• Graham Knight

Midshipmen Season Recap with Pete Medhurst

by Graham Knight

All right, Academy football fans, we started the season talking with Pete Medhurst about what the Navy season was going to look like. I think it's only fair that we end the year talking to Pete Medhurst. He has been covering Navy sports for twenty-four years, which is as long as [Navy Head] Coach Ken Niumatalolo has been there, and he has been the voice of the Navy Midshipmen for 13 years.

Graham Knight: Pete, I have to ask you, in all your experience with the Navy Athletics, and specifically with the Navy football, how does this [year's Army-Navy] game stack up?

Pete Medhurst: You know, I mean, with what our kids have been through against the toughest schedule in the country -- they're the only team that is faced 11 bowl-eligible teams, the third toughest schedule based on most of the analytics of any team in the country.

Our league doesn't get the credit that it should nationally, because, technically, it's listed as a G-5, it could easily be a Power 6. Cincinnati's inclusion in the playoffs pays off what [American Athletic Conference Commissioner] Micah Aresco has been selling, from that standpoint.

But, this weekend and the last two weeks of preparation, you can tell the kids were brought in, the coaching staff was brought in, and they showed their genius this week with a lot of the different stuff that we had not shown most of the season, a lot of creativity on the offensive side. And you knew when you had leaders like Diego Fagot, Mychal Cooper, Chance Warren, these guys just we're going to do everything in their power to make sure that this team didn't lose this game.

And we saw that on display, very passionate display from both teams, as it always is. I mean, [Army Head Coach] Jeff [Monken] has done a tremendous job with the Army program, but for our kids to be able to rise up and win when your record is three and eight and everybody tells you you've had a very subpar season by Navy standards, it's a great win for the kids, no doubt about it.

Graham Knight: Yeah, no doubt. I'm just thinking about the big play Chance Warren had, Michael McMorris, a big tackle on [Army fullback] Jakobi Buchanan. Let's talk about those shoes and Diego Fagot, who's going to fill those shoes next year as these seniors age out and having gone out in style, who fills their shoes next year?

Pete Medhurst: Well, that's great question. Linebacker [coach] P.J. Voelker, the coach did a great job because we really cycled through some guys because of attrition next to Diego Fagot. So the good thing is, a lot of guys in that room got a chance to play with Diego, so they saw exactly what it takes to be successful at that position. They saw a guy who had surely incredible talent, but it was his drive, it was his passion to be great for his teammates, and with Diego Fagot, there wasn't a lot of fluff. There wasn't a lot of pomp and circumstance with Diego Fagot. There wasn't a lot of game-by-game, "Look at me, look at me," type stuff. Diego Fagot was a football player. We saw that on display with this play on the fake punt this past week, and if any of that rubs off on the Will Harbours, the Tyler Fletchers, the Will Ramoses of the world who were all getting snaps there late in the season at that position, like, the Mids are going to be OK eventually, but the biggest thing they have to realize is they can't be Diego Fagot and don't look at it as replacing Diego Fagot. Just be yourself, do what you're supposed to in that position.

They have a great position coach and P.J. Volcker. Eventually, I think they'll be fine. But replacing a player, Diego Fagot, you just don't replace a player like that. He's too good.

Graham Knight: I had a chance to talk to him before the game, at the pre-game presser, and one of the things he said to me was, really important just to stay in the moment. You just got to focus on your job and stay in the moment. You know, you mentioned the fake punt. You know, I'm wondering if the chance it was a surprise to everybody didn't up the ante some. You know, if he knew it was coming . . . going to make a play, kind of had a chance to think about it. You know, that's kind of one level. Now, all of a sudden, it's a mistake and everything's on the line. I'm wondering if that wasn't a factor. You had a great call as that play unfolded. What's your take on that moment? Did that actually up the ante? Is it the fact that it was a surprise make the difference in terms of success or failure?

