Photo: Nelson Smith (43) after a touchdown against Holy Cross
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo knows he can count on junior fullback Nelson Smith. A year ago, Smith opened the season at Hawaii with 10 carries for 86 yards. Midway through the season he posted his first 100-yard game with 108 against Temple.
But this year the coaching staff wants to count on him for more plays and more quarters – especially when Navy attempts a comeback. Smith, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound junior, got the message in spring drills while contending for the starting job.
“I was getting winded in our hurry-up offense,” Smith said. “I had to extend my runs in practice and get in more conditioning work so I can play a full game and don’t have to be taken out.”
In this year’s season opener, Navy didn’t need a full game to evaluate his progress in a 45-7 rout of Holy Cross. The first three periods and a few carries into the fourth were enough. He led the team in rushes (15) and yards (96) while scoring three touchdowns before Niumatalolo emptied his bench, with 14 backs eventually carrying the ball.
“We were really pleased with him in the first game,” Niumatalolo said. “Coach MacDonald (Jason, the fullbacks coach) has done a good job with him. He’s always been talented kid, but we wanted to make sure he came into camp in shape. He worked his butt off in camp.”
Navy (1-0), which is coming off a bye week, is likely to need more of Smith this week as the Midshipmen open American Athletic Conference play against East Carolina (1-1) on Saturday at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy is seeking a bounce back from last year’s 5-7 record they kept it home from bowl season for the first time since the 2011 season.
A vital first step in the triple-option can be strong play from Smith at the fullback position.
“Everything we do starts with the fullback,” Niumatalolo said. “If you allow (defenders) to run to the perimeter, it makes for a long game. You’ve got to keep people honest and get the fullback going.”
Smith is considered one of Navy’s quicker fullbacks at hitting the hole in recent years, but he also has power to break tackles. Against Holy Cross, he demonstrated speed with a 49-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and power with broken tackles.
“I was really pleased that sometimes the linebackers didn’t run out – they were sitting in the hole – but he bulldozed through them for four yards. I was pleased with how physical he ran.”
Last year Navy lacked consistent play at fullback, with Anthony Gargiulo’s 427 yards and no touchdowns good for the second-leading rusher. Smith finished third with 417 yards and three TDs, but his number of carries dropped off in the final six games.
Navy’s ideal fullback consistency was on display in the 11-2 season in 2015 with two 1,000-yard rushers. Fullback Chris Swain ran for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns, opening the field for quarterback Keenan Reynolds to total 1,373 with 24 TDs.
That’s the offense ECU coach Mike Houston, who used the triple-option earlier in his career as a head coach at The Citadel and Lenoir-Ryhne, fears seeing in his first ECU-Navy game. He has been preparing his defense for a Navy offense that he says “is like a machine” when it has its inside-outside game clicking. ECU and Navy haven’t played since 2016, when the Midshipmen ran over the Pirates 66-31 with 428 yards rushing en route to winning the AAC West title.
That’s the machine Smith wants to be a part of this season.
“I’m just trying to do what can for the coaches to trust me to be a premier back,” Smith said.
Trust is something Niumatalolo has shown Smith since high school at Parkview Baptist in Baton Rouge, La. Navy was his only offer from a Division I school. Not even Army and Air Force recruited him, although that happens more commonly that might be expected among the three service academies seeking the same high-achieving yet lightly recruited athletes while chasing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
In high school, Smith was a fullback in a triple-option, but that advantage learning the offense was unrelated to his commitment, which included a year at the Naval Academy Prep School before admission to Annapolis.
Once Navy showed interest, Parkview Baptist assistant coach and teacher Matt Shelton encouraged Smith to consider the long-term benefits of a free education and a guaranteed job upon graduation with a five-year military commitment. There are many benefits to an Annapolis degree beyond football.
“He knew a lot about the academies,” Smith said. “Once I looked at all it had to offer, it was a no brainer.”
And now he’s in the middle of the Navy offense with the job of jump-starting it each game
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