Sophomore slot back Maquel Haywood recalls the blur surrounding his rapid rise from scout team anonymity to a game-day presence with the Midshipmen.

A month into his freshman season in 2021, Haywood was adjusting to more than his Division I status. He had gone through the crucible of plebe summer and was deep into learning the culture at the Naval Academy. The academic and military and disciplinary demands were formidable. Sleep deprivation had become a companion.

Credit: Navy Athletics

Getting through his first preseason football camp intact was an achievement. There remained many college football lessons for Haywood to absorb on the practice field, in film study, in the weight room.

Then came the call.

Following Navy’s first victory in 2021, a 34-31 win over UCF, the Mids needed an able-bodied kick return man to join the varsity and prepare for the next game against visiting SMU. Suddenly, Haywood was a next man up, considerably ahead of the normal timetable for a plebe.

“My transition was abrupt,” says Haywood, who would return his first kickoff 38 yards in a 31-24 loss to the Mustangs. “We were banged up at the return position. It was a huge switch, going straight from the scout team [into the lineup] that fast. I quickly learned to take special teams super-seriously.”

He remembers the encouraging advice dispensed by then senior slot back Chance Warren.

“Chance kept telling me to stay calm, [since] I’ve been playing this game my whole life. It’s still just football,” Haywood added.

Haywood responded by validating Navy’s faith in him in 2021. He averaged 31 yards on 12 kick returns, including a 98-yard touchdown on Senior Day. It was Navy’s first kickoff return for a score since 2012.

Haywood’s role has expanded impressively as a starting slot back and return man this year. Heading into Saturday’s clash with Army at Lincoln Financial Field, Haywood has piled up a team-high, 869 all-purpose yards (451 rushing, 112 receiving, 306 return) and added a touchdown reception.

And Haywood is just one of numerous young and fast learners who have been pressed into early varsity service during the past three seasons at Navy, due in part to circumstances generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The story of the 2022 Mids goes deeper than their 4-7 record. This year’s team, with only  four seniors in the starting lineup, appears positioned to lead Navy football back to relatively normal times – back to the sustained success that has mostly marked the program’s last two decades.

It is a correction the Mids are starving for. Since 2020, when the pre-vaccine year of the coronavirus lockdowns ignited a wave of attrition and transfers that severely depleted Navy football’s Class of ’23 – and clipped the junior class as well – Navy has been in a survive-and-rebuild mode.

The Mids began this season with 25 seniors, down nearly 40 from the group that spent plebe summer together in 2019. Navy had little choice but to lean more heavily and unusually on its youth, and it shows glaringly on the Mids’ depth chart.

Eighteen of Navy’s 22 combined starters on offense and defense are sophomores and juniors. A year ago, 22 players started for the first time. This year, 17 players have done the same.

That group features juniors such as defensive linemen, two-year starters Jacob Busic and Donald Berniard, Jr., first-year starter Clay Cromwell, and inside linebacker Will Harbour. They, along with senior outside linebackers John Marshall and Nicholas Straw and sophomore linebacker Colin Ramos — form the front seven of the country’s fourth-ranked rushing defense.

Three juniors — left tackle Sam Glover, center Lirion Murtezi and right guard Josh Pena –start on the offensive line. Junior quarterback Xavier Arline, who replaced injured junior Tai Lavatai last month, led the Navy offense in the Mids’ 17-14 road upset of UCF on November 19.

Junior wide receiver Jayden Umbarger is a second-year starter. Vincent Terrell Jr., recognized as Navy’s most improved player last spring, has started eight games at slot back. Strong safety Eavan Gibbons started seven games in 2021 and has started all 11 games this season.

In addition to Haywood and Ramos, the sophomore starters include left guard Connor McMahon, fullback Daba Fofana, cornerbacks Mbiti Williams, Jr. and Elias Larry and free safety Rayaun Lane III.

Lane has started every game in ’22 and will start his 18th career game against Army. Lane, from Jessup, Md., came direct to the academy from Gilman School in Baltimore.

“It was never about trying to get on top of the depth chart,” says Lane, who ranks third on the team with 67 tackles and second with 40 solo tackles – just behind Marshall, the lone unanimous first-team, all-American Athletic Conference selection. “It’s been about working my tail off every day and learning as much as I can every day and being the best player that I can put together.”

