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There is no set of expectations Navy and Ken Niumatalolo won’t defy

Bet against the Midshipmen. Ever. I dare you.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Navy Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

This preview was originally published April 28 and has since been updated.

Technically, I was right.

Technically, when I said in last year’s Navy preview that “Navy's facing more retooling than normal, and Keenan Reynolds was special. You don't simply replace him,” and “I find it difficult to imagine Navy remaining in the S&P+ top 50,” I ended up proven correct. I was right that defensive regression would be an issue, and I was right to think that turnover at QB would impact that win total. Technically, you can chalk one up for the ol’ numbers guy.

The numbers guy, however, definitely needed some technicalities to be right, though. Some quarterback injuries, too.

In 2016, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo produced his most inspired coaching job yet. He lost the greatest Navy QB in five decades, then lost said QB’s heir apparent in Week 1. He had to deal with turnover and youth in the front and back of his defense. And yet, despite this, his Midshipmen won the AAC West title and began the year 9-2. From the perspective of Off. S&P+, they improved offensively. It was mind-blowing.

It took another quarterback injury to finally drag the Midshipmen down. Will Worth, the backup’s backup in 2015, had rushed for 25 touchdowns and thrown for nearly 1,400 yards out of Niumatalolo’s option attack when he got hurt early against Temple in the AAC title game. His team was already off to an awful start in the game, but Worth’s injury assured there would be no bounce back in an eventual 34-10 title game loss to Temple.

The next week, with sophomore Zach Abey, the third-stringer, behind center, Navy fell to Army for the first time since 2001. And despite an inspired Abey performance (278 combined rushing and passing yards), the Middies lost an Armed Forces Bowl shootout to Louisiana Tech, too. The exhilarating 9-2 start became a 9-5 finish.

Sticking the landing is hard sometimes. All the skills that it took to send you hurtling through the air with grace and elegance — the power, the speed, etc. — are worthless to you, and suddenly the only factors that matter are balance and ankles and geometry. Navy hurtled through the air with unexpected explosiveness, then fell to the ground. What I expected to become a mulligan year of sorts, technically became one. But now Abey’s back with a year of prep time. The offensive line is dealing with a little less turnover than normal. The defense returns almost all of its back eight. And somehow offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper hasn’t been hired away to become a head coach somewhere yet. Niumatalolo and Jasper have mastered every nuance of the triple option, and if they hadn’t proven it before 2016, they had after it.

In last year’s Navy preview, I also said this:

Long-term, Navy will be fine. The program kept Niumatalolo despite interest from BYU, and recruiting and depth of talent probably haven't been this strong in a long while. If there is a step backward, it won't be permanent.

There’s more turnover to deal with, to be sure, but Navy proved its upside last fall. Assuming the Midshipmen haven’t lost any sort of psychological edge following their first loss to Army in a generation, they should again play at a top-50 or top-60 level. They should again frustrate the living hell out of most of the opponents on the docket. And hell, they might even improve offensively once again. Who would bet against it at this point?

(Of course, they might want to figure out how to get that defense under control.)

2016 in review

2016 Navy statistical profile.

With help from the aforementioned injuries, Navy was about the team I expected in the first four games and final three. In the middle seven, however, the Midshipmen established a ridiculously high level of play.

Navy vs. S&P+ and Vegas
  • First 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 42% (~top 75) | Avg. yards per play: Navy 6.3, Opp 5.6 (plus-0.7) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-0.5 PPG
  • Next 7 games (6-1): Avg. percentile performance: 70% (~top 40) | Avg. yards per play: Navy 7.3, Opp 6.9 (plus-0.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-19.3 PPG
  • Last 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 44% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: Navy 6.2, Opp 5.9 (plus-0.3) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-7.8 PPG

All things considered, the iffy start and midseason surge were perfectly timed. The MIdshipmen began the season with three straight teams that ranked in the triple digits in S&P+ — FCS’ Fordham, then UConn and Tulane — and managed to start 3-0 despite inconsistency and a couple of close calls.

Granted, they lost to Air Force, but beginning with the October 8 visit from Houston, this surge in quality coincided with a surge in schedule quality. Navy played five straight teams that ranked 55th or better, and the team that eked by UConn went 4-1 in this stretch.

Of course, any talk of good timing goes out the window when you think about the importance of the games at the end. Navy was already in the process of laying an egg against Temple when Worth got hurt, then completed a winless year against fellow service academies by falling to Army. Still, the midseason surge reinforced Navy’s position within the AAC and took a couple of steps toward further dispelling the notion that joining a conference would be in any way bad for the Midshipmen. Two years in, the AAC partnership has been a rousing success.


