Navy senior offensive tackle Kip Frankland still appreciates the first game day on which he lined up as a Division I player and confronted the blur that engulfed him.
The size and strength of the men across the line of scrimmage startled him, as did the explosive speed unleashed by defenders at the snap of the football. The degree of difficulty weighed heavily on a green offensive lineman struggling to catch up to it all.
“When I played my first game [in 2020], everything came at me really fast,” recalls Frankland, who appeared in nine games in the 2020 Covid season, mainly on special teams. He would start the final three games at tackle. “Once you get in there for your first one, that’s a big deal. You have to adjust to the speed and everything a defense is trying to do. You learn a lot in your first game and things start slowing down after that.”
Frankland, 6 feet 1, 306 pounds, is now in a leadership position he likely did not foresee two years ago. Besides being a team captain — and the Captain of Captains for the 35 varsity teams —there is no question Frankland is the leader of the always-critically important offensive line at Navy.
That’s because Frankland started all 12 games for the Midshipmen last year and took more snaps than any other Navy player. He is by far the dean of a group that arguably will begin the 2022 season as the most inexperienced line rotation ever under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who enters his 15th season at the helm in Annapolis.
The closest to Frankland in veteran status is junior left guard Josh Pena, listed at 6-2, 286, who started nine games in 2021, his first year of varsity action. Junior guard Lirion Murtezi, who can also play center, emerged as a starter late in ’21 but went down in his third start on November 20 with a season-ending injury in Navy’s heartbreaking loss to East Carolina.
Senior left tackle Jamie Romo, 6-5, 275, who did not see varsity action his first two seasons, started the last three games in ’22.
If Murtezi stays at guard, the Mids will open against Delaware on September 3 with a center — probably sophomore David Hixon 6-3, 272, — with no varsity experience.
The preseason three-deep depth chart includes five seniors, five juniors, and five sophomores. Ashley Ingram, Navy’s 15th-year assistant who coaches the guards and centers, has been impressed with the athleticism, consistency, and versatility of the unit overall and sees a core of dependable starters and backups emerging.
Through the first half of camp, junior guard Ahmad Bradley, 6-3, 320, senior guard Brandon Moore, 6-1, 319, and junior tackle Sam Glover, 6-3, 265, were among the standouts.
“A good majority of guys [in the line rotation] are seniors and juniors and guys who played at NAPS. A lot of them played spring ball [in ’22]. I think we’ve got talent and we’ll have depth,” Ingram says. “There’s more than enough ability and want-to and buy-in for this to be a really good group. Having a normal offseason [which was missing during nearly two years of Covid restrictions] has made a big difference.”
Having junior quarterback Tai Lavatai back to lead the offense after he took command last year with encouraging results provides a clear shot of confidence. Lavatai started to shine last year as Navy finished the year with a blowout win over Temple and a huge, season-ending 17-13 win over Army.
So much of what will unfold in 2022 will come down to how well the offensive line gels and how healthy it stays. The Mids need some relative unknowns — such as Bradley, who was impressive at the end of the year, or Romo, who capitalized on his three strong starts at the end of ’21 with a great offseason — to become mainstays.
A year ago, injuries decimated the offensive line, as Navy started nine combinations up front over 12 games. The Mids started five different tackles, five guards, and three centers. Consider the offensive line in 2019, led by then-seniors Ford Higgins and the late David Forney, who started all 13 games together in front of record-setting quarterback Malcolm Perry.
“Chemistry is so important on the offensive line. It’s five guys who have to work in unison,” Niumatalolo says. “Our line in ’19 had played so much football together, they developed some of their own [pre-snap] calls.
“It’s hard enough to block the right guy at this level when you’re going after the right guy. But if you don’t go after the right [defender], you’ve got no chance and the play is going to break down,” Numatalolo adds. “Last year, with all of the injuries, we were just getting that down toward the end of the season. After the Army win, I felt really good about Tai and our line.”
A year after the Navy faced one of the toughest schedules in the country — 11 of its opponents played in bowl games, most in the country — the Mids are facing another grueling test.
The Navy is working to tighten its special team’s coverage units that cost it dearly at times in ‘21. Its defense intends to build on a season in which it improved markedly on 2020. The Mids want to generate more turnovers on defense and avoid untimely penalties that bit them last year on both sides of the ball.
But Navy’s winning formula — and the key to its 15 winning seasons in the previous 19 seasons — starts with a run-heavy option attack that chews up yardage and clock and limits opponents to an uncomfortably low number of possessions. The formula most years depends on the offense to score around 30 points or more and has allowed the Mids to win many one-score decisions. The system depends on offensive execution, especially late in tight games.
Although the offense improved substantially on the Covid anomaly of ’20, it started slowly in the first half of ’21. The Mids suffered too many three-and-outs, were unable to finish drives, settling for too many field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. The Navy’s offense did not score with consistency until the end of the year.
Navy averaged only 20.1 points and went 2-7 in games in which it scored 21 points or fewer. The Mids ranked fifth in Division I in time of possession (34:48) but finished ninth in the nation in average rushing yards (225.5 ypg). In the past 20 seasons, the only season worse was 2020 when the Mids ranked 52nd with 177.6 yards rushing yards per game.
“We’d either bog down before we got into field goal range or we’d fail to score a touchdown when we got closer,” Niumatalolo says. “It’s good to chew up a lot of time on offense. But if you don’t score, it doesn’t matter.”
Over the past 20 seasons, Navy has won six NCAA rushing titles, finished 12 seasons in Division I’s top three, and wound up 16 seasons in the top five.
This is where Navy wants to be, needs to be, and expects to be. And it all starts with the grunts up front and Lavatai orchestrating the offense off of option reads.
“All 11 guys on offense have to mesh together and the five linemen have to work so well together,” Ingram says. “What the right tackle does on a play is relative to what’s going on with the left guard. The parts must be in sync. It takes so much work and continuity. There has to be togetherness within the group.
“The Navy team that walked off the field after beating Army was not a bad football team,” he adds. “We’re not feeling our way through this camp. I think we can come out of it playing at a pretty high level [to start the year]. We’re coming out swinging.”