Local coach keeps Navy moving into bowl game
Offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo has the Midshipmen running strong
PHILADELPHIA » When Navy's ground game ran for 490 yards against Army on Dec. 3, it solidified the Midshipmen as the nation's best at running the football for the second time in the last three years.
Offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo has had an important hand in the Mids' crushing ground game since joining the Navy staff in the 1990s.
The key to success is the execution of coach Paul Johnson's option offense, but Niumatalolo's role isn't minimized.
Teaching and guiding an offensive line, which is anchored by junior center James Rossi, Niumatalolo's influence reaches far into offensive strategy. In addition to coaching the horses up front, he is also responsible for formulating game plans and the weekly routine schedule as Johnson's assistant head coach.
"There's no secret to the success of the program and the running game," Niumatalolo said just before the recent Army-Navy game here. " The technique is sound and we have great players who know their roles. Helping to run the option at Navy was easy for me because it's the same system we ran at Hawaii. It's tailored toward the quarterback, and we have some terrific athletes here to execute the position."
The Midshipmen (7-4) cap another successful season by facing Colorado State (6-5) in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday in San Diego.
Niumatalolo ran the option as a quarterback for Hawaii from 1987 to 1989, when Johnson was the offensive coordinator.
After Niumatalolo graduated, Johnson hired the now-41-year-old native of Laie and former Radford standout as an assistant. Niumatalolo stayed at Hawaii four years before moving to Navy after Johnson was named offensive coordinator of the Mids in 1995.
Following Johnson's departure to take the head coaching position at Georgia Southern, Niumatalolo moved to UNLV as an assistant coach, but rejoined Johnson at Navy in 2002 when Johnson relocated back to Annapolis as the Mids' head coach.
"(Johnson) encouraged me to get into coaching, and I enjoy what I'm doing," Niumatalolo added.
"Yes, I've been with (Johnson) for a while now, and he seems to take care of me. He is a coach who definitely knows what he is doing. The option offense can be difficult and certainly new to many. (Johnson) knows its operation, and how to fit athletes into certain positions to make it work."
Niumatalolo's work with the offense is impressive and numbers point to its success.
In the red zone this season, for example, Navy scored 83 percent of the time.
Niumatalolo also had a hand in the 121.3 pass efficiency accumulated by Mids' quarterbacks this fall. That includes 1,155 yards through the air from senior signal-caller Lamar Owens and five team touchdown passes.
Niumatalolo likes the offensive linemen "playing with a chip on (their) shoulder," and Johnson doesn't tolerate marginal effort.
Like the basic routines of the Naval Academy, Johnson tends to push players to the limit, and players, according to Niumatalolo, "respond with respect and heart."
Johnson's credibility is now a given. He won a national championship at the Division I-AA level with Georgia Southern, and he earned the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year award in 2004 for his 10-2 mark with Navy.
And his method for success is no secret.
"We work harder than anyone else," Niumatalolo said.
"The players believe in what (Johnson) is doing, and he shows teams how to win. He is just a hard-nosed coach who demands a great deal from his players."
Niumatalolo would love to follow Johnson from success to success, but knows this may not happen.
"Coaching is really a year-to-year profession," he said. "I can't tell you what will happen next year or the following year. So, as a coach, I really can't think too much about the future."
About the only thing left on his mind -- and in the minds of his players -- is the Poinsettia Bowl. Facing the Rams presents Niumatalolo and Johnson with another opportunity to unleash their productive offensive line and devastating running game.