An Inside Look at a Navy Football Practice

Recently, Navy head football coach Paul Johnson has used a variety of different phrases to depict his current crop of players. From being "pea brains" to "not very good," Johnson is already in mid-season form when it comes to the colorful words he has chosen to describe the performance of his football team.

But in an interview on March 31st, Johnson reached a little deeper into his football dictionary of derogatory terms to describe a just completed practice. "Freaking awful." That was the two-word answer he gave to provide a picture of the majority of the team's effort that day. Once I read that statement, I knew this situation was serious and it would call for an up close and personal inspection by a certain expert on football effort and performance – me. So I packed up my tape recorder and wool hat and headed for "The Yard" to see what "freaking awful" looks and sounds like.

Now I have to admit, when it comes to being an expert on football effort and performance, for perspective, I had to think back to my only playing days as a member of the Pop Warner junior pee-wee team. Unfortunately, as I drove on the Annapolis campus ten minutes before practice was scheduled to begin, all that I could remember from my glory days was those chewy candy goldfish at the concession stand.

As I got out of my car and approached the football practice field at 4 p.m. I was escorted by a Navy lacrosse coach who feared for my noggin as I had failed to notice lacrosse balls were being launched in my direction. As I made my way to where the football team was assembled, I noticed a good portion of them were practicing punt blocking and coverage assignments. I immediately thought of the Rutgers game when the Mids uncharacteristically had two punts blocked by the Scarlet Knights. I'm not sure why I thought of that instead of the two games Navy went without punting, but it probably had something to do with the phrase, "freaking awful." Once punting drills were done, it was time for kick-off coverage practice, which I have to admit, even for a super fan was pretty boring. That is probably why the dozen or so players in red jerseys off in the distance caught my eye. I saw them lying on their backs doing sit-ups when I first glanced over there. Five minutes later, I took another peak and sure enough, they were still doing sit-ups. From past press statements, I knew that red jerseys meant the players were injured, but from the looks of it they must have not been suffering from abdominal strains.

With a blow of the whistle by Coach Johnson, at about 20 minutes into practice, it was time for the players to move into their respective positional stations. I decided to go check out the offensive linemen. On my way over there, I noticed one of the linemen was practicing with the wrong unit. For some reason, either number sixty-two or seventy-two was now taking hand-offs from a series of quarterbacks. Because of my perspective I could only make out that one of the two numbers on the front his jersey was a ‘two' so I decided to change my angle of view to get a better look. Sure enough, this behemoth wasn't a linemen, it was Adam Ballard, number twenty-two. Now I know at academies, the football players, especially the linemen, are not as huge (think 6'7", 350 lbs) as most Division I athletes, but from my vantage point, Ballard is, well, freaking huge. And from all indications he is moving pretty good for someone who broke his leg in December.

Back to the linemen I went to see how center Antron Harper and the boys were doing. Looking at them practice, I immediately became aware of how they work on getting their pad level lower. I mean you always hear all the Navy coaches talking about players getting lower, and getting better leverage. Turns out they have invented some contraption since my Pop Warner playing days to ensure linemen stay close to the dirt. The best way to describe this gizmo is as a metal-like bunch of rods that would probably hit my chest if I tried to walk through them. In rapid succession, groups of linemen would get in their stance, underneath these polls, and on cue, they would push a teammate who was holding a blocking dummy for about ten yards. They kept doing this over and over and like any good journalist, I got a little bored. So I looked around to see how the folks in red jerseys were coming along. Turns out, they weren't doing very good from the sounds of their grunts. They must not have been suffering from arm injuries though because they were doing push-ups now.

As I made my way past the red-jersey boot camp it was about 30 minutes into practice when I started to inspect our defensive linemen. My first impression was to go to the depth chart to find out who number ninety-nine was because he was a house. Sure enough that 6'3", 285-pound domicile was rising sophomore Nate Frazier. No doubt, he'd start on my Pop Warner team – heck he would be the entire defensive line and then some. In baseball, they say that it's really important to be good up the middle. Well, if the same is true in football, so far I like our chances with Antron Harper at center and Nate Frazier at nose guard. I couldn't wait to see these two go at it in some live, hard-hitting drills. Turns out my wish was about to be granted as the defense and offense were about to come together for the first of two mini-scrimmages during practice. I had the feeling from the playful taunting going on between the offensive and defensive players that practice was about to take it up a notch – and I yours truly had a front row seat. Pass the popcorn, I was thinking, this was going to get good – and it did.

Check back tomorrow at for the second half of my review of practice when I give my impressions of the mini-scrimmages; talk to Coach Johnson about his "freaking awful" comment, and for more of my all important and note-worthy expert observations.

Read An Inside Look at Navy Football Practice, Part II

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