Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer, Craig Schaefer, Clint Sovie, and Ram Vela weren’t just familiar faces in Navy’s 3-4 defensive scheme last season: they were the physical and emotions leaders of one of the nation’s most improved units, and made up 51 of 52 linebacker starts during the year (the one exception came when safety Wyatt Middleton started a single game). Pospisil, a three-year starter and team captain a year ago, led the team in tackles and tackles for a loss, while Vela and Schaefer provided more than their fair share of big plays for Buddy Green’s defense.
Despite the massive losses to graduation, Niumatalolo was optimistic in his assessment of this year’s linebacker corps during last week’s press conference, and said that for what the replacement players lack in snaps, they make up for in physical ability.
“Our outside linebackers and our inside linebackers are relatively untested from the standpoint that they haven’t played games, but we’re real excited from a physical standpoint,” said Niumatalolo.
Navy isn’t completely without experience at linebacker. Senior Tyler Simmons – who split time with Tony Haberer and Ross Pospisil at inside linebacker last year – returns after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2009. Simmons was a no-go during the spring after suffering a spleen injury during a skiing accident in February, but has since made a full recovery and was recently cleared to participate in fall camp.
“He was injured in the spring but had a great summer,” Niumatalolo said. “Tyler has led our young linebackers.”
That leadership was on full display after practice on Tuesday morning, where the senior linebacker was seen barking at the defense and firing the team up.
“He’s an emotional leader not only of the defense, but the whole team,” Niumatalolo said. “He has already added some energy to our defense… Tyler is a maniac before the play and during the play. His energy level definitely helps us.”
Joining Simmons in competition for the other inside linebacker spot will be Caleb King and Max Blue, two juniors who have distinguished themselves in practice settings in the past. King, a 6-foot, 223-pound Florida native, played in all 13 games last year on special teams, while Blue finished the year with six special teams stops. Green said both players benefited from the snaps last year, and is confident that either one can make the transition to an every-down role.
“Caleb and Max, even though they haven’t played a lot, they’ve played a lot of snaps for us on special team,” Green said. “I think they’ll be a big plus.”
“It’s a good transition when a guy has some experience on special teams and the next year he gets the chance to step in and compete for a starting role,” Green added.
If Green’s words live true than the Mids should expect a productive year out of junior Aaron McCauley, who enters camp listed as the starter at one outside linebacker spot. While he is undersized at 5-foot-10, 194-pounds, McCauley owns one of the highest bench press marks on the team (405-pounds) and contributed seven tackles on special teams a year ago. He’ll likely be joined on the outside by either sophomore Colin Sturdivant or senior Jerry Hauburger, who will continue their spring competition through the month of August.
Several other players figure to be in the mix at both outside and inside linebacker. Matt Warrick, a former high school running back who is currently listed behind Caleb King on the depth chart, was a pleasant surprise for the staff during the spring, and brings an impressive resume of size and speed to the table. In addition to Warrick and others, Green left open the possibility that certain plebe linebackers could come in and contribute in spot situations. Navy signed a particularly impressive group of defenders this past offseason, including 3-star linebacker Vinnie Mauro from Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas.
“We’ve always had a philosophy here that we’re going to put the best ones on the field. It doesn’t matter what year they are,” Green said. “There are a lot of names I could give you that are good looking guys. Now can they get ready quickly enough to help us? We’ll going to give them a chance and see.”
The talent is there. The potential is present. But can Navy overcome the loss of arguably the best linebacking corps in Academy history in time for the opener against Maryland? Time will tell, but it’s a question the Navy coaching staff is determined to answer as the Crab Bowl draws closer.
“From a physical standpoint we look at those nametags all the time and we’re really excited,” Niumatalolo said. “But nametags don’t play, so hopefully on September 6th they’ll be ready to go.