[Baltimore Sun] Army-Navy 2023: Navy senior quarterbacks have endured ups and downs, developed close friendship

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Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai have spent the past four years battling to be Navy football’s starting quarterback. The two seniors have seen their share of success and disappointment.

Between the two of them, Arline and Lavatai have started 36 of the 45 games Navy has played over the past four seasons, a time in which Navy went 16-29 and endured a coaching change.

They started under the leadership of Ken Niumatalolo and ended under the direction of his successor, Brian Newberry. One constant over the past years has been quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper, who has become close with both.

“A lot of great memories with Tai and Xavier. It goes by fast and now they’re seniors. Their time is almost over. It’s been a pleasure coaching both of those guys,” Jasper said. “Obviously, things haven’t gone the way we all would have liked during their careers. They’ve both been through their ups and downs, some changes here and there. They’ve both persevered through a lot. Through it all they’ve handled everything with class.”

Arline (5-foot-9, 183 pounds) and Lavatai (6-2, 221) are vastly different on almost every level beginning with their noticeable size disparity.

Arline was a direct-entry recruit to Annapolis, while Lavatai attended the Naval Academy Prep School. Arline is primarily known as a speedy, shifty runner with the ability to make defenders miss with his quickness and moves. Lavatai is a plodding power runner who does most of his damage between the tackles.

A narrative throughout their careers (dispelled somewhat this season) was that Lavatai was a very effective passer, while Arline struggled throwing the ball.

Arline is highly competitive and intensely focused, while Lavatai describes himself as “laid-back and relaxed.” They say opposites attract and that adage applies to Lavatai and Arline, who have forged a close friendship despite being competitors on the field.

“Me and Tai are best buds. I think that’s the coolest thing about it. We’ve been fighting for the same exact spot on the football field for four years and we’ve become real good friends,” Arline said. “Whether it’s walking to class, being roommates on the road or hanging together on weekends … there’s nothing that comes between us on or off the field.”

Arline and Lavatai arrived at the academy for plebe summer in 2020 deep into a pandemic. They, along with the other freshmen, were not permitted to practice with the football team until late August.

Arline ascended quickly onto the depth chart and was a surprise starter at Tulane in the second game of the 2020 season. An incredibly confident individual, Arline said at the time he expected to start as a plebe. However, with hindsight he realizes how remarkable that was.

“As I mature and have some perspective, it is crazy that I was starting a game three weeks after beginning practice. It was pretty cool and unique,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s where I expected to be.”

Arline struggled against Tulane and wound up getting replaced by senior Dalen Morris. However, Arline remained the backup and wound up starting two more games that season. One was historic as Arline became just the fifth freshman to start at quarterback for Navy against archrival Army. Making the moment even more challenging was the fact the game was played at Michie Stadium on the West Point campus.

Arline acquitted himself well as he led the Mids with 109 rushing yards in a 15-0 Army victory.

Navy vs. North Texas football
Terrance Williams/Capital Gazette

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai throws during the second half of a game against North Texas on Oct. 7, in Annapolis. (Terrance Williams for the Capital)

Back-and-forth battle

Navy opened the quarterback competition during spring camp and that marked the first time Arline and Lavatai truly went head-to-head. In a reversal of fortunes, Lavatai wound up winning the starting job ahead of the 2021 season.

Foreshadowing what was to come, Lavatai was injured during the season opener against Marshall and Arline got starts against Air Force and Houston. Lavatai was reinstalled as the starter after getting cleared and wound up starting 10 games, including all four Navy wins.

None was bigger than a 17-13 defeat of Army at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Lavatai set the tone early by scoring a touchdown on an 8-yard run.

“I would say that’s probably the best memory. That’s something you dream about when you’re little — playing and winning a game in front of that many people,” Lavatai said of the 2021 Army-Navy game. “Especially a game you come to learn from the moment you get here is so important to the entire school. That’s the game of all games here at the academy. That was definitely a great experience and something I’ll cherish my whole life.”

Finishing the season strong established Lavatai as the clear-cut starting quarterback and he performed fairly well through eight games in 2022. However, he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Temple and that put Arline atop the depth chart once again.

Arline almost led Navy to an improbable comeback victory over Notre Dame, then played perhaps the finest game of his career sparking a 17-14 upset of nationally ranked Central Florida. He made a second start against Army and once again endured devastation on the goal line.

Navy was on the verge of taking the lead in the second overtime session when fullback Anton Hall fumbled while running into the end zone. Army recovered and subsequently kicked the game-winning field goal.

