Ken Niumatalolo Chat Transcript

It was quite the spring season in Annapolis. Under the direction of second year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen completed the four week rite of spring during the annual Blue and old game on April 17th. Recently I had a chance to sit down with the Navy coach, and got his assessment on how the spring campaign went for his team.

Adam Nettina (AN): What were your general impressions on the spring? Did you see noticeable improvement from a number of players? The team as a whole? What were your general thoughts?

Ken Niumatalolo (KN): I look at it as the overall body of work. I look at whether or not guys got better, [and ask] did technique get better? Did guys understand what we were looking for? I was encouraged, I was definitely encouraged. I was encouraged from the standpoint of I saw a lot of guys get better…some guys like Tyler Simmons stepped to the forefront…Brady DeMell... some of our veteran guys like Ross Pospisil and Wyatt Middleton and Ricky Dobbs. 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.

AN: Different people have different takes on spring practice. Some people say you can only take so much away from the spring. Do you buy into that idea, or do you think this team was able to come together and set themselves up for next year?

KN: I think there is only so much you can learn, but in that you do learn a lot. I think you can learn a lot from spring ball about your team, their chemistry…I think the one thing that I think we have, Adam, I think we have great team chemistry. I think that we compete hard against each other both offensively and defensively, but that we also have a genuine love for each other on our team. And I know that is kind of weird to say 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. 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. You know, guys will knock Ricky [Dobbs] to the ground and give him a good hit, but then they will help him up afterward. We compete hard. We get after each other. But you see guys in the locker room laughing and joking about it.

AN: Is that reflective of the ‘Brotherhood?' Or is that something that has been unique to this team in particular?

KN: I think a lot of it is the brotherhood, but I think a lot of it is this team. I will say a lot of it is some of the guys on our team and the types of leaders we have with guys like Ross Pospisil. But I think Ricky [Dobbs] has a big, big part to do with that too. I've been here a long time and have been coaching for 20 years now, Adam. But that kid has something different about him. 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. Guys will run through a wall for Ricky. 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.

AN: You talk about that personality, and his leadership persona. I remember during the spring Ricky telling me that he wanted to get better in every phase of his game on the field - in particular running the option and becoming more consistent with the reads.  Can you talk about the on-the-field aspect of his game and where he has or has not improved?

KN: 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. I was very encouraged with the option mechanics and him throwing the ball. He added a new dimension to that this spring. He brings a different component with his throwing ability.

AN: I don't want you to speak for coach Jasper, but are you and your staff more confident now in calling different plays with Ricky than you were with him at the end of last season?

KN: Oh no doubt. I think a big part of Ricky's game is learning the options and making decisions, and Ricky knows the offense…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.

AN: Do you feel like Kriss Proctor has given himself the title of backup quarterback going into the summer?

KN: Going into the summer, yes. Not that Mike [Stukel] did not do some good things, but Kriss…I thought he did some good things too. He has hands like Kaipo. Real quick hands, and he is faster than I realized he was. I knew he was a fast kid off of tape, but you never really know it until a guy like him comes and you see it in person. He's a lot tougher than I thought too. I guess I stereotyped him as a "surfer" kind of guy, but he's a tough kid and I was very happy with what I saw from Kriss.

AN: And with Mike Stukel moving to slotback, do you think he is going to be able to compete and work his way into the rotation of getting carries at the position?

KN: I do. I think [slotback] is really more of his position. The only way we would move him [back to quarterback full time] is if something happened to Ricky or Kriss Proctor. If there was an injury we would slide Mike right back to quarterback. But Mike is one of our faster kids, and he is a stocky and strong runner who we just feel like he is too much of an asset to be on the bench. Having said that, if something were to happen to those other two guys we would have to move him back, but we are going to try to get Mike on the field.

AN: Was that decision to move Mike to slotback made more on the basis of Mike's ability as an athlete or the inability of another slotback to really step up?

