It may only be May, but as far as Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is concerned, his team has already…
Chief among Green's concerns for his secondary is the lack of established depth in the unit, which was dealt an unexpected blow this offseason when junior safety Emmett Merchant decided to leave the team. Merchant, who recorded 38 tackles and two interceptions while starting three games a season ago, was expected to give Navy one of its best safety combinations in recent memory with the return of fellow junior Wyatt Middleton at rover. Combined with the return of upperclassman Blake Carter and Kevin Edwards at the cornerback positions, the Midshipmen came into the spring with what appeared to be an established first team unit in the secondary, as well as versatile backups in Darius Terry and Jesse Iwuji who could fill in as needed.
Yet is often the case, appearances can be deceiving. Merchant's departure has since compounded the preexisting lack of depth in the secondary, as coach Green and defensive backs coach Joe Speed were forced to move cornerback Darius Terry into Merchant's vacated position with the start of spring practice. Making matters even more difficult were the litany of injuries which have kept various Navy defenders out for parts of the spring, including an injury to rover Jarred Shannon which forced the talented sophomore to miss most of spring practice. Combined with the inability of players like Jesse Iwuji to step in and assume a starting role, Navy's two deep at the safety positions became something of a revolving door for much of the spring, with Wyatt Middleton providing the only steady presence. This situation, says Green, has not only slowed the progress of trying to develop depth in the entire defensive backfield, but has also left an open question mark as to who will start opposite Middleton at safety come September.
"We are lacking depth. It is one of the most critical areas for when we come out of camp," said Green matter-of-factly. "We have Blake [Carter] and Kevin [Edwards] at the corner spot and they have played and started, and Wyatt of course is a leader for us and had a really good year last year, but the other spot - the safety spot - it is a battle and it is up for grabs."
Fortunately for Navy, two players in particular have jumped out in the battle for the safety position. Green pointed out that both senior Darius Terry (one start at CB in 2008) and current plebe Kwesi Mitchell have set themselves apart from the competition for now, although he expects both to be pushed by newcomer Brian Blick and sophomore Jarred Shannon this summer.
"Darius [Terry] has played and Kwesi Mitchell had a good spring. [Kwesi] is just a plebe but he will be battling for time. Jarred Shannon is a guy who was out this spring but we expect to get him back on June 1st to give us depth and hopefully fight for a starting job. We've also got Brian Blick – a quarterback who moved to safety during spring practice - and he showed that he has a chance to help us."
While the loss of Merchant may have set Navy's secondary back, it has by no means crippled the unit heading out of the spring. If anything, says Green, the departure of Merchant came at just the right time in the offseason, and has given several of Navy's younger safeties the ability to come in and learn the system in the four weeks of spring practice. Those repetitions with the first and second teams, said Green, should prove invaluable in the players' development into the summer.
"You know guys like Brian [Blick], Kwesi [Mitchell], David Wright…all those young guys got a ton of reps this spring. You know I said earlier about how a couple of years ago when we lost the whole secondary in the first four games…well it is critical for us that we get solid backups who are just like starters and that hey can go in the game and play right now. Those young guys got plenty of reps this spring - and they made progress - but right now we have to take them to another level because they have to be ready to play on Saturday's."
Another positive for his secondary that Green takes out of the spring is, ironically, the improved play of his outside linebackers. Referencing the speed and coverage ability of both Ram Vela and Clint Sovie at the ‘striker' position, Green said he feels confident in his defense and its ability to play less in nickel packages in 2009, a distinction which he believes will let his defense keep experience on the field without having to sacrifice speed.
"In Clint and Ram at outside ‘backer I think we have two guys there who give us some depth where we might not have to play ‘nickel' as much because those guys are just like nickel backs."
Vela in particular has shown ability to play the hybrid position, which combines characteristics of both defensive back and outside linebacker. The five-foot, nine-inch Vela actually began his career at Navy as a defensive back, and has recorded three interceptions over the last two seasons, including a 40-yard pick six of Army quarterback Chip Bowden a year ago.
As far as continuing to experiment with different personnel in the secondary, Green does not anticipate making any more major changes before the beginning of the season. While he acknowledged that the movement of former linebacker Eric Stein and former quarterback Brian Blick into the defensive backfield was born from lack of able bodies, Green now feels confident enough in his young defenders to avoid further changes. He did not however rule out the possibility of using several incoming freshmen as both backups and members of the special teams unit, instead hinting that he expects at least one or two freshmen to come in and push the current backups for their spots on the depth chart.
"I see right now that we are going to get guys we have ready to go and hopefully get some guys from the Prep school and possibly one of the guys coming in direct" said Green, who referenced a potentially similar situation with Wyatt Middleton coming in to eventually start during the 2007 season. "Hopefully one of those guys will step up and give us a chance to get them in the two deep or three deep. So that's where we are in the secondary, but it is going to be important that we take a close look at the guys who are coming in as freshmen."
So where does Navy's secondary go from here? While Green acknowledges that he and his staff have a lot more evaluating to do before putting together the final depth chart for the season, he nevertheless sees positives heading into the summer. Getting Jarred Shannon back for the start of camp will be particularly important, as Navy's defensive coordinator said that he "can't wait" so see what the promising Shannon will be able to do once fully healthy. Still, cautions Green, the battle to claim positions in Navy's secondary will be as fluid as ever come fall camp, with no current backup assured of his spot.
"Considering the depth in the secondary, you are going to see some young guys fighting on the two deep and three deep when we come back in the fall."
Adam Nettina is always pleased to answer questions and receive comments and can be contacted at AdamNettina@gmail.com.