In a situation largely inverted from last year – when Navy came into the spring with a veteran defense but young and untested offense – the Mids will not only be searching for potential starters at both outside linebacker positions, but will also open up the competition for the inside linebacker spot vacated by last year’s leading tackler, Ross Pospisil.
The questions on defense aren’t limited to the linebacking corps alone, however, as Navy will be searching for a replacement for cornerback Blake Carter and a pair of defensive ends in Michael Walsh and Matt Nechak. While the Mids return a solid core of defensive players highlighted by safeties Wyatt Middleton and Emmett Merchant, the secondary remains full of questions when it comes to determining the depth chart. Evaluating players on the second and third team units will likely dominate the first two weeks of the spring session, with Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green looking to determine which previously unheralded players can contribute come fall.
“Defensively, I think we have a lot of question marks,” said Niumatalolo. “Basically we lost all of our linebackers. We’re starting from ground zero there, although it’s a great opportunity for some of our younger guys. We have some young guys who we feel good about but haven’t played much football.”
The Mids return only one player with significant playing time at linebacker from last season in senior Tyler Simmons, who finished third on the team with 68 tackles while splitting time with Tony Haberer. If the loss of veteran inside linebackers Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer isn’t cause enough for concern, Navy will also have to fill both the ‘Striker’ and ‘Raider’ outside linebacker positions vacated by Ram Vela and Craig Schaefer.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green said he and his staff will first look to juniors Caleb King and Max Blue to step in for Pospisil. King and Blue were standouts during spring practice last season, and given their special teams experience are considered the early leaders to take over on the inside. Still, Green said that he considers the linebacker competition “wide open,” and cautioned against ruling anyone out before practice gets underway.
“We’re looking for [Caleb and Max] to step up because they have had game experience,” explained Green. “As we go into the spring at both the inside and outside I see that as wide open. Learning the system and getting fundamentally sound, I look for both our inside and outside linebackers to have a very competitive spring.”
Green went on to explain that while the experience dropoff from last year’s seniors to this year’s linebackers is dramatic, the players currently in the running for the three open positions aren’t lacking in talent. Using the example of outgoing senior Craig Schaefer, Green is hopeful that a previously unheralded Navy upperclassman will be able to step up and take a leading role in the defense.
“I think we have some athletic guys who just haven’t had that playing experience yet,” said the veteran coordinator. “They can be good players at that position, and I use Craig Schaefer as a prime example. He was a guy who just worked extremely hard until he got a chance, and really flourished his senior year. The best way to put it is we’re looking for some guys like Schaefer – guys who it’s there time now and they need to step up.”
One player Green has high expectations for is senior Jerry Hauburgar, who has been limited the past two seasons because of injuries. While he’s currently listed behind Neil Doogan on Navy’s spring depth chart, Hauburgar’s blend of athleticism and on-field tenacity make him a prime candidate to take over for the departed Schaefer.
“We think Hauburgar has really good speed and athletically he has talent,” Green said. “He’s been limited but he is a guy who we want to step up like Schaefer did his senior year. We think he can be a guy who can give us solid play at that position.”
On paper, the Mids should field one of their best secondaries of the triple option era, with three mutli-year starters coming back. Wyatt Middleton, Emmett Merchant and cornerback Kevin Edward bring not only athleticism to the secondary, but also big game experience which should pay dividends against a difficult 2010 schedule. But beyond the first team, Navy’s secondary remains full of question marks. The team will be looking to replace shut-down cornerback Blake Carter, as well as looking to fill the nickelback position. The lack of depth in the secondary, coupled with the recent revelation that Kevin Edwards will miss spring practice as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, was a prime component in the staff’s decision to move Mario Washington from wide receiver to cornerback for the spring.
“Numbers wise we have three guys who are obviously coming back who started last year, but as far as tremendous depth at defensive back, we don’t have that many numbers compared to other positions on defense,” commented Green. “With Kevin out this spring, and rehabbing with his shoulder, it’s going to really give us a chance to look at two guys at the right and left corner spot.”
Sophomore Tra’ves Bush and junior Brian Blick figure to be in the running for the backup safety positions, while Kwesi Mitchell, Caleb Lucas, and David Wright will get reps at the two cornerback spots. Perhaps the biggest hit to the Navy secondary came in the February departure of longtime secondary assistant Joe Speed to Georgia Tech. On March 5th, Niumatalolo hired former Wake Forest GA Napoleon Sykes to assist Green in replacing Speed. The former linebacker hasn’t been on the job long, but has already managed to impress his boss.
“Coach Sykes brings a lot to the program,” said Green. “Through his first three weeks I think he’s proven that he’ll be a tremendous asset. I wish Joe the best luck in the world and we’re going to miss him, but coach Sykes is going to be good for our program.”
Navy will also be looking to establish depth on the defensive line, where the Mids return several players with game experience, including standout defensive end Jabaree Tuani and last year’s surprise at nose guard, Chase Burge. While the first line is veteran and proven, Green said that finding depth will be critical before the season begins.
“We’ve got a list of guys who played in JV games but don’t have any varsity experience, so that is a major concern in spring ball – to find depth at that position,” said the Navy defensive coordinator.
While establishing defensive depth will be among the team’s major goals through the beginning of April, it won’t be the only objective for the Midshipmen this spring. Above all, said Ken Niumatalolo, his team needs to prove it’s moved on from 2009, and is ready to embrace the challenges of a new season.
“We want to make sure our guys aren’t looking in the rear view mirrors and not looking at the 2009 season at all,” said Niumatalolo. “We’re starting as if everybody doesn’t know anything. It’s more the mentally that I’m looking for, and making sure our guys understand that we’re starting from ground zero, and teaching our younger guys how we play Navy football and how we do things.”