KN: Probably a little bit of both, but probably more from the standpoint of ‘we feel good about Kriss.' [Mike] is a bigger ‘A-back' than we usually get, and he's a guy with some size. He does great things with the ball in his hands and that is what we want to try to do; put him in a position where he has the ball in his hands.

AN: Another big question coming into spring was at fullback, and who was going to step up and replace Eric Kettani. Has Alex Teich shown the ability to step up and be "the guy?"

KN: I always thought in my mind that Alex could be the guy, and I was encouraged by what he did this spring, but I think the question is his durability. That position takes a pounding, and Alex is about 215-pounds. He actually fluctuates between about 215-220, and I wanted to see if he was strong enough to take the pounding, and I was really excited with what I saw this spring. He took some shots but continued to weather the storm. He is quicker than some of the guys we've had in the past, and I think with his mobility and lateral movement that he is going to present some problems for people because he hits the hole a lot quicker than some of the guys we've had in the past. Now he does not bring the "umph" of some of the guys we've had in the past, but I think his quickness will help us.

AN: I talked to Eric Kettani about that issue of durability. He said he felt like last season wore him down, and he also said he wished he would have had someone who could have come into the game and replaced him at times. Do you think Vince Murray and/or Kevin Campbell give you that option to relieve Teich as needed?

KN: We're counting on one of them to. We need a backup badly. I thought Vince had a great spring. Here was a guy who had kind of been moved down on the depth chart, but he lost some weight and leaned out and it has given him some quickness. He's still a tough runner, and Kevin is tough as nails and you know what you get with Kevin. And Jordan [Eddington] is still skimming the surface. He has got the talent and he is still learning how to hit it so hopefully he has a great offseason.

AN: So when you're looking for a fullback in this offense and you have multiple players to choose from, are you looking for a complimentary pair of backs? That is, a quicker guy and then maybe a bigger, ‘bruiser' type? Or are you looking for quicker and faster players across the board now? It seems like you've had more Eric Kettani's than Adam Ballard's over the past couple of seasons…

KN: We want to be as fast as we can be. Kyle Eckel had a tremendous career, and so did Adam Ballard, but if we can get guys who are bigger and faster we are going to take that all the time. We like our guys to be as quick as they can be, but there needs to be a little bit of a size factor because those guys do take a pounding in there.

AN: Are there any other position changes you are mulling over for the offseason?

KN: No, I think what we ended up with [at the end of spring] is where we are going to stay. We've got our freshmen coming in and we'll try to fit those guys in, but I think where we've ended up is pretty much where we're going to go into fall camp with.

AN: Speaking of freshmen, I noticed Kavon Seaton changed his mind again. Can you say anything about what you know about that situation, and how confident you are with some of the other NAPS players coming in?

That's one of the reasons he is not coming…because when he was going to go to JMU he still was not sure [if he wanted to be at NAPS or JMU] and there was a possibility that we were going to allow him to finish up the semester [at NAPS]. But we kind of felt like him staying [at NAPS] might have been a detriment to the guys who were there, so we made him make a decision. He might have still stayed at NAPS, because he told us he couldn't make up his mind until the end of the semester, but it was a choice we made him make...If he was not going to come we did not want him hanging around and bringing our other guys down. I mean you are either in or you're out, and he decided he could not make that choice so we let him go.

AN: Does that mean you feel confident in the other NAPS and Direct entry kids coming in at quarterback?

KN: Well obviously we like Mike and Kriss (who are here), but we've got a great class going to our prep school. Honestly, we probably signed too many quarterbacks. We signed a lot knowing that whoever our three or four guys are they are going to stay at quarterback and the other guys we will move around…but we've got as deep as a quarterback pool going to the Prep school as we have ever had.

AN: You mentioned Brady DeMell earlier. Do you think he showed the ability this spring to be the starting center, and that he'll give you the ability to not have to be constantly experimenting with various offense line combinations?

