For a moment, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo let himself imagine playing against Notre Dame in front of a packed home crowd in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
But quickly after he was informed that the football season opener in Dublin, Ireland, would instead be played at home in Annapolis, Md., the reality of the situation hit him.
“Then I remembered that we’re in a pandemic,” Niumatalolo said Wednesday during a video press conference. “The reason we’re not going to Ireland is because of the pandemic, so we weren’t going to have that many fans.
“That (thought) kind of fizzled out pretty quickly, but I’m excited. I’m excited to play them at home here in our stadium.”
What the atmosphere at Navy will be like — and on which day the game will be played (Sept. 5 or 6) — remains to be seen. Niumatalolo is hopeful that it won’t be an empty stadium at least.
“I’m encouraged that there will be fans,” Niumatalolo said. “Obviously it won’t be a full stadium, and it will be a lot different from other games that we’ve ever played at the Naval Academy. But that’s the new norm now.”
The debate over where the game should be played didn’t bother Niumatalolo. He’s played against Notre Dame in Ireland before and that didn’t go well. The Irish won 50-10 in 2012.
“My wife really enjoyed the trip,” Niumatalolo said. “She did a good job. She enjoyed visiting the castles and those types of things, but it wasn’t so good of a football game for us. They got after us pretty good there.”
Navy hosting its “home” game with Notre Dame in San Diego in 2018 didn’t help much (44-22 ND). Navy fared even worse last season at Notre Dame Stadium: 52-20 ND.
“I just know the people we’re opening up with, the last time we played them, they beat us pretty good,” Niumatalolo said. “We had a really good team last year and they, quite frankly, beat the crap out of us last year.”
The Midshipmen, which finished last season 11-2, can focus on Notre Dame throughout the summer, but they’re not back on campus yet. The team isn’t scheduled to return to Annapolis until July 5.
“Our schedule that we have, I think I’ve ripped it up and thrown it out more times than I can remember,” Niumatalolo said. “Normally we have a schedule ready and in place by the end of May, mid-April as far as our camp and our practices.
“Everything is so fluid now. I think we’ve gotten to a point where we know exactly who’s going to report, when they report. When they first report, what they’re allowed to do. And then we’ll transition to different phases of growing into bigger pods and bigger groups to work out.”
When players return, they will be tested for COVID-19 and put in a 14-day quarantine with one roommate. Only after that will the Midshipmen start ramping up workouts and team activities.
“Being at the Academy, it’s a lot easier to self-isolate and quarantine,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re surrounded by a gate with guards. Hopefully that will be beneficial for us.”
That timeline will put Navy significantly behind Notre Dame, which started voluntary workouts this week after players returned to campus and were tested for COVID-19 last week. Of the ninety-one Notre Dame players and 50 staff members tested, the team reported just one positive test for an unidentified player.
Niumatalolo was worried how Navy’s schedule would put his team behind, but seeing other programs report positive test results in the 10s and 20s has reassured Niumatalolo that the right decision was made for his program.
The biggest challenges he will face as a coach this summer, Niumatalolo said, will be keeping his players healthy from COVID-19 and not putting them at an injury risk with a lack of physical preparation. When the team returns, the strength program will operate as if the players weren’t able to keep themselves in top condition the past few months.
It will be a slow process, but he’s accepted the patience it will require.
“No coach in the country knows the game plan. Nobody has this manual,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t care who you are, everybody’s figuring it out. We’re going to do our best job of trying to figure it out.”
Navy’s biggest question for spring football was going to be its quarterback competition. Who will become the starter following Malcolm Perry’s departure to the NFL?
Niumatalolo is no closer to having that question answered now than he was in March. A wiped-out spring prevented a depth chart from starting to form.
“We don’t know,” Niumatalolo said. “We were just talking about it again (Wednesday) in our meetings. We have the same meetings every day and it’s the same discussion. We’re allowed to have meetings, but that’s the best we’ve been able to do.”
The job would seemingly be Perry Olsen’s to lose. The 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore appeared in eight games last season as a backup including action at the end of Navy’s lopsided loss to Notre Dame.
“Just trying to figure out,” Niumatalolo said. “Trying to get a quarterback ready to play on a Zoom or Google Meets call, so that’s how we’re trying to do it right now.
Olsen did operate the triple option some as a high school player, which should give him a bit of an advantage. But there’s still plenty to worry about.
“Physically he has all the tools,” Niumatalolo said. “You’re always concerned. I wouldn’t say that I’m not concerned. I’d be lying.”
While Navy’s triple-option attack has been sidelined, so have the defensive coordinators tasked with stopping it.
In recent years, Niumatalolo said, it’s become clear that many teams that play Navy start preparing to defend the triple option well in advance of their matchups with the Midshipmen. Some of that has even come during spring football, which was shortened or canceled across the country.
Niumatalolo hopes that ends up working in Navy’s favor this season. That might not be as helpful against an annual opponent like Notre Dame, but live reps against the triple option are important in teaching how to stop it.
“It’s not that people don’t know what to do or they don’t have a plan. They’re smart coaches,” Niumatalolo said. “But just so they can familiarize their kids. ‘OK, this is our defensive package versus Navy now. Don’t forget this and do that.’
“So losing that time, I feel like it’s definitely gonna help us. Especially in our conference where you can tell. When we play the games and their defense is so different from their base package that you know they had to put time into that.
“That wasn’t something they put in in two days. You can tell that people have spent a ton of time getting ready for us. Nobody’s had that opportunity to do that.”