Navy offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In my recent Air Force preview, I said this about turnover:

My annual S&P+ projections are derived from three factors: recent performance, two-year recruiting, and returning production. Two of those three factors don’t really apply to the Falcons; recruiting matters, but AFA’s rigorous process filters out a lot of commitments before they see the field, and returning production has an almost inverse relationship with Air Force. For the Falcons, losing a ton of last year’s production means the process is working. If you return a lot of last year’s important players, the previous senior class didn’t do its job.

There are obvious parallels between Navy’s and Air Force’s recruiting and retention. And there are obvious reasons why my method of projection for S&P+ is going to automatically downgrade service academies.

Navy has ranked an average of 52nd in S&P+ over the last four years but is projected to fall to 71st this year in part because of drastic offensive turnover. But turnover is just part of the game. The Midshipmen had to replace three of their top four rushers, three of their top four receivers, and three offensive line starters in 2015 and improved from 37th to 23rd in Off. S&P+. The next year, they replaced Keenan Reynolds, four of their top five backs, three of their top four targets, and all five line starters and improved to 17th.

Here’s what Navy has to replace in 2017: Worth, five of the top seven running backs, three of the top four targets, and three all-conference linemen. By comparison, that almost seems too easy. Time for the next batch of juniors and seniors to take over.

No matter the names of the starters, Navy’s attack is relentlessly efficient.

Navy offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Navy’s success rate was more than five percent higher than anyone else’s in the AAC, and this wasn’t exactly an offense-unfriendly conference.

It would be easy to simply say that Navy’s offense will probably be very similar despite turnover, and such a statement would probably be right. But let’s take a moment to at least look into what might be unique aspects of the 2017 attack:

NCAA Football: Armed Forces Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Navy
Zach Abey
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
  • Zach Abey. Abey was thrown into an impossible situation. His first action came with his team down three touchdowns in the AAC title game, and his first start was in the rivalry game of all rivalry games. But his bowl performance against Louisiana Tech was intriguing — among other things, he went 4-for-6 for 71 yards on passing downs, which almost seems unfair in an option attack — and in a small sample size, his rushing nearly matched Worth’s from an efficiency standpoint while his explosiveness (9.1 highlight yards per opportunity) was off the charts. He took too many sacks and threw four picks to one interception, but the potential is obvious.
  • Running back depth. Does Navy have any? The Midshipmen are used to losing their starters, but last year’s backups are gone, too. Not including sacks, last year’s top nine rushers gained 4,109 yards on the ground. Those responsible for 2,913 of those yards are gone, and only one returning fullback (Chris High) and one returning slotback (Darryl Bonner) rushed for more than 71 yards. This will test the plug-and-play aspect of Navy’s backfield, perhaps especially from a blocking perspective.
  • Chris High. That said, the Middies still have a uniquely awesome talent in Chris High. We’re used to explosive slotbacks and fullbacks who average about 5 yards per carry, but High averaged 6.4 last year, and while carrying 224 pounds. Assuming new explosive slotbacks emerge — and it’s worth mentioning that Malcolm Perry and Jahmaal Daniel combined to average 9.4 yards per carry in reserve time — High and Abey should assure that the run game is as dangerous as ever. At least, they will as long as losing the aforementioned all-conference linemen doesn’t hurt too much.

Depth will be tested this fall, especially at slotback. But any offense run by Niumatalolo and Jasper gets the benefit of the doubt.

(Seriously, Every School Looking to Make a Head Coaching Hire at the End of 2017: take a long, hard look at Jasper. He’s ready.)

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy
Chris High
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports


Navy defensive radar

When you’ve got a relentlessly efficient offense capable of eating the ball for half a quarter at a time, your opponent is prone to getting restless. According to Niumatalolo’s philosophy, that’s the perfect situation for a bend-don’t-break defense to have success. When you don’t have the natural talent and athleticism to make a ton of plays, let your opponent’s impatience act like a 12th defender. Let them force the issue, and be prepared to take advantage of the mistakes that follow.

Air Force’s Troy Calhoun takes the opposite approach — his Falcon defense is aggressive as hell and has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 70 for two of the last three years and six of the last 10. But to each their own. Both teams have won 28 games since the start of 2014, so either can work.

Navy’s approach didn’t really work last year, though. After surging to 51st in Def. S&P+ (their first time higher than 83rd since 2009), the Midshipmen plummeted back to 100th. The run defense was effective, but with a freshman and sophomore safety in the back, the pass defense was lacking. Navy ranked 121st in Passing S&P+ and 118th in Passing Downs S&P+. There was no pass rush, and the young safeties were not quite ready to pounce on mistakes in the back. Opponents produced a 156.8 passer rating, Navy picked off only seven balls in 14 games, and five opponents (including Connecticut, of all teams) completed at least 67 percent of their passes.

