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Blog…Linebackers Lead Navy’s Defense Forward
Navy ILB Clint Sovie
Navy ILB Clint Sovie
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 18, 2008


If someone had told me a month ago that halfway through fall camp the Navel Academy’s defense would be the strength of the team, chances are I would have laughed at them. And with a defense which ranked dead last in the country in pass efficiency last year while giving up an average of 439 total yards per game would you have necessarily blamed me?

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Probably not, and once more, if you’ve been following Navy in recent years chances are you may have joined in with me. After all it’s no secret that Navy’s five consecutive winning seasons have come largely on the heals of Paul Johnson’s (and now Ken Niumatalolo’s) triple option offense, which has lead the country in rushing yards per game each of the past three seasons. Yet for as good as Navy’s offense was in 2007, the defense seemed to always hold the Midshipmen back, and presented arguably the second biggest question mark coming into the start of fall camp last month (the first, of course, being how well Ken Niumatalolo can transition into the role of head coach.) While the season is still a good week and a half away, all signs this preseason seem to point to a “so far, so good” response from Buddy Green’s much maligned unit. Case in point; in their most recent outing this past Saturday, Navy’s first, second, and third string defenses held their offensive counterparts to just two field goals, forcing Navy’s first year headman to concede that the Midshipmen “stink on offense.” Humbling words for the coach of a team which finished 10th in the nation in scoring offense a year ago.

So what gives? Is this a case of Navy’s defense really making strides, or has the Navy offense, complete with three new starters on the line and numerous preseason injuries, just stalled against a still underperforming unit which merely has had the benefit of practicing against the triple option on a regular basis?

The answer is probably a little bit of both, but just because the offense isn’t up to speed doesn’t mean Navy fans should discount the improvements made on defense. While it is true that defenses across the country tend to get the better of their offensive counterparts during fall camp, and while it certainly appears that the loss of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has handicapped Navy’s offense, the real indicator of Navy’s preseason defensive turnaround has been the effort and intensity level through the first few weeks of camp.

This change in attitude really appears to radiate from Navy’s rejuvenated linebacker corps, which has twice now this summer been at the forefront of stuffing the offense’s option attack. Traditionally the strength of Buddy Green’s Navy defenses, the Mids’ inexperienced linebackers struggled mightily at times last season, no doubt due largely in part to the loss of linebacker Clint Sovie in week two. Sovie has returned this summer with a vengeance however, and together with fellow inside backers Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer have provided the defense with a solid base to build around. Sovie has looked particularly strong in camp, not only directing Navy’s defense, but anticipating and blowing up plays at the point of attack. During the first scrimmage he was a one-man wrecking crew, recording eleven tackles including two in which he burst over the line after anticipating the snap count. Amazingly, Sovie made a similar play this past Saturday, while Pospisil and Haberer (rotating in at different times with the first and second teams) each came up with big hits. While Sovie, Pospisil, and Haberer are essentially competing for two inside linebacker positions, all three have matured since last season and have taken on the roles of the emotional leaders on the Navy defense. Complimented by Craig Schaefer, Ram Vela, and Corey Johnson on the outside, the Midshipmen suddenly find themselves with not only an athletic group of linebackers, but a smart and experienced group.

Of course, none of their efforts could really be validated if it weren’t for continued growth along the defensive line, including the physical and mental maturation of nose tackle Nate Frazier. Watching Frazier this past Saturday it was apparent that he’s in much better physical shape than he was in last year, and once more understands how to use his elite (for Navy anyway) size and quickness combination to create penetration. Together with Michael Walsh and Matt Nechak, Navy’s defensive line has given the talented yet undersized group of linebackers the ability to better pick up their keys and react to plays. This was the main problem during much of the season last year, when inexperience and unfamiliarity caused many of Navy’s young defenders to play what Paul Johnson called “streetball.” Now, with a better understanding of the scheme as well as plenty of healthy competition in camp to push them both physically and mentally, Navy’s defenders have responded, elevating not only their individual game, but the game of the entire unit.

While there is cause for concern over Navy’s offensive ineptitude this summer, perhaps the greater point to take away from the preseason scrimmages is that the defense has shown notable improvement on a number of levels. Tackling is better, players seem more confident, and above all the unit is playing with a level of cohesiveness not seen in 2007. Whether this level of improvement continues, and whether or not it will allow the Mids to compete with some of the heavyweights on the 2008 schedule remains to be seen, but if Navy’s suddenly hyperactive defense can play with anywhere near the energy and focus as it has during the summer than Clint Sovie and company should be able to make up for any dropoff the offense may experience.

Mid Bits: Ok, so through two scrimmages all we really know is that Coach Niumatalolo thinks the offense stinks, but there have been some bright spots. Case in point, the battle for the backup fullback position. Coming off of last season it looked like a one man race with Kevin Campbell lined up to back up Eric Kettani, but a surge by Vince Murray during the spring evened things up coming into the summer. Now, sophomore Wes Holland (a converted slotback) and freshmen Alaxander Teich have come on strong, with both having solid outings during the summer scrimmages. Neither Holland (5’11, 205) nor Teich (6’0, 200) are as big as Kettani, but both come through the mesh hard and fast and display good leg drive upon contact. Both could end up being valuable assets for what figures to be a rebuilding Navy offense in 2009…I continued to be impressed with the play of reserve cornerback John Angelo, who picked off a pass and deflected another in Saturday’s scrimmage. While he was also called for a pass interference play, he’s shown real ability to anticipate routes and break on balls. It will be tough for him to compete for playing time this year in Navy’s crowded defensive backfield, but he should add quality depth to the Navy secondary and be a solid contributor on special teams…Greg Jones, who had come into camp as a slotback, was playing receiver during the scrimmage, a move somewhat surprising considering the lack of depth at the position…And how about the kicking game? Both senior Matt Harmon and freshmen Jon Teague nailed 51-yard field goals during Saturday’s scrimmage. While kicking under pressure in an actual game is a completely different situation from kicking in front of a rather dossal crowd on a Saturday morning scrimmage, you have to like the leg strength displayed by both of these young men and the options they give Coach Niumatalolo in his decision making.

Adam Nettina covers MAC East and Independent Football for CollegeFootballNews.com.

Past Stories:

Gill's Bulls Looking For Bowl in 2008
Best of the Non BCS Quarterbacks
Central Michigan Looks for Repeat
Max Hall, Heisman Candidate?
Business Time for Niumatalolo and Navy
Can a Non-BCS Player Win the Heisman?
Keeping the “Inc” Out of Army Navy
MAC Teams Poised to Strike Back in ‘08
For Navy, Tougher Slate in 2008
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