ANNAPOLIS — Navy, reliant on the triple option and ball control as it is, frequently attempts to convert fourth downs.
Ken Niumatalolo, holding the natural inclinations of a coach who worked on the offensive side throughout his career, would rather not see a punter on the field for understandable reasons.
In that context, punter Pablo Beltran aimed particularly high when he sat down with Niumatalolo during the spring to lay out his hopes for his sophomore year.
"I told him the biggest thing I wanted to do this year was I wanted him to have as much confidence going for it on fourth down as punting the football," Beltran said. "I know you can't just say that. You have to go out and prove it. I feel like every time I'm on the field I can help the team."
He's done just that.
Beltran ranks 10th in the country in punting as the Midshipmen (3-3) enter Saturday's game against Indiana (2-4) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. If he maintains his 45.5-yard average, he would break John Skaggs' 2001 program record of 44.8.
It's a noticeable improvement over a year ago, when Beltran arrived for camp at the end of plebe summer just after the Mids learned they had an unexpected vacancy at punter. Justin Haan left for a church mission, and Navy didn't have an established alternative.
Beltran put together one of his best stretches of punting to lock up a job that was his to lose in the first place. Yet as the year unfolded, the quality of his contact and the strength in his leg decreased, issues Beltran attributed to limiting his lifting regimen during the season.
While Beltran admittedly does not possess the physique of former Mid Alexander Teich, the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder is more committed to lifting this year. He's also mindful of details he often overlooked during a hectic freshman season.
"[It's] the no-step drills, the stuff that you never really want to do because you're not hitting the ball 45 yards, 50 yards, but you're hitting it 10 yards," Beltran said. "That's the biggest difference. You hit the ball, you work on your drop. That's the biggest difference from this year to last year. That's what's helped me be relaxed."
That's a priority for Beltran, whose devotion to limiting stress is particularly valuable considering the rigors of the academy.
"Pablo's always got something to say," long snapper Joe Cardona said. "You could be all the way across the locker room and he'll call you over and he'll be thinking of something to say while you're walking over. He's definitely a witty kid. He keeps things loose."
His production is an asset as well. He already has six 50-yard kicks. Beltran and Navy's punt coverage team have allowed only four returns for 26 yards on 22 total punts.
Then there was his Oct. 12 game at Central Michigan when he deposited all three of his punts at or inside the Chippewa 10.
"He couldn't have been any better than he was last week," Navy special teams coordinator Steve Johns said.
There's still time to test that theory. Half of the season still remains, and the Mids probably will find themselves in their share of close games, as they usually do.
Niumatalolo surely will face plenty of punt-or-go-for-it options. His fourth-down choices have gone well to date, with the Mids converting 11 of 17.
With a potent punter as the other alternative, there isn't much reason for anyone to worry -- least of all the loose Beltran.
"He's been doing great, and he's going to have to continue to do that for us to have a successful year," Niumatalolo said.
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