In his first prolonged interview with GoMids.com since the conclusion of spring practice on April 17th, the second year head coach made it clear that while he understands the natural limitations of spring ball, he nevertheless views the fifteen NCAA-sanctioned practices as an important step in the development of his 2009 Midshipmen team. Referencing what he called the "overall body of work" in evaluating just how far Navy has come since the end of last season, Niumatalolo expressed optimism for his team as it heads out of the spring and into the summer.
"I look at [spring practice] as the overall body of work, and I look at whether or not guys got better," said Niumatalolo. "I ask: did technique get better? Did guys understand what we were looking for? And I was encouraged, I was definitely encourage….I was encouraged from the standpoint of I saw a lot of guys get better. Guys like Tyler Simmons stepped to the forefront, and some of our veteran guys like Ross Pospisil and Wyatt Middleton [had good camps]. I'm just naming names, but I thought that from the beginning of spring to the end of the spring we got better as a team."
That improvement, said the Navy head coach, is not just a factor of individuals rising up the depth chart, but rather a combination of team cohesion as well as personnel development. Dismissing the idea that spring ball is only about young and unproven players getting a chance to show off their skills, Niumatalolo asserted that his players grew as a collective unit this spring, and cited their improved chemistry as a defining factor in the kind of squad they will continue to develop into as the offseason rolls on.
"I think we have great team chemistry. Yes I think that we compete hard against each other both offensively and defensively, but we have a genuine love for each other on our team. I know that is kind of weird to say that from a football standpoint, but I think that is important. When you are together as a team – especially us, because we know man for man we probably won't match up with people – but when you trust the guy next to you, and have a general love and compassion for the guy next to you, you are able to do things."
Asked what he meant specifically, Niumatalolo pointed to past experiences he has had as a coach, and said that he has seen just how the different attitudes can affect a given team's ability to perform.
"If you can't stand the guy next to you, the guy in your locker room - I've seen it before - talented teams, but they can't stand the guys they are playing with. They never reach their potential…So from that standpoint I'm encouraged, because we have great chemistry on our team, and that's what I've learned this spring."
And while he credits the tried and true concept of Navy's unique ‘brotherhood' in the development of his team's chemistry, Niumatalolo was quick to dismiss the idea that this team was is different than past Navy football teams he has coached. In fact, said Niumatalolo, the 2009 Midshipmen will likely be closer than past squads, if for no other reason than the unique leadership qualities of its leaders. Aside from signaling out senior linebacker Ross Pospisil as one of those leaders, Niumatalolo also had heavy praise for rising junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, whom the second year head coach described as "unlike anybody that I've ever been around."
"I think Ricky [Dobbs] has a big, big part to do with [the team's chemistry]. I've been here a long time and have been coaching for 20 years now, but that kid has something different about him," said the 43 year old Niumatalolo. "He has a way of bringing people together, and it's unlike anybody that I've ever been around. It's just a way of drawing people together, and I think people saw that last year as he played. I mean he didn't play perfect – he made mistakes- but I mean guys would rally around him."
Pausing for a moment, as if to try to find the words to describe the "it" factor of his starting quarterback, Niumatalolo continued on the subject of Dobbs, praising both his ability as a leader and his ability running the option.
"Guys will run through a wall for Ricky," said the reflective head coach. "You always hear that phrase of ‘great players make guys around them better,' and I see Ricky doing that, and a lot of it is his personality. The guys on our team genuinely love Ricky Dobbs, and would do anything for him."
As far as Dobbs' improvement on the field is concerned, Niumatalolo emphasized that the Douglasville, Georgia native has become more comfortable running the option, and has improved his throwing mechanics to a point where the offensive coaching staff is more confident in their ability to design the offense around him. While certain Navy fans may have become disenchanted by the offense's lack of diversity with the inexperienced Dobbs at the helm for part of the 2008 season, Niumatalolo emphasized that both he and coordinator Ivin Jasper are ready to maximize on the 6-foot, one-inch quarterback's ability going into 2009. The biggest difference between last season and this spring, said Niumatalolo, was Ricky's on-field decision making, and the speed at which the still young quarterback was able to translate the lessons from the blackboard onto the practice field.
"Ricky knows the offense," started Niumatalolo, "but part of playing quarterback is making decisions. There are guys who can make decisions on a board, but in a split second, when you've got guys chasing you…can you make a decision then? And I think that's where he has improved at, in making decisions on the run. Like in the meeting rooms and stuff with coach Jasper, [Ricky] already knew what he was doing, but in just making the split-second decisions I thought he improved tremendously in the spring, and hopefully he continues to get better at it."
When asked if he could point to specific examples of this decision making, Niumatalolo referenced Dobbs' continued growth in his read-making ability against odd man fronts. Knowing that coach Buddy Green's defense is well schooled in defending his team's own offensive attack, Navy's head coach said Dobbs made marked progress in dealing with the defensive line and their ‘hard stunts' against the offense.
"I was very encouraged from what I saw. I thought [Ricky] improved with his ball mechanics. Every day I thought he got better and better with reading. I was definitely very pleased with his spring…Obviously I wanted to see how he was with his option mechanics…going against ourselves and our odd, ‘50' front, you get a lot of hard stunts with two guys on the line of scrimmage, and Ricky handled the hard stunts well."
While Niumatalolo had plenty more positives to say about his team, he also emphasized the need to avoid complacency when it comes to competing against the other Service Academies. Noting the changes made by Army this offseason, the second year Navy head coach vowed that he and his staff would not allow the Midshipmen to overlook the many challenges that remain for next season.
"We know we have what those other two schools want and it has been a great motivating factor to not let them catch us," said Niumatalolo when asked to describe the force which drives his passion for coaching. "I talked to our team and our staff about having to play with a chip on our shoulder…and we need to prepare this offseason like we have a chip on our shoulder. That's my biggest concern…none of us think that we have arrived, and we need to teach the younger guys. That's our biggest challenge; to make sure that we keep getting better."
Check back later this week for more from Adam Nettina's exclusive interview with coach Niumatalolo, including what the second year head coach had to say about the improvement his team made this spring, the state of Navy recruiting, and the NFL potential of Eric Kettani. As always, feel free to drop Adam a line at AdamNettina@gmail.com.