“It’s unusual for so many young guys to have so much experience,” Lane adds. “But we have a lot of guys willing to step up to the plate and do whatever it takes to get better. Nothing is easy at the Naval Academy.”

Ramos, listed at 5-feet-11, 205 pounds, took a Haywood-like path to his starting position. Five weeks into scout-team duty as a freshman, he was promoted to the varsity, primarily as a special teams contributor while working in at linebacker. He started the last two games of the season on defense.

Ramos has started nine of 11 games this year and ranks second on the Mids with 71 tackles, including eight for a loss, also second.

“I think back to my first start at Temple, when the game was so fast. My eyes aren’t as big now,” Ramos says. “I’ve had to make the most of every meeting, every snap, every rep, every day in a great linebacker room with a ton of competition.”

Fofana was unknown to outside observers coming out of camp. He now leads a fullback group of three sophomores, including Anton Hall (291 yards rushing), with whom he has alternated as a starter.

Since his breakout game on October 8, when he rushed for 159 yards and three TDs in a 53-21 rout over visiting Tulsa, Fofana has seized the position. He has rushed 175 times for 749 yards and six touchdowns – team-highs among active Mids. 

The Tulsa game was a showcase of sorts by some of Navy’s future. Terrell gashed Tulsa on the perimeter for a career-high 93 yards on 17 carries. Sophomore punt returner Amin Hassan dazzled on a 57-yard punt return that set up Fofana’s second score. It was the longest punt return by a Navy player in 26 years

And freshman receiver Nathan Kent, running his first play ever in a Navy uniform, ignited the home crowd with a 70-yard burst on a reverse play that left pursuing defenders in the dust.

“All football players understand that when you get an opportunity, you had better make the most of it,” Fofana says. “That game was the first time we displayed the kind of potential we knew we had. Everything came together.”

“We’ve got a really fast, athletic [slot back] unit. I think we’re going to have good problems at that position next year,” says Terrell, who has gained 221 yards each as a rusher and receiver. “A lot of juniors and even sophomores have had to step into leadership roles this year. I’m honored to be part of a Navy football team. Whether it’s a winning or losing team, we’re going to battle and bleed together.”

“The reps are so valuable for our young guys. Those reps would not have been available if we didn’t have such a diminished [senior] class,” says Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry. He tips his hat to a defense that has held six opponents to 20 points or fewer and has routinely shut down the run, despite playing against teams with no shortage of transfers or players benefiting from redshirt years and an extra “Covid” year.

There are no such benefits at the Naval Academy.

“We’ve got a bunch of second- and third-year guys playing against a bunch of fifth- and sixth-year guys. It’s a significant disadvantage,” Newberry says. “I’m excited to finish the year strong, and excited about the talent and the quality of guys coming back. In terms of knowing our system, our brand, knowing each other and trusting each other, we’ll be much further along next year. We’ll be back to a normal size in our junior and senior classes.”

“The most important thing first is taking care of Army [for the third time in four years],” says Busic, an All-ACC honorable mention at defensive end with 33 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and six sacks. “It’s kind of unspoken among us, but If we stay together, stay healthy and attack the offseason the way I know we will, I think we could do something special next year.”

Navy’s 17-14 upset of UCF – then ranked 17th – on November 19 represented a true sign of progress to head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who loved how Navy kept responding throughout a tense game against a AAC title contender with 21 transfers. Nuimatalolo says he saw good signs throughout November in losses to Cincinnati and Notre Dame by a combined 13 points.

Next year, the conference officially will say goodbye to Cincinnati, Houston and UCF and hello to Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, Alabama-Birmingham and Texas-San Antonio.

“This team has gone through things that have never happened here. The pandemic part of it put us in the lowest of lows as a program, because of circumstances the world was dealing with,” Niumatalolo says. “But I really feel like we are coming out of it. We’ve got guys coming from our prep school and we just beat a team that’s got 21 transfers.

“We’ve played our best football late [in the season] against really good teams. We’ve got to finish our last game right and look forward to what I think could be a really good year. Our young guys have been amazing. The future is super bright.”

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