Lavatai missed spring practice while recovering from surgery and Arline was unavailable for most practices after sustaining an injury while playing lacrosse. It was an important spring since Navy was installing a new offense and the two rising seniors found themselves dropped to the bottom of the depth chart.

Lavatai worked hard at rehabilitation and made an impressive recovery, which enabled him to challenge sophomore Blake Horvath during preseason practice. However, Arline wound up getting minimal practice repetitions and was switched to slotback two weeks before the season opener against Notre Dame.

Fate would once again intervene and alter their circumstances.

Lavatai sustained yet another injury that has forced him to miss the last four games. Horvath also got injured, while freshman Braxton Woodson was unable to seize the starting job when given the opportunity.

Faced with a dwindling depth chart, the coaching staff moved Arline back to quarterback and he wound up beating out Woodson. He is expected to make a fifth straight start Saturday against Army and has brought some stability to the position.

Arline has mixed feelings about the turn of events, saying  “obviously, you want to be playing on the right terms. You never wish injury on anyone, ever.” However, the Long Island native takes pride in having remained mentally tough in the face of setbacks and disappointments.

“They say it’s not about how you start, but how you finish. I always believed in myself no matter what was going on,” Arline said. “Not too long ago I was a slotback. Now I have the opportunity to lead this team against Army for one last time. It’s been a crazy journey over the past four years. I’ve had the ability to persevere through everything that’s come my way and stay strong.”

Meanwhile, Lavatai can only lament the injuries that limited his availability the last three seasons.

“Unfortunately, that’s how my football career has gone in both high school and college. Injury after injury and having to push to get back as fast as I could,” he said. “Going through that stuff just built my character and challenged me as a person. I learned how to get through those times and I believe it will help me outside of football.”

Finishing strong

Jasper has been there through it all and provided support for Arline and Lavatai every step of the way. Navy football is a family and the coaching staff promises the parents of recruits they will take care of their sons. Jasper has lived up to that vow as it relates to the two senior quarterbacks.

“It’s more than football here. I make sure during meetings that I’m always sharing things about my own personal experiences. I talk about when I was on the fence or at a fork in the road and happened, by the grace of God, to fall the right way,” he said. “Tai and X know me beyond coaching. I’ve shared a lot of personal things with these guys. I’ve cried with these guys.”

Jasper references Arline’s superb public speaking ability and believes he could become a successful politician. He jokes that Lavatai will live to the age of 100 because of his attitude and personality.

“Nothing fazes Tai. He’s always even-keeled and doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s always relaxed and has ice water in his veins,” Jasper said.

Lavatai laughed when told of Jasper’s comments and did not dispute his description.

“I’m pretty laid-back and relaxed. I like to hang out and have a good time. I like to live stress-free because I feel like having stress in your life brings you down,” he said. “I never want to be a sad dude. I like to enjoy the moment and that’s kind of how I go about my life.”

Lavatai has recovered from his latest injury and will be available as a backup Saturday against Army. He’s happy to be dressing for the final game of his career after standing on the sideline in a sweat suit for last season’s Army-Navy showdown.

“It’s kind of surreal. You’ve played this game since you were 5 or 6 years old and grew up loving it. You don’t think it’s ever going to end and now here we are coming down to our last game. It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s coming to an end. It’s been a fun ride, a great experience,” Lavatai said.

Lavatai has been assigned surface warfare as a service selection and is hoping to be stationed at Naval Station Mayport, not far from his hometown in the Jacksonville suburb of St. John’s.

Meanwhile, Arline hopes to erase three years of frustration by beating Army at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

“Everyone tells you from the time you’re a plebe to enjoy every moment because it comes fast. You kind of brush them aside and keep doing what you’re doing because you never really think it’s going to get to this point, but it does and it’s here,” Arline said. “We have three more full padded practices after today, so I’m just trying to soak it all in and enjoy the moment.”

Saturday does not mark the end of Arline’s college athletics career since he also plays varsity lacrosse for Navy and he will get another shot at Army during the spring. However, saying goodbye to football is hard since the desire to play that sport is why he decommitted from North Carolina and made the difficult decision to attend the Naval Academy.

“I sacrificed opportunities at a lot of schools in order to come here and play football,” Arline said. “Football has always held a special place in my heart, so the fact this sport is ending is tough. Just talking about it now, I can feel my throat getting choked up. It’s such a special game that I’m going to miss dearly.”

Arline chose Marine Corps Ground as a service assignment and has considered joining the JAG (judge advocate general) division.

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