Pete Medhurst: Well, I don't think there's any question about it, is the fact that look at how Diego caught the football. I mean that things get like a rocket go over his shoulder. He makes the catch, then has the presence of mind to realize, "OK, I got to turn into a runner here," and there's a guy in the backfield to tackled for a loss. He eludes that tackler. Then he absorbs the contact and runs through a couple more tacklers to get up to thirty-eight yard line and get the first down. And then when we found out afterwards, the awkwardness of the play was because it wasn't the play. Diego was simply changing the protection. [Long snapper] Ethan Nguyen thought it was calling for the fake that they installed and, ironically, as Diego Fagot said, "I just had to turn into a football player at that point," and he did.

And as I've said since that, imagine the stories they will have to tell at the five-, 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-year reunions for that senior class just off that play alone because of the stage that it came on. It's a lot different when you do it against Army in front of eighty-two thousand, then, say, against Temple in front of 2,500 at the Linc.

I mean, that's the that's the beauty of that play. It will live in Army-Navy infamy forever.

Graham Knight: Speaking of 25th anniversary, you're about to come up on your silver anniversary, along with [Navy Head] Coach Ken Niumatalolo. I'm just curious how many plays stack up? Are there other moments, as you think back in the two and a half decades that compare to this, that particular play in that moment?

Pete Medhurst: It's a great question. I look at plays, especially in the Army-Navy rivalry, you know, I look at Wyatt Middleton taking a ball away from an Army ball carrier at the four-yard line, riding it back 96 yards for a touchdown to really change the complexion of a football game in the Army-Navy classic, as he did.

I think of Keenan Reynolds setting the rushing touchdown record for a quarterback, surpassing a great player, Tim Tebow, along that path during Keenan's illustrious career at the Naval Academy, maybe, arguably, the greatest triple option quarterback of all time.

You know Malcolm [Perry]'s performance alone, 300 yards plus rushing in 2019, giving him over 20 for the season and just, I mean, single-handedly leading this team to a 31-7 victory. I mean, it's really, that was the only non-close game, seemingly, since, like 2013, I think it was, when Navy won 34-7.

I mean, Joe Miller had a tremendous statistic on our broadcast this week. The losing team in this rivalry has not scored more than twenty-one points since, like 1998. So you've got to go a long way to find a game that wasn't low scoring, certainly for the losing team, in this rivalry.

I mean, I think about, just from the time I've covered the team, you know, even though I wasn't in South Bend for the streak breaker. I mean, you look at that, under coach Paul Johnson, that's a play that certainly will live in Navy lore, winning at Notre Dame again under Coach Ken with a couple of big sacks in that game, [unintelligble] with a heck of a play in the end zone there.

You know, because anytime Navy beats Notre Dame, the odds are so stacked against them. Calling the game in Jacksonville, where Ken Niumatalolo goes for it. Brian Kelly gambles, kicks a field goal to cut the Navy lead at 28-27, still like seven minutes to go in the game, thinking he was going to get the ball back. He never got the ball back, because Ken Niumatalolo, on fourth down, went for it and Will Werth hits Mychal Cooper on a crossing route on fourth down to seal the game and kill the clock as Notre Dame never got the ball back.

There are always moments you can find during the course of the years, but to me, the greatest thing in the Ken Niumatalolo era to me is just the relationship. You know, he and I kind of exchanged text messages after the game and we talked about that. I mean, here's a guy that, you know, for two decades, Navy has been his life. And you know, I think if you saw, if you question any of his thoughts on the importance of what Navy means to him, you saw that over this two week period where this staff really got together, did some significant professional work.

Because people don't people . . . We see the players and the players, obviously in college football, Graham, they come and go. They cycle out every four years at Navy, I mean, Navy doesn't have any fifth-year guys, sixth-year guys. And we maybe saw some guys, you know, that were like sixth-year or college football players this year. Well, that doesn't happen at the Naval Academy. They cycle out guys every four years.

