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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Navy’s Niumatalolo era begins in bowl today

SAN DIEGO » Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk prepared for this day.

Knew it was coming.

The success of head coach Paul Johnson -- first as an assistant at Navy and Hawaii, and later as head coach at Georgia Southern and most recently at the Naval Academy -- portended reaching a higher plateau.

In his six years at Navy, Johnson amassed a record of 45-29 and five bowl appearances. When coaching opportunities developed at Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Duke, Nebraska and elsewhere, Johnson went immediately to the top of the list. In reality, Johnson's eventual departure from Annapolis was a no-brainer.

When Johnson approached Gladchuk just after the Army game on Dec. 1, there was not much to their conversation. Though Johnson told reporters before and after the Army game that one special deal had to be on the table for consideration, several secrets were in place. The only question remaining was Johnson's eventual destination.

When his appointment as head coach at Georgia Tech was announced Dec. 7, some felt betrayed. After all, it was thought, if one is going to leave, leave after the season. The fact the Mids have one game left on the schedule, the Poinsettia Bowl tonight against Utah (ESPN, 4 p.m.), many believed Johnson should have made his move after this game.

To ensure cohesion, long-time Navy assistant and Hawaii native Ken Niumatalolo was quickly named by Gladchuk as Johnson's replacement. Because Niumatalolo was appointed the day after Johnson's formal acceptance of the Georgia Tech job, observers figured Gladchuk did not think long and hard on this decision.

After all, the transition would be smooth and seamless. Johnson's vaunted triple option offense remains intact, and the offense would continue to be in the good hands of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, the Star-Bulletin's 2004 player of the year from Kapolei High.

That said, Niumatalolo, assistant head coach under Johnson, takes over an offense in which he had considerable impact and influence. When appointed, he went out of his way to announce Johnson's successful offense would not be tampered with.

"We have tried to keep things in place," he said at the time of the appointment. "There hasn't been much change. We have tried to keep the continuity of everything so there is some familiarity with what we are doing."

To that end, Navy (8-4) will continue to run the triple option, and interchange several lethal weapons such as Reggie Campbell, Zerbin Singleton, Adam Ballad, Booby Doyle and O. J. Washington into different looks. Though Utah is strong defending the pass, the Utes (8-4) have allowed an average of 130 yards on the ground this season, good for fifth in the Mountain West Conference and 35th in the nation.

Conversely, the Mids average 351.5 yards rushing per game, 444.5 in total offense and will probably have, after the current bowl season is over, set an NCAA record by leading the nation in rushing three straight years.

Under Niumatalolo, that approach probably will not change.

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