Ken Niumatalolo considering ‘creative coaching’ ideas as Navy football preseason practices begin

Navy football is allowed to conduct walk-through sessions during this current phase of the “return to play” process and the entire team was out on the field for the first time on Monday. All players and coaches wore masks and great effort was made to remain socially distanced.

“It was great to get out there on the field with a football, even though it was just a walk-through,” Niumatalolo said during a virtual press conference with the media this week. “I thought our kids looked excited to be out there after seven months. I was encouraged that all our guys looked like they were in decent shape.”

Niumatalolo started the walk-through wearing a face shield and microphone system designed to project his voice. He switched to a gaiter face covering that can be easily pulled up and used as a mask. He also abandoned the microphone system because “it felt like an anchor around my neck.”

“By the time I got to practice I couldn’t see through the shield because it was all fogged out. It’s also hard to breathe with those,” Niumatalolo said with a chuckle. “We’re all trying to figure out the best way to coach while staying social distanced.”

Good to see everyone again, even if it’s under a mask 😷 ⚓🐐#NavyFB | #BuiltDifferent— Navy Football (@NavyFB) July 27, 2020

Niumatalolo spends considerable time each day thinking about the best ways to approach preseason practice during a pandemic. He plans to continue conducting all meetings — among coaches or with players — virtually.

“There’s going to be some creative coaching because we’re going to be apart a lot more than usual,” he said. “This is the way the world is right now. We’ll just have to do the best we can with whatever rules are given to us.”

Navy football begins preseason training camp on Friday and Niumatalolo meets daily with Jim Berry, Navy’s associate athletic director for sports medicine, to discuss strategies for keeping the practice environment safe. Every detail must be addressed, including the basics of how to have water breaks. Normally, the training staff has portable water coolers with multiple hoses the players use to squirt water into their mouths.

“How do you drink water? How do you dispense it? Most people will have their own water bottles now,” Niumatalolo said.

Navy’s coaching staff is also planning to conduct practice drills and instruction sessions with smaller groups. There will not be as much live scrimmaging as seasons past. However, football is a contact sport and at some point the players must practice blocking and tackling before having to do so in a game.

“How much tackling do you do with players? Tackling bags for a month won’t help you get ready for the Irish,” Niumatalolo said.

Navy is scheduled to open the 2020 season Labor Day weekend when it hosts Notre Dame at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Niumatalolo admitted the safety protocols for preseason practice are constantly evolving.

“Nobody has a game-plan for how to handle this, so we’re all sort of learning on the run. I’m sure there are things we haven’t thought through,” he said.

Niumatalolo was asked about the prospect of using specially designed helmets that feature protective shields. Various equipment manufacturers are experimenting with helmets that protect players even better than masks.

“We’re going to use the best technology available. So far, I haven’t seen one so far that I feel would be conducive to what we do,” he said.

Everyone involved with Navy football is reaching out to colleagues in the profession to learn what safety protocols other programs are utilizing.

“There is a lot of sharing of ideas. Trainers talk to other trainers. Team doctors talk to other team doctors,” Niumatalolo said. “Any good ideas to help keep your people safe we are interested in implementing.”

Navy athletics created a medical task force charged with creating a “bubble” by developing safety protocols.— Bill Wagner (@BWagner_CapGaz) July 31, 2020

Members of Navy’s coaching staff, along with various football support personnel, leave the academy grounds at the end of the day. Those people who are leaving the “bubble” on a consistent basis are most likely to bring the coronavirus back.

“The people that have to be careful are the coaches. We’ve talked long and hard about that,” Niumatalolo said. “You read about breakouts and teams having to shut down. We don’t want the starting offensive line or starting secondary taken out because someone tested positive. We’re doing all we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”Bill WagnerCONTACT  

Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.