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Mid-Major Monday Wonders If It's Time to Abandon Ship

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Obscurity is just part of the gig at Navy, at least when you’re not threatening to bust one of the big money bowls, so there’s not really anything surprising about how long it took Paul Johnson to get enough attention to land a fatter gig like Georgia Tech. Most casual fans are still probably only glancingly familiar with the rumpled, gray-haired old pro, even though he was the architect of one of the great program turnarounds of the decade:

 

That last big spike, beginning at the lowest point of the 40-year span and ending at the highest, represents Johnson’s tenure from 2002-07. And therein lies the problem: with Navy Football just off its most sustained run of success since 1905-08, there’s apparently nowhere to go but down. Longtime Johnson assistant Ken Niumatalolo is supposed to represent the continuation of the regime, like Raul Castro with a headset, but the historical trend is obvious: the Midshipmen rose in the late seventies under George Welsh and fell back to sub-mediocrity when he left for Virginia; after a decade of hard luck, they rose in the mid-nineties under Charlie Weatherbie and fell again, hard, when he tried to move from the wishbone to a more balanced offense at the turn of the century. Weatherbie paid for his tinkering with a 1-18 record in 2000-01 and a pink slip with three games to go in the nightmare ‘01 season.

Under Johnson, the Middies rose higher, for longer, than they had in decades, and stand among the most consistently competitive third-tier outfits in the country. But this is not the kind of place you can set on a solid footing with a few years’ improvement in recruiting. Most of the time over the last 40 years, Navy has toiled in the neighborhood of four or five wins, and only dreamed of the polls, where it’s finished once (No. 24 by the AP in 2004) since Roger Staubach graduated. So: does the transition mean another downturn is inevitable?

It’s hard to quantify the impact Johnson’s departure will have on the offense, which is very much Johnson’s system but will not substantially change under Niumatalolo, who was Johnson’s understudy at Hawaii in the early nineties (yes: before they ran and shot on the island, they optioned) and in two different stints at the Academy. This is probably wise: the Midshipmen have long run about seven times for every pass (they’ve finished first nationally in rushing yards and last or nearly last in passing three years in a row), but 2007 was the year the flexbone passed the threshold from “gimmick” to full-fledged threat. The Middies topped the 300-yard mark ten times, including games against top 30 defenses at Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Utah, and were never held below 24 points or four yards per carry as a team. The result was easily the highest per game rushing total (349 yards per game) of any team this decade and a new academy high of 39 points per game.


I know he's the boss, Ken, but this is, uh, probably not the most ringing endorsement.
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In this case, I’m not sure the abstract notion of “talent” has any meaning, since Navy is always presumed to be at a disadvantage from a pure bodily-kinesthetic standpoint, anyway, and it never matters against anyone on the mediocre schedule except vastly bigger-stronger-faster Notre Dame. The Midshipmen led the nation in rushing several times under Weatherbie, too, although not to nearly the same degree it has in the last three years of Johnson’s tenure. For continuity’s sake, Nuimatalolo must be satisfied to have quarterback/Polynesian fish Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada en tow, since the option requires a certain rhythm and comfort level the multiply-voweled senior certainly found last year. But this system is astonishingly plug-n-play, and consistent enough that even the backup quarterback, Jarod Bryant, came close to gaining 500 and scored five touchdowns in ‘07 in what amounted to less than four full games’ worth of action; fullbacks Eric Kettani (who returns) and Adam Ballard (who doesn’t) had one negative carry between them in 293 attempts and averaged 5.3 a pop just plunging into the line play after play. All three regular slotbacks were over seven per carry, which was not particularly unusual dating back to 2004. None of that will be any different on the surface.

When you talk about the intangible “feel” a quarterback has for running the option, though, the same principle has to be applied equally to the playcaller, as convincingly detailed by Blue Gray Sky after Notre Dame’s loss to the Middies last November. The flexbone is an extremely simple concept, based around a few plays off the same inside action to the fullback, but as BGS shows, because its execution is based on creating indecision and surprise, it’s extremely dependent on the in-game agility of the coach to adjust to the defense and mix and match different blocking schemes at the right time. Johnson was a master of this particular domain: the proof is not only in the tremendous consistency and success his outmanned teams showed within a very limited set of options in the running game, but in the fact that they also regularly led or nearly led the nation in yards per completion against defenses lulled to sleep by the repetition of the option. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about timing.

 

Nuimatalolo’s burden is to recreate that rhythm. In the short-term, with a fairly experienced team, his prospects are good, especially since Kaheaku-Enhada emerged as just the kind of slippery, faster-than-he-looks threat the system requires. Past this crop of players familiar with success, though, nothing about Navy’s talent level or long term trajectory is in the corner of sustainability.

 

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On the bright side, I can now successfully spell “Niumatalolo” without looking it up. That’s right, huh?