Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Navy should view a Week 1 game against an FCS foe as an opportunity

The Navy Midshipmen's wait is over. The Men of Ken Niumtatalolo aren't 11-2 anymore; they are immersed in a week in which they are 0-0, trying to become 1-0. Whether or not they become 1-0 isn't the primary point of focus. What matters is making the mental transition from an historic season to a new journey in which expectations will be lower, but the fear of a pronounced decline will lurk around the corner. Navy coaches and players will constantly have to answer questions which boil down to

Coaches do not tell players, "Hey boys, we can cruise in this game. The opponent really isn't all that tough. Just conserve your energy. It's no big deal." 

Coaches, players, the people in the inner sanctum of the locker room, are competitors before everything else. Work, effort, passion, commitment, brotherhood, communication, intensity -- these and other words are relentlessly pounded into the athlete's mind. Any coach -- not just the head man, but also the coordinators and the position coaches -- tirelessly work at motivating, instructing and encouraging. Coaches don't tell players to coast.

However, this does not mean that coaches can't devote decreased levels of energy to winning a game, or require less from their starting lineups. The solution to situations in which coaches want to coach hard but not try too hard to win -- tanking, saving, conceding, etc. -- is surprisingly simple: Put in backups and run simple plays.

The coach can passionately instruct his players and ride them when they don't execute properly. Effort can be celebrated, but since the play is simple and the players involved aren't nearly as talented as the first-stringers, a team can either avoid scoring, bleed clock, or both. Coaches can still legitimately claim they're fully engaged, but with backups or third-string guys on the field, they don't have to be as clever or complex in their thought process. It's a way to be competitive without being fully competitive -- it's a paradox, richly counterintuitive. Such and approach can coexist with a locker room in which a coach will never tell his players to coast at half-speed.

With that as prelude, let's frame the situation at hand for Navy in its opener against the Fordham Rams of the FCS: No, Ken Niumatalolo won't tell his players to put it in cruise control, even though an FCS team is standing on the other sideline. Playing a game after eight months without live action (in contests that count) should be cause for enthusiasm throughout the roster. Week 1 is a time for energy, even if the opponent might not inspire excitement or fear. The team's effort shouldn't be reduced; this is no occasion to cut corners.

However, this is a time in which the game plan and the demands posed by a particular opponent should not need to be as developed as on other occasions, starting with Week 2 against Connecticut. Navy shouldn't show as much of its playbook as it will need to in future games. The Midshipmen don't need to keep starters in the game any longer than necessary. Winning in a way which preserves the starters for Week 2 is just as valuable as winning itself. Navy needs to look for opportunities to derive value from this game for reasons beyond the end result. This is a time to work out the kinks on both sides of the ball. More specifically, it's a time to see what Tago Smith can do.

Sometimes, Keenan Reynolds converted a big third down, but many times, he converted a long pass on first or second down, when opposing defenses were expecting the run. Navy offered enough diversity in its passing game to make opposing defenses slightly less certain of what was coming. That slight difference can and does matter. Therefore, it's in Navy's best interest to see what it has in the passing game against Fordham, even though the passing game isn't nearly as likely to work well in Week 1 for a new starting signal-caller. 

What's an ideal summary of how Navy should approach Fordham? Aggressive, but not reckless, seems to fit the bill.

It's not as though Smith should take low-percentage chances on passes or other ball-handling decisions. It's of paramount importance, as a first starting point, that Smith learns how to secure the ball. Navy will very likely be unable to handle double-digit deficits, given Smith's modest abilities as a passer compared to Reynolds. The Midshipmen have to stay tied or very close through three quarters if they want to beat good teams in the fourth or overtime. Ball security is an essential -- not merely peripheral -- aspect of Navy's season. 

What the Midshipmen and Smith should consider, though, is that since Fordham is the opponent, Smith should try (and be given the chance to try, by Ivin Jasper) to test his passing arm in a number of different ways. Throwing across the field; throwing down the field; throwing vertically, horizontally, or diagonally -- these components of passing, if tried by Smith, would give him a lot of teachable moments and technical skills to work on before Week 2 and the advent of AAC competition. It's important that Smith has a lot to study on film and can build on after Week 1. He would have needed a crash course had Navy played Ohio State (a recent Week 1 opponent a few years ago), but since Fordham's on the opposing sideline, this is a precious chance for Smith to find where he's strong, and where he's deficient. Navy should be able to win regardless, but it's a lot better if Smith gets a much clearer -- and broader -- sense of what he can achieve. 

Aggressive, but not reckless -- that should be Smith's mantra, and Navy's theme, for the first week of the first season AFTER 11-2.

It's a 0-0 season. Navy gets one week in which it can test its capabilities. Entering Week 2, the rust can't persist... and fears about failing to live up to last season can fully be expunged.


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