Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After leading Navy to a bowl game in each of his first three seasons as head coach, Ken Niumatalolo saw his team finish just 5-7 and miss out on the postseason last year. In fact, it was the team's first losing season in more than a decade, and the first time the Midshipmen missed out on a bowl game in the last eight years. Five of their seven losses were by a combined total of 11 points, as they finished 2-5 in games decided by eight points or less.
"You try your best to move forward, but I have nightmares," Niumatalolo told reporters during the team's media day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "I can see plays clearly in my mind, and I look at myself. What can I do better as a coach to make sure that doesn't happen again?"
Navy began the 2011 campaign 2-0 before suffering through a brutal six-game losing streak that took the wind out of the team's sails. By the time the Midshipmen notched back-to-back wins over Troy and SMU in November, their bowl hopes had faded. Still, Navy did rally to beat rival Army for the 10th straight time to close out the season, offering some hope heading into the off-season.
OFFENSE: Junior quarterback Trey Miller saw playing time last year against ECU and Notre Dame, and he is now in line to be the starter. The coaching staff really likes his speed and has praised his throwing ability, but Miller will need to grow comfortable in his new leadership role.
Sophomore Noah Copeland (5-10, 205), despite logging just two carries last year, will get the first crack at replacing highly-productive fullback Alexander Teich. At slot back, seniors Gee Gee Greene (5-8, 185) and John Howell (5-8, 188) will assume most of the work load. Green has started 25 consecutive games and averaged an impressive 7.1 yards per carry for his career, while Howell (9.7 ypc, five TDs last year) has also flashed some serious big-play potential. Three starters return to the offensive line and will be tasked with providing effective blocking for Navy's ground assault.
DEFENSE: The defense lacked physicality too often last season, finishing 86th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense, and 92nd in run defense. Knowing that type of soft reputation won't cut it this year, or when the team joins the Big East in 2015, Niumatalolo spent much of the off-season trying to instill some toughness in his players.
There has been a lot of turnover on this side of the ball, but Niumatalolo would rather cut players loose who don't want to be there. Starting linebacker Matt Brewer is no longer with the team (violating team rules), nor is cornerback David Sperry (violating academy rules). A pair of prospective starting defensive ends also left the team in Jamel Dobbs and Joshua Jackson.
Senior linebackers Brye French (55 tackles, 6.0 TFL) and Matt Warrick (team- high 103 tackles, 4.0 TFL, seven PBU) provide some much needed veteran leadership, although French began preseason camp in the doghouse. The secondary returns fully in tact, as junior cornerback Jonathan Wev had already beaten out incumbent starter Sperry before he left the program.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Whichever kicker replaces last year's starter Jon Teague, he will never have attempted a collegiate field goal. Junior Stephen Picchini is Teague's presumed replacement. Sophomore Pablo Beltran was thrust into that role last year and averaged 37.5 yards per punt.
OUTLOOK: Niumatalolo's 32 wins in his first four years are the most by any coach in school history. However, the team slipped in the win-loss column last year, and as a result did not make it to the postseason.
"The attention to detail, the little things that we kind of focused on, we talked about during spring," French said. "That was the emphasis we talked about, especially with the senior class. The main difference this year is I think we have a lot of accountability. "
French isn't just giving lip service about that accountability; he and slotback Bo Snelson were stripped of their captaincy for unspecified off-field violations during the off-season. French called the incident "a dumb mistake" and vowed to learn from it and teach the young guys to better handle themselves. Also stressing his deeper commitment to detail, Niumatalolo held three players out of the start of summer practices for failing their July conditioning tests. Among those players were top wideout Brandon Turner and starting striker (linebacker) Josh Tate.
"The standard is up," Niumatalolo said. "We're not fooling around."
Presumably, a team with more toughness should be better equipped to survive a rather daunting schedule to open the season. The Midshipmen kick off the 2012 campaign in Dublin, Ireland against Notre Dame. Next, they travel to Penn State before returning home for three in a row.
It could be difficult to rebound from a 0-2 start, but the team is hoping that situation never presents itself. Look for the Midshipmen to get back to the postseason with a winning season.