Navy safety Alohi Gilman is a Hawaiian gem

(Photo: David Rosenblum, AP)

Usually, you have to get up pretty early on Saturdays in Hawaii to watch Navy football. But in the town of Laie, a lot of proud residents are willing to do it.

For one thing, it’s the hometown of highly successful Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo. But there was another reason for Laie to tune in this season. Alohi Gilman shares the same hometown as the coach, and the safety has become a key contributor in the secondary as a freshman.

“Every week whenever I call home, I get a bunch of texts that say, ‘Tell Coach Ken I said hi,’ ” Gilman says. “They’re all rooting for Navy. They’re all pretty excited to see us on a stage this big, so they’re willing to get up early.”

Niumatalolo said he knew Gilman’s mother when they were growing up. “Laie is a pretty small town, so you’re excited to see someone from your hometown do well,” the coach said.

In a year when young players needed to step up for Navy, Gilman made the most of his chance. He is second on the team in total tackles with 62 and among the leaders in pass breakups.

“That was one of my goals. I just came in here with the mind-set that I wanted to play and contribute right away,” he says. “I worked hard in the offseason and just prepared myself for the mental side of things. I just tried to show the coaches and the guys in the upper class that I could make plays.”

Niumatalolo says Gilman earned it.

“You don’t have too many freshmen who come in and play, much less start, but he was one of our best special-teams players to start the season and has been put into the lineup and is playing really well,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s still a freshman, so he still makes freshman mistakes, but he’s playing as well as anybody we have on defense. He’s having an exceptional season.”

Gilman’s rapid climb up the depth chart is even more impressive when you consider he’s relatively new to the defensive side of the ball. He says growing up he played primarily offense as a scatback and a receiver.

“I didn’t start playing defensive back until my junior year of high school,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I’d like it at first. Now I love it.”

A three-sport athlete in high school who also played basketball and track, Gilman flashed his playmaking ability immediately. In Week 2, he earned American Athletic Conference defensive player of the week honors after the Mids’ 28-24 win against Connecticut in which he forced and recovered a fumble for a touchdown, a sequence no defensive player is likely to forget.

“I just remember UConn was stuck on their goal line,” he says. “They ran a QB sneak, and I saw him holding the ball kind of loose. I just managed to reach in there and grab it.”

That play, and the defense’s performance overall for that matter, was pivotal for that early stretch of the season while the offense was battling inexperience and injuries. In November, it was the offense’s turn to carry the team.

“That’s been fun to see,” Gilman says of the offense’s development. “They’re just playing phenomenally right now. Early on we had to carry things a little. The good thing about this is as a defense we’re still not at our full potential. We can still get better.”

The unit gives up its share of yards, but the Mids also have the ability to make stops when they need them. When opponents reach the red zone, Navy is able to limit them to a field goal attempt about a third of the time.

One trouble area: third-down conversion defense. The Mids are 127th out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

If the defense does get better, the Mids have a good chance to make it 15 wins in a row against Army this weekend. That should make the residents of Laie happy.

“Oh, they’ll be watching,” Gilman says. “They’ll be up early and ready to go.”

Follow Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus

Contributing: Erik Brady