harps on the Academy moving the contest to San Diego. If anyone should have opted against that cross-country venture, it was actually Navy more than Notre Dame. Even though the Irish will go coast-to-coast-to-coast in the season’s final month, they have it easy compared to the Midshipmen. Navy starts the season in Hawaii, returns to the eastern coast within a week and then bounces back-and-forth between time zones before heading to southern California to face Notre Dame. After that? A return to the mid-Atlantic once more before a stop in the Bayou.
Realizing Navy never brings the Irish to Annapolis, Md., one does wonder why this was not a Baltimore or even Jacksonville year.
Despite finishing a middling 7-6, the Midshipmen nearly had an excellent season. Finishing 3-4 in one-possession games will leave those thoughts of missed opportunity lingering even after the offseason. The only reasons those regrets are not the defining thoughts of Navy’s 2017 are the late arrival of then-sophomore Malcolm Perry and how strongly both he and the defense played in a 49-7 Military Bowl victory against Virginia.
Perry began the year at slot back, a pivotal spot in the triple-option offense but not one as impactful as the quarterback, the position Perry was recruited for. When Zach Abey went down with a concussion, Perry moved to quarterback and both his and Abey’s careers changed.
Make no mistake: Abey was having a strong season. In 12 games, though really only 11 considering how little he took the field against Army, the then-junior ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns. Abey was just better once he got a chance, rushing for 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU and 250 yards with one score against the Black Knights.
That loss to Army likely haunts the most in Navy memories. After two penalties pushed the Midshipmen backward on their final drive, a missed 48-yard field goal as time expired sealed Army’s 14-13 victory.
Following that defeat, the third in a three-game losing streak that began at Notre Dame, Navy exorcised some demons against the Cavaliers, allowing a mere 175 yards and no offensive touchdowns.
WHAT NAVY LOST
Fullback Chris High is the biggest name here, having rushed for 621 yards and two touchdowns last season, but a number of other ground game contributors also finished up their collegiate careers. Eight Midshipmen rushed for at least 100 yards last year, and half of them are gone.
Obviously little regard is given Navy’s passing game, but when it is used, it is typically effective and efficient. That may shift this year, returning exactly zero receivers with game experience aside from Abey, now moving there to keep his playmaking involved.
Defensively, leading tackler Micah Thomas (81 tackles and three interceptions) left, as did three more of the top five tacklers, one from each level of the defense.
Both line coaches also departed: Offensive line coach Bryce McDonald went to UCLA and defensive line coach Shawn Nua joined Herman Edwards’ staff at Arizona State. That would be a concern at any program, but it may be especially so in one where the irregular trench techniques are so distinct.
WHAT NAVY GAINED
This can be a bit tougher to define than for any other opponent. Such is the nature for a military academy and its different protocols involving recruitment, enrollment and roster size.
For now, know the Midshipmen have made an impressive science out of reloading. That will only be aided by spending an entire offseason working with Perry at quarterback. In order to emphasize that development, head coach Ken Niumatalolo pushed spring practice back a few weeks so Perry would have a bit more time to recover from offseason foot surgery.
Ken Niumatalolo nearly left Navy this offseason after a decade leading the triple-option offense. The prospect of bringing that pedigree led to a social media gripe from Arizona star quarterback Khalil Tate. Maybe that cost Niumatalolo the Wildcats gig; maybe it didn’t. The optics certainly indicated Tate’s public complaint at least had an effect.
It is also possible Niumatalolo would never have gone through with the move, but it warrants mentioning this is the second time in a few seasons Niumtalolo has considered leaving his only head coaching job to date. When BYU had a job opening following the 2015 season, Niumatalolo went through that interview process at length, as well.
In describing Perry as possibly the best rusher of Niumatalolo’s decade, one is not being held captive by a small sample size. Perry was quarterback for only a few games, but he played the entire season, finishing with 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns on 138 attempts, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.
When applying such lauds to Perry, the likes of Keenan Reynolds and Ricky Dobbs have not been forgotten. In fact, they have been very much remembered.
Perry does need to develop something of an aerial threat. It is not that Abey was exactly a stellar one — throwing seven interceptions in only 72 attempts says otherwise and certainly did not help the Midshipmen in those one-possession games — but he had worked at it for a few years. Perry had not until this offseason.
Abey has moved to receiver, showing the faith Niumatalolo has in the senior’s athleticism.
Aside from the defensive line, Navy has to replace quite a bit, returning only two starters in the back-seven. That front may be a decent one, though. Of late, the Midshipmen have taken to a more aggressive, blitzing scheme. Their sacks jumped from eight in 2014 to 22 in 2015, 20 in 2016 and 16 last year. While those numbers are nothing more than passable, they are still a marked improvement. Continuing that trend could help hide the young defensive backfield.
By traveling to Hawaii, Navy gets to add a 13th regular season game. The general reason for that NCAA accommodation is to compensate team’s for that excessive travel by granting them another chance to get bowl eligible. Otherwise, most mid-level programs would avoid the trip deep into the Pacific, hamstringing Hawaii’s abilities to schedule.
The Midshipmen should be eligible before finishing the season against Army, but that will not inherently be a sure thing. Bookmakers, as one metric, set their expectations at 7.5 wins for Navy, while the American Athletic Conference preseason media poll slotted the Midshipmen at third in their division, behind Memphis and Houston.