By BILL WAGNER
During the CBS broadcast of Saturday’s 122nd Army-Navy game, the announcers will no doubt reference the triple-option several times.
On a fundamental level, it is true that Army and Navy both employ triple-option offenses. It is the foundation of what the Black Knights and Midshipmen do from a play-calling standpoint.
However, the reality is that neither Army nor Navy run much of a traditional triple-option these days. Both offenses have evolved over the years to incorporate different elements.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and Army counterpart Jeff Monken are both disciples of Paul Johnson, who invented this version of the triple-option. Johnson employed the same system at every stop of his career and did not deviate during stints at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech.
“What Paul did remarkably well was stay true to who he was as a coach,” Monken said. “There will never be another Paul Johnson. He did what he knew and believed in.”
Niumatalolo played at Hawaii when Johnson was offensive coordinator there and learned the finer points of the unique attack while serving as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. Niumatalolo followed Johnson to Navy after he was hired as offensive coordinator by former head coach Charlie Weatherbie.
When Johnson departed Annapolis for Georgia Southern, Niumatalolo was promoted to offensive coordinator. However, that stint did not last long as Niumatalolo resisted Weatherbie’s efforts to tweak the offense and was fired as a result.
Johnson would later famously say: “Two years after I left Navy, you couldn’t even recognize that offense,” referring to how far Weatherbie had strayed from running the true triple-option.
When Johnson was hired to replace Weatherbie, he brought back Niumatalolo as offensive line coach. Monken followed Johnson from Georgia Southern to Navy to serve as slotbacks coach.
In December 2007, Monken went to Georgia Tech with Johnson, while Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach at Navy. Monken would get his first head coaching job at Georgia Southern in 2010 and spent four seasons there before taking over at Army West Point in 2014.
Monken and Niumatalolo, who once worked together as graduate assistants at Hawaii, will square off as opposing head coaches in the Army-Navy game for the eighth time Saturday in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Their presence along the sidelines remains a tribute to Johnson, but the offenses they oversee are different from that of their mentor.
“I would say the core of what we both do is still the same, but there are new elements that have been incorporated,” Niumatalolo said. “You have to adjust and evolve. We’ve both had to add onto the offense.”
As a result of playing the same schools in the American Athletic Conference since 2015, there is not as much of the “option factor” as there was when Navy played an independent schedule from 2002 through 2007 under Johnson.
Johnson occasionally implemented an innovation to his triple-option offense to bolster the inside running attack. He lined up both wide receivers just outside the tackle box to increase the number of blockers and ran the toss play out of that alignment.
Navy has used that “double-flex,” or tight formation, to great effect under during the Niumatalolo era, beginning in 2009 and 2010 when Ricky Dobbs was the quarterback. The Midshipmen often lined up that way when Will Worth and Zach Abey, who were power runners like Dobbs, were under center in 2016 and 2017.
Army and Air Force took notice and incorporated that element into their offenses.
Another wrinkle pioneered by Navy and later copied by Army was the quarterback keeper with zone-blocking schemes. Johnson liked what he saw so much he started using those No. “98 and 99″ plays at Georgia Tech.
Johnson said the one constant is that opposing defenses game plan to stop the triple-option. Whether Army or Navy run read plays or not, the overall offense is based on how teams defend the base package.
“You have wrinkles and various plays you run to take advantage of the way the defense plays the triple,” said Johnson, who retired in 2018 after an 11-year tenure at Georgia Tech.
“Army and Navy both still use the base remnant of the offense. Everyone is going to have their adjustments and different ideas, everybody evolves. We evolved at Georgia Tech from what we did at Navy.”
Johnson hasn’t studied the Army or Navy offenses recently, but noted Navy is using “way more formations than we ever did.” Meanwhile, Army has developed more of a power running game featuring the quarterback and fullback running between the tackles.
Monken believes it is becoming more difficult to run the read triple-option because of several rule changes that have outlawed much of the cut blocking service academies utilize. Opposing defensive coordinators are also using different formations and stunts to “muddy up” the reads.
“We’re far less triple[-option] now because it’s just become harder and harder to do it,” Monken said. “You have to find other things you can do to supplement the triple-option plays. We’re not totally void of triple-option plays and neither is Navy. There’s just a lot less of it.”
Monken and Niumatalolo agree Johnson is a “purist” when it comes to running the offense, which is not widely used in the college game anymore. Johnson, who always called his own plays, agreed to an extent.
“I stuck with what I knew because I always had something in the package to fix the offense if it wasn’t working,” he said.
Army has “gotten a lot of mileage” out of plays in which it was predetermined to be a fullback dive, quarterback keep or slotback pitch, Monken said. Ultimately, what the Black Knights and Midshipmen do offensively is based on the basic option principles of gaining a numbers advantage and creating better blocking angles.
Niumatalolo compared the evolution of option offenses to those of the “air raid” passing attack created by former Valdosta State and Kentucky coach Hal Mumme. Practitioners of that system, such as Mike Leach (Mississippi State), Dana Holgorsen (Houston) and Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals) have their own spins.
“What we learned from Paul Johnson remains the foundation of what we do,” Niumatalolo said. “Army, Navy and Air Force have all evolved, but the core of each offense is still the same.”
MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.