Look, I know there are a whole lot more important things to analyze and count my blessings for today. And I promise the majority of my day will be spent thinking of those things. But this is a service academy athletics blog after all, and I did graduate from USNA, so it is only somewhat natural to spend my time writing and reflecting on the team that I spend a lot of time thinking about throughout the year.
Originally, this was going to simply be a piece begging our friends at Down the Drive to do whatever they had to do to ensure a Cincinnati victory on Friday. We will get to that later, in a round about way, but instead I’m simply going to count the ways in which I’m thankful as a Navy Football fan in 2019.
#1: I’m thankful for Coach Niumatalolo
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always understand his timeout strategy and clock management decisions. That’s why we have Gavin as a contributor at AAE, to fill me in on these questions when they arise. But if that is my biggest complaint with the head coach of a major college football program year in and year out, well then I definitely should count my blessings as a fan.
I’m thankful that Coach Ken never gets complacent and is always looking for ways to improve his football program, and that when this means advocating for things that Division One football players need to compete in 2019, he is willing to have those tough conversations with Mr. Gladchuk.
I’m thankful that Coach Ken exhibits ownership in a way most other coaches are afraid to do. This isn’t me bashing certain other individuals for the way they run their programs, but it as an acknowledgment that when something is wrong, from the smallest detail to the biggest in his program, Coach Niumatalolo takes full responsibility for those issues. And yes, this brings me to his willingness to put personal feelings aside in order to make wholesale changes to the coaching staff because that was what was in the best interest of the program. He took ownership of that decision, which brought Coach Newberry and a revitalized defense, but he also took ownership of the mistake that was shuffling around Malcolm Perry last year. There was no deflection of blame, just an admittance by himself and Coach Jasper that they had made a mistake in rushing to that conclusion as a way to fix the offense last year. There also was more turmoil going on behind the scenes last year, which Coach Ken has referenced without going into details, that could easily have begun to erode the culture he has worked so hard to create. This was evident last season, and there isn’t one fix for those issues when they start to creep in to your team, but the choice of having four team captains for the first time in history this year has certainly played a part in putting those concerns to bed in 2019.
Mostly I’m thankful that I get to cheer for a team led by a man who is as genuine and authentic as they come. There is no hidden agenda, no calculated moves for selfish gains, and no cryptic messages designed to distract or confuse. There is only The Brotherhood and what it stands for. There’s a reason each year when coaches across the country are randomly asked who they would want their sons to play for, Coach Niumatalolo always makes the list. And for all those reasons, I’m thankful I get to cheer for the GOAT.
#2: I’m thankful for Coach Newberry AND Coach Jasper
Yes, of course, I’m thankful that Coach Ken made the decision to hire Brian Newberry away from Kennesaw State. The difference he has made on defense this year has been nothing short of tremendous. This Navy defense has gone from 104th last year in scoring defense to 34th at this point in 2019. They went from 90th last year in yards per game to 25th so far this season. He has brought a new scheme and mindset to that side of the ball that we haven’t seen at Navy, well ever in my 16 or so years as a Navy football fan. He is not afraid of moving people around, of keeping a short leash on starting jobs, of making the players earn their spots each and every week, and of confusing offenses week in and week out with his blitzing schemes and play calling. We discussed on the podcast this week how Shane Buechele looked visibly frustrated at times last weekend for SMU. He’s a great quarterback with a great arm, who has led SMU to have a top 10 offense this year in FBS, but the defense was able to hold them in check most of the second half last week and kept them 15 points below their season average in scoring.
I’m thankful to have a Broyles Award semifinalist coordinator on staff at Navy, and most of all, I’m thankful for however long he decides to hang around Annapolis and coach the Mids on defense.
Navy Defensive Coordinator Brian Newberry Named A Semifinalist For The Broyles Award https://t.co/uQqvhxmyzy— Navy Athletics (@NavyAthletics) November 26, 2019
But while everyone is quick to jump on the Newberry bandwagon, and rightfully so, let’s not do so without giving Ivin Jasper his due as well. Because, quite frankly, the offense is MORE improved than the defense from 2018 to 2019, and you can thank a commitment to Malcolm Perry and perhaps even a move from the press box to the sidelines for the first time in Jasper’s career as offensive coordinator as the subtle and not so subtle reasons for the offensive resurgence. Coach Jasper, like his boss, always takes ownership of everything good and bad on offense. Putting the players in the best position to make plays and coaching them up right so they can make those plays are the trademarks of Jasper and his offense the last decade plus, and he has certainly gotten back to that in 2019.