NCAA Football: Navy at Southern Methodist
Tyris Wooten
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not going to cut it. Luckily, 2016’s uncharacteristic youth in the secondary could become 2017’s uncharacteristic continuity. Six of last year’s top seven defensive backs return, and they could get a jolt of competition from a pair of former three-star cornerbacks, junior Elijah Jones and sophomore Noruwa Obanor.

In theory, the cornerback position should be fine, especially if Jones and Obanor indeed make a push. Senior Tyris Wooten had plenty of sketchy moments, but he also defensed 12 passes, more than twice as many as anyone else in the secondary.

The safety position, however, faces the onus of improvement. And honestly, improvement should come. Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson asked a lot of freshman Alohi Gilman last year [update: Gilman has since transferred to rival Notre Dame], and he responded with five tackles for loss (combined, Navy’s safeties had 0.5 TFLs in 2015) and five breakups. If he and junior Sean Williams are steadier, the pass defense could at least improve to closer to 100th. And the return of outside linebacker D.J. Palmore could be key to rejuvenating the pass rush a bit.

If opponents can’t pass as well, they might be forced to think about running. That would be excellent for the Midshipmen. Granted, the defensive line has to replace three of last year’s top four, but end Jarvis Polu is a keeper, and I’m really intrigued by younger players Jackson Pittman (a 315-pound sophomore nose guard) and Anthony Villalobos (a three-star junior end).

The linebacking corps should be capable of cleaning up a lot of messes, too. Six of last year’s top seven return, including Palmore and leading tackler Micah Thomas. Navy’s defense was definitely younger than normal in 2016, and the effects were obvious. But those effects could wear off now that this is again a defense dominated by juniors and seniors instead of sophomores and juniors.

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy
D.J. Palmore
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Navy’s absurdly precise offense was the main weapon for overcoming defensive issues, but special teams helped. Navy ranked 31st in Special Teams S&P+, either average or excellent in every single category. Dishan Romine was the most efficient kick returner in the nation, and Calvin Cass Jr. wasn’t that far behind in the punt returns department. Alex Barta’s kicks were high and relatively long.

Romine, Cass, and Barta are all gone in 2017, however. That’s a little scary, though there’s reason for hope — backup return men Craig Scott (PR) and Tre Walker (KR) were nearly as effective, and before losing his job in part because of a blocked punt, Erik Harris was booming punts at a 45.1-yard clip. He could be excellent in both the punt and kickoff departments, and place-kicker Bennett Moehring is at least decent: he missed three PATs and two shorter field goals but also boomed in both of his longer field goal attempts. This should still probably be a top-50 unit.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Florida Atlantic 99 5.5 62%
9-Sep Tulane 94 9.5 71%
23-Sep Cincinnati 75 3.7 58%
30-Sep at Tulsa 77 -1.1 48%
7-Oct Air Force 116 14.1 79%
14-Oct at Memphis 61 -6.5 35%
21-Oct Central Florida 78 4.0 59%
3-Nov at Temple 67 -5.3 38%
11-Nov SMU 81 6.3 64%
18-Nov at Notre Dame 17 -18.3 15%
24-Nov at Houston 49 -7.9 32%
9-Dec vs. Army 102 8.9 70%
Projected S&P+ Rk 71
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 50 / 93
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.1 (59)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 83 / 85
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 7.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (32%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (1.8)

You’re not supposed to lose an all-timer at QB, lose two more guys to injury, and produce a top-20 offense. You’re not supposed to recruit at barely a top-90 level but feel disappointed with a No. 52 final ranking. You’re not supposed to win nine games at a service academy and feel underwhelmed. But this is where Ken Niumatalolo has set the bar.

Figuring out where to set expectations in a given year basically requires starting with the S&P+ projection but then applying the Navy adjustment. Returning production doesn’t impact this team the way it does most, and recruiting rankings aren’t in any way as predictive.

Then there’s the Niu adjustment. Based on win expectancy and second-order wins, Niumatalolo’s Navy wins more than a game per year than expected, and that average was calculated before last year’s 1.8-win overachievement.

There are concerns; there always are. The turnover was a little more significant than normal at running back, which could lead to inconsistency and depth issues. And we probably shouldn’t just assume that experience alone will cure what ailed the defense.

Still, this is Navy. Adjustments are necessary. The Midshipmen return only 32 percent of last year’s offensive production? That probably means falling all the way to about 30th, not 50th as projected. And the Midshipmen are projected to win about six games? I’ll set the over-under at 8 then.

Team preview stats

All preview data to date.