But you know that coaching staff showed you why they some of the best in this profession with their work over the last two weeks getting ready for this game. And it's those relationships that I value the most, because you're able to have intimate conversations with them, about football and about life. There's a significant trust factor that develops through the years about what you can say and what you can't.

And just to know that in many ways, probably those men's professional careers in some cases may have hinged on the result of that game, just because of the business they're in, and they'll tell you that they understand it's a results-oriented business. Kenny knows that. But to see their work over the last two weeks on this big stage, I thought, showed you a lot about their character as men, that relationship with their players who all bought in and obviously their skills as football coaches were on display, I thought, for everyone to see this past week.

Graham Knight: I'll say in my mind, as I look at the season, you know, it was a team that just peaked at the right time. Both Bill Wagner and coach Ken himself described it as I've seen improvement over the course of the season. A term one of our, Joe Harman, who runs our website, came up with his "battle-hardened," which I think is a great term to kind of encapsulate the season.

I want to talk about Coach Ken for a second. You know, one of the things we were focusing on is two back-to-back losing seasons. You know, it ends on a high note with the victory over Army. I was talking to Bill Wagner about it, and he said, in fact, Coach Ken has three losing seasons over the last four seasons. How big of an impact, how big of a deal is that? I guess that's the easiest way to ask that question.

Tough season this year, ends on a high note. I think, personally, the team was battle-hardened. They will come away with the Army victory. But where did where does the coaching staff stand as this season comes to an end?

Pete Medhurst: I think it's a great question. I mean, you know, the results are what they are, I mean that. You can't hide from that. I thought last year, in all of college football, I don't hold any player or coach responsible for what happened at any college football program in 2020. When you have a Q-Tip being stuck up your nose five times a week just to be able to have a chance to play, to be able to have to segregate from the rest of your classmates at times and what every team went through. And it wasn't just Navy, obviously, but what every team went through a year ago, I don't hold anyone responsible for that.

But I mean, certainly the record the other couple of seasons is what it is. The coaches understand how it happened. And I think you saw as the season went along one of the reasons why this season went the way it did.

You know, Tai Lavatai gets hurt in the opener, doesn't play against Air Force as a guy that hasn't played a lot of football. Obviously at that point, he just needed experience in the position. And as a result, he got better. The offense got better as the season went along. They scored thirty-five against East Carolina, thirty-eight in the game against Temple, despite a first-half struggle. But the improvement that you're looking for from young, inexperienced players, I mean, you could argue at the end of the season, a lot of the guys making key contributions were all freshmen and sophomores on this team, and I think that's what's exciting going forward for this group.

And Ken Niumatalolo and many on this staff who've been with him the entire way, they've won one hundred and five football games. And I think they've earned the opportunity that when something is not right, they've earned the opportunity to fix it because they certainly had the ingredients and knew what to do when it was going well. And I think they've earned the opportunity to to get it right because that's what drives them every day is coaches.

I mean, Kenny immediately is out recruiting and you can see recruits talking about having him come into their living rooms and appreciating those visits and those relationships so the coaches understand what's happening.

Four and eight is not, it is not acceptable to anybody in the program. They hold themselves to a much higher standard, but to show you how close they were, one-possession games against Houston and Cincinnati, who were in the American Athletic Conference Championship game. [They] played Cincinnati its toughest game of the year, they had the ball with the chance to get even at the end of the game. A one-possession game to SMU. They get beat on a fifty-four yard field goal against East Carolina.

So, you know, sometimes you look at four and eight and go, "Wow, and they are, they're a looong way away." But I think this four and eight was closer to eight and four than it was oh and 12, so to speak. So, a lot of these kids simply need a game experience. And I thought you saw [quarterbacks coach] Ivan Jasper's coaching skills on display with [sophomore quarterback] Tai [Lavatai]'s improvement.

