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2021 Navy football preview: A strong defense returns, but can the Mids bounce back?

Navy returns eight starters on a defense that was stout down the stretch of the 2020 season, but questions remain on offense, specifically at quarterback and fullback.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was tough for Navy football. After opening the season with a 55-3 loss to BYU, the Midshipmen went on to finish with a 3-7 record, going winless in all three of their non-conference games. This season, Ken Niumatalolo will try and avenge one of his worst seasons ever.

Only twice in his head coaching tenure has Niumatalolo finished under .500. Both times he has responded with a winning season. Last time around, he followed up a 3-10 record with an 11-2 one, making sharing a Co-West Division champs title with Memphis.

Optimism should be high for football in Annapolis, as Navy did something in practice this preseason, that they didn’t do last year — hit. Last season, the Mids had no contact heading into the season opener. This summer, the Mids have been pushed to their fullest, preparing them for Marshall on Saturday.

Last season’s offense was not typical for Navy, finishing 124th in total offense. The defense got pounded as well to start the season, but found their form at the end, giving up only 14.6 points per-game in the final three matchups.

If trends show anything with this Midshipmen football team, they show that they will bounce back in a big way.

“This is going to be a good football team,” said Niumatalolo. “All of the signs point to great things.”

Navy 2021 Offense

As per usual, Navy will run their vaunted triple option offense. It was not the best last season, as the Mids ranked 52nd in the nation in rushing yards per game, and 121st in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game. This all came after posting historically positive offensive numbers in 2019.

Navy has yet to name a starting quarterback, carrying a battle into Week One. The frontrunner for the job, Xavier Arline, rushed for 109 yards in the Army game last season. He appeared in a total of five games last year, rushing for a total of 210 yards on 59 attempts. Also vying for the job is fellow sophomore Tai Lavatai, who did not play last season. Lavatai is known as a dual threat with a lot of strength both on the ground and with his arm.

“It’s not like there’s a huge disparity,” Niumatalolo said. “If we end up picking one guy over the other, it’s because we’re thinking, ‘Okay, he did a little bit better.’ But I don’t think it’s a clear-cut deal. It shows that they’ve both done good things and they both have their strengths.”

The fullback position is also up for grabs as long-time starter Jamale Carothers transferred to Western Kentucky. A pair of seniors, Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II, have battled it out for the job after neither of whom received a carry in 2020. Ruoss did log 29 carries in 2019.

On offensive line, Navy graduated their top two blockers. They do return starters Pierce Banbury and Bryce Texeira, but Texeira was listed as second on the latest depth chart at left tackle.

Wide receiver Mychal Cooper and slot back Chance Warren have been named the offensive captains for the Midshipmen, but Cooper believes every senior on the team is captain.

“Our mantra is every senior on the team is a captain,” Cooper said. “And every player on the team is a leader.”

Navy 2021 Defense

After giving up 30-plus points in four of the first seven games in 2020, the Midshipmen settled down, giving up only 14.6 points per-game in the final three contests. To add onto that great news for the defense, Navy returns eight of their 11 defensive starters.

The core of the defense are the linebackers, and they’re led by Phil Steele preseason third-team All-American member Diego Fagot. The hard hitter has started 23 of his last 24 games, completing 99 solo tackles, and 8.5 sacks in his Navy career.

Behind him, Will Harbour won most improved in the spring and is one of Fagot’s best friends on the team.

“I kind of joke around and call him (Harbour) my son,” Fagot said.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore did not play as a plebe due to injuries and illness but showed off his speed and physicality big time during the offseason.

Navy returns three of its four starters in a secondary that ranked 10th in passing defense last season, although they saw little action as their rush defense got ran over by their opponents. That part of the defense can only see improvements.

Navy 2021 Special Teams

Bijan Nicholas returns for his third season as the Midshipmen’s kicker, with three game-winning field goals to his credit. Last season was a struggle though in the little action he saw, as he went 6-for-10.

Punting was also a problem, as Ben Fee and Daniel Davies combined for an average NET boot of 36.5 yards. The starting punter heading into Week One is sophomore Duke Pa’ane. He has no previous collegiate varsity experience.

In addition to his slotback duties, Chance Warren will also likely be key in the return game.

Opener: Marshall vs Navy

Where: Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, Annapolis, MD

When: September 4, 2021, at 3:30 P.M.

Watch: CBS Sports Network

What to Know: Navy will open its 2021 season against Conference USA East champion Marshall in Annapolis. The Thundering Herd return a lot of the No. 2 ranked total defense in the country last season, along with an offense led by 2,000-yard passer Grant Wells. Marshall does have a new head coach though, as Doc Holliday was shockingly shown the door over the offseason.

Other Key Games:

Sept. 11 vs. Air Force: Two military academies will face off on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, one of the worst attacks on American soil. Navy has released special jerseys for this game honoring the Marines, and they try to avenge a 40-7 loss last season.

Oct. 23 vs. Cincinnati: Navy will host the clear favorite in the American, Cincinnati, in the middle of fall. Any loss for the Bearcats could ruin their New Years Six or longshot CFP hopes. At quarterback, the Bearcats return 2020 AAC Offensive Player of the Year, Desmond Ridder.

Dec. 11 vs. Army: After being shut out by their rival in 2020, the Mids will try to extract some revenge at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Navy will try to add onto its 61-53-7 all-time record against the Black Knights.