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Navy’s still winning despite losing one of its best players ever. Ken Niumatalolo explains why

Let’s talk to the head coach about the winning culture he’s helped establish at one of the hardest places to do so.

NCAA Football: Navy at Tulane Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Despite 11 wins last season, Navy is not supposed to be ranked right now.

For one thing, it shares the American Athletic Conference West with Peach Bowl champion Houston. For another, the end of last season meant the graduation of senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the all-time FBS rushing touchdowns leader, a program lynchpin, and an all-around fascinating figure.

So far, that Navy keeps company with the country’s highest-ranked non-power hasn’t mattered. Nor has it mattered that Reynolds’ replacement, Tago Smith, was lost for the season in the first game or that his replacement, Will Worth, entered with more in-game experience as a holder than a QB. At one point, Navy had to literally bring a player out of the stands to play QB.

The Midshipmen are 4-1 with control of their own AAC destiny, after knocking Houston from Playoff contention with a 46-40 win last Saturday, their first win over a top-10 team since 1984. If Navy wins out in the AAC and beats an improved Army, a New Year’s Six bowl is a clear possibility. The Mids are No. 25 in the AP Poll this week.

That paragraph felt out of the question a week ago, but here it is.

“As players come and go, hopefully your culture stays strong, what you do, your strength program, your conditioning, your nutrition, your philosophy,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told SB Nation. “The brotherhood of our football team ... I think of anything, of our culture, it’s the brotherhood of our program, the love of the players. I knew we’d stay strong, because I just felt like the foundation of our culture was strong.”

Culture. Niumatalolo used that word 10 times in our 15-minute interview on Wednesday.

It’s a coachy buzzword, but it makes more sense at Navy than perhaps anywhere else.

Off the field, Navy’s a prep school that churns out high-ranking U.S. military officers. On it, it’s a team that’s been running over and around teams for years with a run-option scheme that’s not popular outside of the service academies and a couple of other outposts. Navy’s got a way of doing things, and that way works even without a legend like Reynolds.

“I think the biggest part of our culture is just the toughness part,” says the head coach, who chose this offseason to remain at Navy instead of leaving to coach his son at BYU. “You go through the toughness and the love that our guys have for each other, because our kids go through our prep school, which is really, really hard. I kind of liken it to, you know, the movie 300, when Leonidas went out at the beginning of the movie to slay a dragon or whatever that was. But that's kind of what our guys go through. The prep school, each summer here is hard.

“So I think our kids become really resilient, so when things come, obstacles come, guys are used to overcoming them and used to adapting to them.”

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy
In five games, junior fullback Chris High has five touchdowns and an 8.2-yard average.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Navy hasn’t made anything look easy.

The Mids are scoring 32 points per game (a few fewer than last year) and allowing 24 (a few more), and they lost 28-14 in a Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy game against Air Force two weeks ago. Even in beating Houston, Navy was out-gained and needed three takeaways. Navy has had to draw on all that resilience.

The Mids’ output hasn’t changed a lot from past years:

  • Run a ton with fullback Chris High, quarterback Worth, and others.
  • Run efficiently. Navy’s 13th in Rushing Success Rate and 80th in Rushing IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness.
  • Pass sparsely, but explosively. Navy is 121st in Passing Success Rate and second in explosiveness.

Those numbers mirror last year’s, although the Reynolds-led run game had more of a knack for big plays. Navy succeeds consistently on the ground, and when it takes to the air against defenses geared to stop yet another run, it has a chance to succeed big.

"You might get some ideas on us, but we're always going to get ideas for how to attack you,” Niumatalolo told SB Nation in 2015 about the idea of annual opponents having additional chances to prepare for Navy’s offense. “There's nothing you can throw at us that we haven't seen."

"We've seen some guys who line up and try to keep it simple, and we see some who try to change the defense on every play,” he said last year. “Which is fine. It's not a very complicated offense, but there are so many intricacies that we've been doing for so long. We've got certain things for slanting defenses, for even-front teams, for pressure. The last resort of the defense is to start firing people from the secondary, which we have answers for, too."

Navy remains extremely Navy. Why shouldn’t it?

Niumatalolo points out Navy’s played in bowl games in 12 of 13 years, winning eight games all but twice and 10 or 11 three times.

“We’re not a one-hit wonder program,” Niumatalolo says. “We’ve been winning for a long time. We’re kind of used to it. We’re kind of used to, like, 'There’s the nice kids that wear their uniforms.’ That’s fine, however people see us, but we feel like we have a really good football program.”

The Mids haven’t finished the year in back-to-back top 25s since the 1950s. Niumatalolo says they’ve carried “a chip on our shoulder” over being viewed as “those good old Navy kids” when they’ve sought to be more.

Perception matters a great deal in college football.

Bowl bids are doled out subjectively, and recruits go to programs they think are good. There’s little use in pretending you don’t care what others think of you.

Recruiting has traditionally been difficult at Navy, Army, and Air Force because of academic and military requirements for students. It’s becoming easier, though, as the Defense Department has laid out the clearest path yet for academy players to play in the NFL. The Ravens picked Reynolds in this year’s sixth round and use him as a practice squad wide receiver.

That’s changed things, a little bit, for Navy.

“If you’re good enough to go to the next level and people want you, at least it goes up to the chain of command and they see what happens,” Niumatalolo says. “But it’s not for everybody. It’s obviously very hard to go to the league, but I think it’s opened some eyes and opened the doors to other guys that maybe would’ve looked at us earlier that are now looking at us.”

Navy has consistently won despite its last five recruiting classes ranking 87th, 111th, 114th, 114th, and 118th in the country. The best of those was last year, Navy’s first in the American, and this year’s currently sits 61st, fifth in the league. The program could be on the verge of having a significantly more talented roster, which is a dreamy idea.

Niumatalolo attempting to celebrate the win over Houston
CBS

But Navy will only change so much, no matter what its roster looks like.

The Mids have found something that works. As long as that’s the case, it’s hard to see them doing anything other than sticking to it, no matter who comes and goes.

“Obviously, Keenan was a great player. We had a lot of good seniors on our team, you know – Bernie Sarra, our nose guard, Chris Swain, Will Anthony – the list was long. Just a lot of guys,” Niumatalolo says.

“But the thing we’ve always preached here is our culture.”