And even [sophomore back-up quarterback] Xavier [Arline], when he was called upon, great touchdown pass against Temple, a 10-yard run in this game against Army. And he was going to have a role here until, obviously, pulling his hamstring on that play.

So, anyone that doubts the ability of this coaching staff, I think we saw over the last two weeks exactly why those men have won a hundred and five games together.

Graham Knight: Yeah, well, let's talk about the players. One of my favorite moments speaking with you before the season started was the comment about who wasn't on the depth chart and who was going to come out that wasn't even on the radar. As you look back at the season now, when you think about some of the standouts who impresses you most, who impressed you most this season.

Pete Medhurst: I think I look at it a number of ways. We played . . . we started nine different offensive line combinations.

I look at a kid like Jamie Romo, the guy that was starting at left tackle over the last couple of games. A guy that has had to bide his time, young fella, locally grew up in the shadows of the Naval Academy in Annapolis at St. Mary's. His grandfather, the legendary Red Romo, the long time trainer at the Naval Academy. So he's got Navy legacy and the fact that not only is he on the team, but he played a significant role down the stretch for this team, solidifying that spot at left tackle that they had been ravaged by injury from and that those are the kind of stories you look at.

Evan Givens at safety -- this is a guy that was the second leading tackler late in the fourth quarter of the Army-Navy game, was on the scout team at the start of the year. Rayuon Lane, who played next to him at safety. I mean, they're replacing Kevin Brennan and Mitchell West, two seniors who were going to be bookends at the safety spots and both end up injured. So, you end up with Gibbons and Lane playing at those spots. I don't think anybody saw that coming at the beginning of the season.

At linebacker, you know, Fagot, you knew what you had there, but with, obviously, an injury to Will Harbor, Johnny Hodges leaving the program late in the year. You're playing Tyler Fletcher, a freshman, Will Ramos, a freshman, guys that made impact plays defensively the last couple of weeks of the season.

Marquel Haywood, the freshman, I think, has got, I mean, electrifying. I mean . . . guy's a great kick returner. We saw that already. That's a guy that's going to be a real significant player at slot back now, I think, next year, coming into next season as you try to replace the production of Chance Warren and Carlinos Acie.

So those are guys that weren't on the radar at the beginning of the season. That's the beauty of player development at the Naval Academy, the coaching staff at the Naval Academy and the work that they put in and the player development that happens in camp and Monday through Friday before they get set for football games.

Graham Knight: So let's go back to the beginning of the season, and well-said about all of those players. There were exciting to watch, really and fun to see them come up, especially Maquel Haywood, several touches in the Army-Navy Game, including a great pass and just great to see him stand out.

At the beginning of the game, or the beginning of the season. I mean, Coach Ken, super optimistic. I'm wondering if his optimism wasn't just a little premature. Optimistic, maybe for 2022 versus 2021? How bright do you think the 2022 season looks based on what you've seen so far?

Pete Medhurst: Well, and again, player retention is huge. You've got to make sure that everybody stays. And if they do, I think 2022 has a great opportunity for this Navy football program.

You know, like I said with Lavatai, the quarterback coming back, Haywood participating at slot back with a chance to make a big play every time he touches the football. I think 2022 has got a chance to be a really good year. And let's face it, I mean, you're playing the American Athletic Conference, you're going to have to go to Cincinnati next year. You're going to go to Central Florida, but you have to play Houston here. You going to have to play SMU there. I mean, this league is not easy. So the schedule itself will be difficult again going into the 2022 season.

But I think this team will be very well equipped going into the 2022 season. But again, as Ken has talked about for years, Paul Johnson talked about it even before Coach Ken took over is, you know, the margin for Navy is always going to be "this" no matter what, no matter how good they're playing. The margin for error is always going to be "this" and this year showed you that those four close games against great teams.

