• Diane Roberts

Navy Midshipmen 2021 Season Preview

Reporting by Diane Roberts

edited for web by Joe Harman

There are no two ways about it, last year was a struggle for the Navy Midshipmen, who ended the season last year with a disappointing 3 -- 7 record. Usually in the top five in the nation in rushing, the Mids weren't even in the top 50 in 2020.

"Last year was about survival in a lot of ways," says 14-year Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo, "We were jimmy-rigging the offense. We're an option team. Everything starts with the option."

That's where Coach Niumatalolo's optimism stems from for this season. A spirited battle between sophomores Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai has him smiling. "We know that we won't have to jimmy-rig the offense. Things will branch out, but it will branch out from the option." That branching-out includes two dynamic receivers: seniors Mychal Cooper and Mark Walker.

On defense, the Midshipmen finished 2020 strong, holding their last three opponents to an average of less than 15 points per game. And, Navy showcases one of the top linebackers in the American Athletic Conference this year in senior Diego Fagot.

"Diego is a tremendous player," says Pete Medhurst, the play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, "All-conference linebacker, plays with tremendous heart and plays for the name on his jersey because he knows it represents not only him but his teammates. This is a guy who is really selfless. He bleeds the Navy brand."

Navy senior linebacker and team captain, Diego Fagot (54) is a key player to watch in 2021.

However, the schedule may prove to be the real reality check. Eight of Navy's twelve opponents had winning records last season.

Still, after winning just three games in 2020, Coach Niumatalolo is taking solace from the 2019 season. That year the Mids followed up a 3 -- 10 2018 campaign with an 11 - 2, top-20 finish the next year.

"This team reminds me of the '19 team," he shares, "Nobody liked what happened last year. Nobody's going to say anything. We're just pressing forward. Our players don't like the taste of what happened. This is a proud program."

That 2019 squad started the season strong, winning each of their first two games by more than 30 points. We'll see if the 2021 team can match that when they start their season on September 4th at home against Marshall.

To get more insight on Navy's upcoming football season, BTL host Graham Knight had a great chat with the Voice of the Midshipmen, Pete Medhurst, to get his perspectives on the season that was in 2020 and what he's looking forward to in 2021. Here is their conversation:

Graham Knight: Pete, let's start off with the big question: What can we expect this year at quarterback?

Pete Medhurst: You know, (2020) was the one year that Navy didn't really have an answer at that position. Galen Morris played some good football for us at times, and Xavier (Arline) got opportunities as the season went along. Let's face it, when you can run fast in a straight line like Xavier can, and you have some wiggle, that athleticism at that position -- based on the way the quarterback usually is -- is something they look forward to.

And, hey, what better way? Yeah, you want to beat Army, but last season was, for lack of a better term, house money. No one's going to really criticize you for how you played football in 2020 because we were dealing with a pandemic and somehow still playing college football. So, it was a great on-the-job training opportunity up at West Point. I thought Xavier handled himself as well as he possibly could under the bright lights of that game and certainly set himself up to be part of what I think, legitimately right now, is a three man competition for the quarterback spot coming up here in the fall of 2021 at the Naval Academy.

Graham: The coaches have been a little guarded about saying anything about who's starting who. Who do you see the competition for quarterback between?

Pete: Well, I think they are being guarded, but I also think they're being honest. I don't think there is a starting quarterback at this moment. I truly believe there will be legitimate competition for that job between Xavier Arline, Tai Lavatai and Maasai Maynor. I believe those three young men have probably put themselves, at least going into camp, in a position to compete for it.

But, I also think at the same time, it's great that you have multiple bodies that they feel very confident about. I think they like what they're seeing from the three of them. It's not just a case of, well, we've got four or five guys on the depth chart. Somebody's got to win the job. But it's also great to have competition.

Navy's sophomore QB Xavier Arline already has big game experience, but will he be under center for week 1?

You don't want to have a situation where you're just defaulting to one guy. You want all three guys to know they have a chance to win the job because that makes them work that much harder knowing that they have a legitimate opportunity to potentially command this football team coming up September 4th against Marshall.

Graham: Let's talk a little bit about offense, because I remember Coach Niumatalolo coming off the field saying, "You just can't win a game without offense." What's your take on the outlook for offense this season?

Pete: I don't think there's any question that for Navy . . . it starts with the offensive line. And I think their optimism is because they've got a lot of competition on the offensive line. You've got some skilled people coming back at the running backs, at the A's and B's, and certainly in wide receiver, right now. You've got a couple of kids that may be as good as we've had on the outside in terms of being able to make explosive plays on the outside. So, I think that's why there's so much optimism.

Last year, I think you just have to throw that video and what happened last year in the circular file and the only time you bring it up is if somebody files a Freedom of Information Act to try and get some of it. It wasn't Navy football. But a lot of teams last year weren't their brand of football simply because of the way things were happening in our world at that time.

Graham: Who do you think are going to be the players to watch?

Pete: Well, there's no doubt, Mychal Cooper and Mark Walker on the outside. I think if they played in any of the other offenses in the American Athletic Conference -- and we've got some explosive offenses in that league -- they would be first team receivers on a lot of different teams in the league because of the the skill sets that they have. I think whichever quarterback wins the job, they're going to have a chance to make some explosive plays in the air game because of what Mychal and Mark bring to the table.

WR and team captain Mychal Cooper

Graham: Let's talk defense for a second. Navy had its largest comeback win ever last year against Tulane. There were several games where the defense delivered, it was really impressive what they did. Who are you watching for on the defensive side of the ball?

Pete: I don't think there's any question, when you talk Navy defense it starts with a guy that I think has potential NFL-type ability in Diego Fagot. This is a guy that is really selfless. He bleeds the Navy brand. Those are the kind of leaders that you want on your football team, guys that set the tone everyday.

You've got great experience coming back in the secondary with a guy like Kevin Brennan who's going to help keep that group pretty steady in the back. Mitchell West ended up getting a lot of playing time alongside him at safety because of some injuries last year. So I think that helps tremendously on the back end.

Nicholas Straw, I think, is another guy that is worth watching on the defensive side; a guy that really took advantage of some opportunities at linebacker that he played on the outside last year. And I think they have a chance to be pretty good again. Because in our league, man, if your defense can just get you a three or four stops a game, that can usually be the difference.

Graham: That's a great segue into the match-ups this year. What do you think are the key match-ups for Navy in the schedule?

Pete: Let's face it, you're trying to establish yourself after what happened last year. If you're a football player, you're trying to establish yourself quickly and reestablish the brand.

Marshall (in week 1) had a great year last year. New coach in Charles Huff, who was the running back's coach in Alabama, takes over there. And then you have Air Force in game two. So you can't look ahead because Air Force is on the horizon, because Marshall is good enough to take your lunch and blow you out on your field in the very first game.

So I think it's two great tests to start the season for the Mids. Fortunately, after that, they get a week off to recoup from what is always an incredibly emotional and physical game with Air Force, and then the league play starts and you go on the road to Houston.

The beauty of the Navy schedule is joining the American Athletic Conference. This is why they did that; because they want to be a player every Saturday where people are saying, "Hey, look who Navy's playing!"

You've got a high profile game with Notre Dame, of course, that is always on the schedule. And that's why moving to this league has raised the profile for Navy considerably. Clearly, the Notre Dame game is always a big one.

And at the end of the season, when you play Army on national TV in a stand-alone game on that second Saturday in December, it brings all the eyes of college football fans to the table.

Graham: Well said, Pete. Thank you!