KN: I think so. The great thing for us is that [Brady] got to go against Nate Frazier every day. There is no drill that coach n Ingram could have devised that could better prepare somebody than one for someone to go against a 300-pounder who has played a ton of football games. You asked earlier, ‘do you think you can learn things about guys in spring football?' and I think that is a great example that you can [learn things.] I think [Brady] has a long way to go but I think that I am definitely encouraged by what I saw from the fifteen spring practices that we had.

AN: Did you happen to catch any of the Ohio State Spring game?

KN: I have it recorded. I saw the numbers that were there. It is pretty alarming with the 95,000 fans…

AN: Is that something you and your staff have started doing, looking at Ohio State film?

KN: Oh yea. In fact, coach Jasper and coach Green are talking about that right now. They are in the other room watching the film.

AN: Any initial thoughts?

KN: We're going to have to be ready. Adam, this is by far the best team we have ever played. I mean it is not even close. In the 12 years that I have been here…I mean we play Pitt and they are phenomenal. Rutgers is a great team too. Notre Dame…They are all great and I'm not taking anything away from them…But a top tier BCS team that loses the draft choices that they lose and they still have a top five recruiting class?  I mean they are freaks. Those guys are well coached and a very good football team and we are going to have our hands full just to compete with those guys.

AN: What's next for you and the staff? Recruiting?

KN: Most of our staff is on the road doing recruiting for the spring. The coordinators are still in here getting camp ready. I am finishing up with player interviews. We are setting goal sheets and getting ready for the summer. It's all camp prep right now…We sat down with individual players and gave them our assessment of what they were able to do this spring and what they need to do this summer. Right now it's all camp prep.

AN: How is the state of recruiting? Have you found a renewed interest in the program because of extenuating factors? I'm not just talking about the new Presidential administration, but things like the programs visibility on TV…

KN: I think the visibility of us being on TV has definitely helped. People see us play. Our AD has done a great job of getting us on television and we have had some exciting games on television. [Navy SID Scott Strassmeier] has done a great job of marketing us…we had that show ‘Wired.' It's just all gotten us out in the market and into the mainstream. But let me tell you the other thing that has really helped us, Adam. I think the economy has helped us. Before there were people who would not event talk to us. There were some parents who would say ‘my son is not going to a military school,' but now they are like ‘hey this might not be a bad option.'" I think that has opened up other doors that in prior years were closed.

AN: Another question a lot of fans had was about the play of the special teams units. I know it wasn't worked on a ton this spring, but what are your thoughts on punt and kickoff returner. Is Mario going to be back there again, or is an open competition?

KN: [Mario] will start, but it's an open competition. We will let some of the young guys compete. We will obviously do more in camp, and we've got to work hard in all of our special teams phase. The whole component…from snapping to holding to kicking. And our place kicker is not set in stone with Jon Teague and Joe Buckly. So that is an area we are going to have to spend a lot of time in during summer camp.

AN: I don't want to get into the politics of it all, but do you think Eric Kettani and Tyree  Barnes – and maybe even Shun White- have the physical ability to play professional football in the NFL?

KN: Well you know I have never coached at that level, but they are three of the best that we have ever had here. I know Tyree ran some good times for the NFL guys, and Eric put up some good numbers for the scouts, and so did Shun. I think they are favorable…I don't know where they stand in the whole scheme of things, but I know you have got to be good to play in the NFL and those three guys are three of the best that this school has produced.

AN: Any big lessons from last year that you have learned from?

KN: Well some of the other things that are happening at other schools have inspired me. Obviously with Army making changes and Air Force getting better…we know we have what those other two schools want and it has been a great motivating factor to not let them catch us. As opposed to schemes or trying to do different thing, we are trying rather to make sure that we know what to do. We know how we got here. The biggest thing is complacency. Don't get complacent. I talked to our team and our staff that we have 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.

Adam Nettina would like to thank coach Niumatalolo for taking the time to update Navy fans on the state of the program following spring ball. Continue to check back into weekly for all the latest Navy news and analysis, including more from Adam's exclusive interview with Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green. As always, Adam can be contacted at Top Stories