The Navy offense went from 111th last year in yards per game and 96th in points per game to 24th and 13th this season, respectively. It all starts with the guy under center, yes, but there have been improvements across the board for this Navy offense. The offensive line has been the unsung heroes of this team, the fullbacks have been improved, the slotback play has reemerged after being non-existent for much of last year, and multiple receiving threats, not just Mychal Cooper, are showing up each week. Yes, the defense getting turnovers and three and outs regularly gives the offense more opportunities and helps them out, but Navy has been taking advantage of those chances this season, and so I’m thankful for an offensive coordinator who gets right back to work after a dismal 3-10 season and comes out the other side with new wrinkles, a new play calling location, and a decision to stick with a young man who has the heart of a champion through and through no matter what this season. Which brings me to reason number three.
#3: I’m thankful for Malcolm Perry and the rest of the Team Captains
Just like with Coach Newberry, of course I am thankful for Malcolm Perry and his weekly Houdini magic as he marches (see sprints like The Flash) up and down the football field. He has almost single handedly willed Navy football to three victories this season. He has a champion’s heart, he never says die, he doesn’t let scoreboard deficits or his arm practically falling off get in the way of what he needs to do for the team. But it’s not just about his 1,354 yards rushing (good for 6th in the country in one fewer game), 18 rushing TDs (good for 4th in the country in one fewer game), or the fact that with 80 more yards passing he will join the 1000/1000 club this year, it’s about the intangibles he brings as well.
And that brings me to why I’m really thankful for Perry, and it’s not about the results on the football field. I’m thankful for the leadership he, Ford Higgins, Nizaire Cromartie, and Paul Carothers provide to this football team. Having four team captains for the first time in history might have been seen as a bold move by Coach Niumatalolo but it has clearly paid off. If you’ve watched any of the team captain spotlights Navy Athletics has done this season (and if you haven’t, you definitely should), you will immediately know why this was the right move.
These four individuals have risen to the mantle of leadership on the team and not just shown the way, but brought the rest of the team along the way as well. I’ve mentioned before that I was able to teach Carothers his freshman year in the Plebe Leadership course at the Naval Academy, and I could tell you from about week two that he was a special leadership talent. I’m not exaggerating when I said I learned more from him than he probably did from me over the semester. Higgins was thought of so well by all of his fellow team captains at USNA that he was named Captain of the Captains, essentially leading all team captains of every varsity sport on the Yard and representing them to both the Athletic Director and the Commandant of Midshipmen for the year. And Cromartie, who has been a force on the field the last two years on defense, has clearly become a person his teammates can rely on to not just have their backs, but to bring them up to the standard expected of a member of The Brotherhood.
This team would not be 8-2 this year without each of these four men. And so, I’m thankful for what they have done for Navy Football, but more importantly, what they will do for this country for the foreseeable future.
#4: I’m thankful for the American Athletic Conference
Finally, I’m thankful to be in a conference where November football games mean potential Cotton Bowl berths are on the line. Being 8-2 would be fun regardless, don’t get me wrong. But I haven’t been this excited for a Thanksgiving weekend of football in a long, long time, and the game I’m most excited for (at this point) isn’t Navy-Houston, Auburn-Alabama, or Clemson-Carolina. For me, I will be most glued to the television on Friday for Cincinnati-Memphis. I wouldn’t have given this game a second thought six years ago, even though it features two really good ranked teams vying to host the conference championship game for the AAC the following week. But, with a Bearcats victory, Navy would have a shot at clinching the AAC West outright on Saturday night, and getting back to the championship game for the second time in four seasons the following week. Being in a conference, and especially the American Athletic Conference, has absolutely been the right decision for Navy football, and so I’m thankful Mr. Gladchuk and Coach Ken had the foresight to make this decision for the future of Navy Athletics when they did. Playing meaningful football games this late in November is pretty incredible, I’m not gonna lie.
And, along those lines, here’s a couple bonus things I’m thankful for as I get back to watching the Macy’s Parade and preparing myself mentally for all of this meaningful football I get to watch this weekend.
I’m thankful for everyone who jumped off the bandwagon last year and gave into the fact that clearly the AAC had “figured out” Navy and that the Midshipmen would spend the remainder of their conference days as the cellar dweller in the AAC West.
Oh, and I’m thankful for Khalil Tate too. Can’t forget to thank him.
But what I’m really thankful for is all the contributors we have at Against All Enemies, and the fact that we get to cover and champion service academy student-athletes across the board, and that’s what we intend to keep doing for as long as SB Nation will let us!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!