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The case for Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo as BYU's next head coach

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BYU's next leader might be running a retro offense on the other side of the country.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the nice things about writing about the BYU coaching search is that at most, there's only about ten possible candidates. That list includes FCS coaches, major college coordinators, current BYU staffers, and two FBS head coaches. One of those head coaches, Navy headman Ken Niumatalolo, might be the most divisive plausible candidate, but that doesn't make him any less of an excellent one.

For those that are unfamiliar with 'Coach Ken', here's the skinny: The 50 year old Hawaii native has been the head coach at Navy since 2007, where he's made a bowl and won at least eight games in every season but one. This year, he got the Midshipmen into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2004, and their highest ranking (No. 16) since 1979. Niumatalolo has a 66-37 record at the Naval Academy, pushed his QB, Keenan Reynolds, into the Heisman conversation, and recorded a 9-2 record this season, all while playing Navy's toughest schedule since 2000. Oh yeah, and he's done it at the Naval Academy, the hardest place to coach in the country. Yes, even harder than BYU.

When you add all of that, plus the fact that Niumatalolo is a Latter-Day Saint who even appeared in the "Meet the Mormons" movie, you'd think that he'd be a slam dunk candidate to be the next BYU head coach. Except Niumatalolo has achieved all of this while running the triple-option at Navy, and it seems like a reasonable assumption that he'd bring that system to BYU if he headed to Provo. And that gives a lot of fans some pause. But it probably shouldn't.

Yes, the run-first, run-second option offense is about as far as you can get from what BYU has run the last few decades, but there isn't any reason why that can't change. Utah isn't like Texas, a state with deeply advanced high school football passing systems that produces tons of sophisticated QBs that need to be utilized. There is nothing unique to BYU's personnel or geography that would require an Air Raid or pass-first offense, other than tradition.

If anything, BYU's embracing of the Air Raid (or GFGH) is similar to Navy's reasons for running the option. Both systems are ways for teams without superior athletes to compete against more talented teams. Barring a very significant change, BYU is probably going to lack the blue chip athletes they're going to face on their future schedules, so some level of underdog tactics need to be used. Why not take advantage of their elevation and proximity to some big ol' Polynesian offensive linemen, and run a tempo-focused option attack? Their ability to do that successfully then relies on coaching, and execution, and Niumatalolo's teams have certainly demonstrated that shouldn't be an issue.

Can he recruit? That's a fair question, and it isn't really fair to just look at the Rivals' ranking of his Navy teams, seeing as Navy has a size restriction, stricter academics than BYU, and oh yeah, requires their football recruits to *actually do military service*. It's reasonable to assume that an option focused team may struggle to attract the same caliber of athlete at every position compared to a team running a pro style (Tanner Mangum isn't going to BYU to only throw the ball six times a game), but could they do better than Navy? Sure. Given BYU's local popularity, ESPN contract and other advantages, with the right staff, imagining BYU maintaining a similar-ish level of recruiting isn't out of the question, given a Niumatalolo administration.

One reason for that optimism? Coaching at Navy is the best preparation you can get for coaching at BYU, outside of actually coaching at BYU. Nobody else in college football has a stronger code for student conduct, tougher recruiting restrictions, high expectations for both conduct and performance, and the pressure of representing a larger organization than the military academies. He's already shown that he's able to take all of those challenges, face several teams with better talent and more structural advantages, and still win football games. If you can do it there, why not in Provo?

That offense, coupled with the level of talent that BYU could potentially secure, has a much higher ceiling than Navy. Think Georgia Tech. And under Paul Johnson's option attack. Georgia Tech has appeared in six AP top 25s, finishing there three times. They've made two Orange Bowls. They've won 11 games twice. Sure, there have been some 6-6 seasons in there, but I think any BYU fan would be thrilled with a team whose highs reached that high. With Niumatalolo and the option, with the right coaching staff and a bit of luck, that's on the table.

I don't think there is any candidate BYU could hire, save for maybe Whittingham, that is a 100% sure thing. Certainly there are other coaches who are safer bets. But perhaps nobody has a higher ceiling, and given his track record, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about his potential. Unique offense or not, BYU could do a heck of a lot worse than hiring  Ken Niumatalolo as their head coach. They might not even be able to do better.