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After hosting BYU on Oct. 12, USF football will hit the road for the first of back-to-back conference games away from their home confines of Raymond James Stadium.
First up, a trip to Annapolis, MD, on Oct. 19 for a date with AAC West foe Navy, a program that’s looking to right the ship (rimshot) after completely bottoming out in 2018.
- Hosts USF on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network
- Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo (13th season)
- 2018 record: 3-10 (5th in the AAC West)
- 2019 Returning Production: 44% (126th)
- 2019 Projected S&P+: 118th
- SB Nation team site: Against All Enemies
Navy is certainly in a different place as a team since the last time they met the Bulls on the field in 2016.
Going 7-6 in 2017, the downward trending program completely bottomed out last fall with a 3-10 record, their worst mark since Paul Johnson’s first season in 2002. After starting 2-1 (which included an early-season upset of eventual division champion Memphis), an overtime loss to SMU kicked started a miserable seven-game losing streak for the triple-option team, finally ending on Nov. 17 with a 37-29 home win versus Tulsa.
Topping off the nightmare season was the Middie’s third straight loss to Army in December, further solidifying the tide turning towards West Point in their historic rivalry.
One of the chief reasons for this collapse was a horrendous defense that yielded 6.6 yards per play and 33.5 points per contest, finishing 114th in defensive S&P+. When defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson after 23 seasons with the Naval Academy, Coach Niumatalolo saw the perfect opportunity to clean house and start fresh this offseason, bringing aboard Kennesaw State’s Brian Newberry as the new DC.
Pledging to give multiple looks by switching between 3-4 and 4-2-5 fronts, the the former Big South defensive mind turning the unit around will be crucial to Navy getting back to their winning ways this season.
With Garrett Lewis and Zach Abey gone, the 2019 Midshipmen offense will be the Malcolm Perry Show...should he take major leaps at QB this season.
Starting the first five games under center, the sleak 5’9”, 190 pound athlete out of Clarksville, TN, was moved to slot back where he finished the year as Navy’s top rusher with 1,087 yards on 6.3 ypc and seven touchdowns.
Even in an extreme run-heavy scheme like the triple, the threat to keep the defense on their toes through the air needs to be there and Perry’s accuracy was certainly lacking last season, completing only 36 percent of his passes. Coach Niu and longtime offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have spent the offseason fitting the offense to exploit Perry’s strengths, so we’ll see if that pays dividends.
If you noticed at the top of this post, Navy is 126th in returning production and that’s evident in the skill positions on offense. As the Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, three of their Navy’s top four non-quarterback rushers are gone, leaving fullback Nelson Smith as the veteran of the backfield. Underclassmen Jon Lee, James Harris, Isaac Ross and Jamale Corothers will back him up. Taking over at slotback for Perry will be Tazh Maloy and C.J. Williams.
Mychal Cooper, Ryan Mitchell and lineman turned tight end OJ Davis will block downfield and look to fill the void left behind by top pass catcher Taylor Jackson (13 receptions, 222 yards in 2018).
The offensive line also loses a lot with three starters departing, but seniors Ford Higgins (center), Kendel Wright (left tackle) and David Forney (left guard) will provide veteran leadership to the front.
Flipping over to Newberry’s defense, the line will look to improve after allowing 5.2 yards per carry and ranking second to last in the nation in sack rate a year ago. Heading the front is senior nose guard Jackson Pittman, who started all 13 games for the ‘Ship last season. Joining him up front are Jackson Perkins and Marcus Pittman.
The guy that could prove to be the wildcard of the defense is team captain Nizaire Cromartie. At 6’2”, 237 pounds, the North Carolina native started every game at outside linebacker for the Midshipmen in 2018, recording 58 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 3.5 sacks. His versatility makes him a prime weapon to both secure the boundaries and come off the edge in Newberry’s schemes.
Linebackers Taylor Heflin and Hudson Sullivan led the team in tackles last season but graduated, leaving a giant hole in the middle to be filled by the likes of Diego Fagot and Tyler Pistorio.
Mass attrition also affects the secondary with the departures of Jarid Ryan, Sean Williams and Juan Hailey, all of whom combined for 14 passes defensed and five interceptions in 2018. Evan Fochtman fills the gap at safety while Jacob Springer holds down the striker spot after starting four games last year. Micah Farrar and Michael McMorris fills out the depth at corner.
Through six years of the existence of the American, we’ve seen virtually every program in the conference hit peaks and valleys, each with unique circumstances. The valley that the Midshipmen have hit is certainly unique.
Injuries to key players, a natural talent disparity with Navy being a service academy and AAC schools getting used to the triple option have all been contributing factors to the program’s slide over the past couple of seasons. In turn, Niumatalolo has made efforts to adjust to keep up, through the aforementioned defensive overhaul and his adamant stumping for more financial support for the program. It’ll be interesting to see if these tweaks will prove positive for the Middies in the long term.
As for the short term, the prospects of a significant turnaround in 2019 may be prove to be difficult given the amount of roster turnover on both sides of the football. And that’s even with Malcolm Perry and several upperclassmen filling those spots.
However, the schedule breaks favorably with Memphis being the only team with a winning record on the docket before the USF game. The schedule picks up after hosting the Bulls with a visit from Tulane, a trip to Notre Dame, a trip to Houston and the annual matchup with Army lining the backend of the schedule. A win over Charlie Strong and company will prove vital if they want to get back to a bowl game.
In turn, the second half of the season for USF will kick off in Annapolis and if the Bulls (who by then should have most things like personnel and scheme figured out) want to make a late push for the division crown, racking up a road ‘W’ at Navy would be a boon for their momentum.