So, they have to get back to the standard that they've set before. And you know, you can't, you cannot turn the ball over in minus field position. They did that a ton, especially early in the year. I mean, they just made it easy for teams to score against them. When you fumble inside your own 20 yard line, that's a problem. I mean, you're playing good, great schedule: Marshall, Air Force right out of the box, you have key turnovers in your own territory. It's going to bury you every time against teams like that. They'll have to avoid those situations in 2022. But if they do, I think this team and this program could be just fine.

Graham Knight: As we wrap this up. Any other observations, anything that stood out to you looking back over the 2021 season?

Pete Medhurst: I mean, again, I think young players, and I talk to Coach about this all the time and I asked him about this at some of the press conferences . . . you're in on a lot of those briefings. The only way you judge the way your staff coaching is by player development. When it's next man up, how do those players play?

We saw nine different offensive line combinations. Ashley Ingram, Dante O'Rourke doing a fabulous job with those guys coming into the season.

You know, we didn't know how good the fullbacks were going to be because Isaac Ruoss, James Harris, had really been unproven players. But Coach McDonald did a phenomenal job with those guys. [Asst. Coach] Joe DuPaix's slot backs played terrific football.

Brian Newberry's defensive staff, every time you turn around, you know, you're looking at, you were looking at a defense that at times this year, played smothering football. They played a tremendous level of football. Go back to those games because those high powered offenses from Houston, SMU, Cincinnati, and that defense is giving you a chance to play in a game. Going into the fourth quarter at Notre Dame, you're only down 17-6, because the defense is keeping you in a lot of those games.

So I look at the player development, as I mentioned with what [Asst.] Coach [P.J.] Volker did, you know, at linebacker, having to constantly rotate people in next to Diego Fagot, getting those guys ready. I mean, that's that's ultimately how a program and a coaching staff is judged.

Ivin Jasper after, you know, clearly the drama that occurred early in the season, I thought he showed his mettle with Tai's improvement throughout the season.

Like I said, a lot of these men have been together for one hundred and five wins, Graham. They know what they're doing. They know how to fix it. And I think we'll see that and the fruits of that labor coming up in 2022.

Graham Knight: Well said. Before we go, I do want to touch on the Ivin Jasper, the firing and then rehiring. Was that something that gelled the team? Was that a positive? Was that a negative? It certainly paid off in the end. How do you view that now, given it been a few months since that event?

Pete Medhurst: Well, I mean, certainly, you know, with what transpired, the best part about it was men with a lot of pride, very good at what they do, professionals got in a room and talked it out as men. You know, that's why this drama lasted, basically, 24 hours.

So, that's a testament to those men being able to talk it out as men with respect for each other. And, you know, ultimately, I think, sure, I mean, you know, if you're a player and your position coach is under fire, I think it's going to galvanize your room. Those players will play harder and work harder because there's a sense of responsibility when you talk to any player. When a coach gets fired at any level, the players will tell you, "Hey, that's on us. It was our responsibility because we didn't play well. That's why our coach got fired." Pros, professional football players even tell you the same thing.

And I think when when that twenty-four hours of drama occurred, I think those young men took it a little personally and stepped up their their level of focus, their level of play. And as I've said, there's a reason why guys like Keenan Reynolds and, you know, Malcolm Perry, a Will Werth comes out of nowhere and has a record-breaking season and probably breaks even more records if he stays healthy for the last couple of games that season -- he was playing tremendous football.

You look at the different types of quarterbacks that they've had through the years guys like Aaron Polanco, Brian Hampton, you know, all different styles of quarterbacks. The one common denominator is Ivin Jasper, and he hasn't forgotten how to instruct players at the position. I think we had the perfect storm at that time of an injury to what was already an inexperienced quarterback room.

But again, as I said, as you saw through the season, it was improvement. There was progress and more importantly, a win over Army.

Graham Knight: Well-said Pete Medhurst. I look forward to watching you celebrate and listening to you celebrate your twenty-fifth year covering Navy athletics, and I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Pete Medhurst: Thank you, Graham. Appreciate it.

edited for web by Joe Harman