"Plenty of Options for Mids on the Outside"
Five Spring Position Battles to Watch: Outside Linebacker
Essential for the success of Navy's 3-4 defense, both the ‘Raider' and ‘Striker' positions will be up for grabs this spring with the departures of Corey Johnson and Jeff Deliz, who together combined for 167 tackles and three sacks a season ago. Will Navy's otherwise veteran defense continue its trend of improvement in 2009, or will the loss of the team's second and third leading tacklers be too much to replace against a schedule that features eight opponents that went to bowl games last year?
Navy's crop of outside linebackers may not have been etched in stone last season, but between the play of seniors Corey Johnson and Jeff Deliz the Midshipmen boasted considerable experience and production on the edge. While Deliz technically filled the safety position while junior Ram Vela manned the ‘Striker' position opposite Johnson, the increased nickel configurations Buddy Green employed as the year went on often saw Deliz play as the hybrid outside linebacker/safety while Emmett Merchant would come in as an extra defensive back. Depending on the situation Ram Vela could be found in place of Deliz at this position, so much so that by season's end the three upperclassman were rotating with similar frequency just as Navy's inside linebackers had been doing most of the year. Yet regardless of who was playing on the outside at any given time, Navy's defenders were integral in leading the defensive turnaround after a woeful 2007, helping the unit post back-to-back shutouts against Northern Illinois and Army while finishing in the top half of the country in total defense.
Potential 2009 Candidates
These players almost certainly figure to be in the mix for the job going into the spring. They are listed alphabetically.
Clint Sovie: Perhaps the most veteran player on what figures to be an experienced defense, last year's defensive captain will likely get an opportunity during the spring to work out at the "Striker" outside linebacker position that Corey Johnson vacates. He was fifth on the team in tackles a year ago (60, 4.0 tfl) and brings tremendous speed and athleticism to the position. While he struggled in over-pursuing plays at times last year from the inside linebacker position, he may be more of a natural fit on the outside, where his quickness and tenacity should give the Mids a needed edge against the run and the pass.
Ram Vela: Undersized but not underappreciated, Vela actually started eight games at the "Raider" position last year after starting nine games there in 2007. He's recorded 90 tackles over the course of his Navy career, but is obviously best known for his leaping disruption of Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley in Navy's historic 2007 upset of the Irish. Vela does a tremendous job coming off of blocks and disrupting plays, but his size limits his effectiveness against more power-running based teams.
Craig Schaefer: After winning the Admiral Mack award for the most improved player during spring ball a season ago much was expected out of Schaefer in 2007, but an early season concussion and the emergence of Corey Johnson derailed his chances at starting multiple games during the season. Still, at 6'2, 222-lbs he brings an ideal combination of size and speed to the position, and has shown a penchant for the big hit while playing special teams in the past.
Tyler Simmons: One of Navy's most talented backups, Simmons exploded onto the scene during spring camp last season and could build on his momentum again this spring. At 6'3, 230-lbs, Simmons is bigger than your average Navy linebacker but no less athletic. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the spring game a year ago (eight tackles) and could be this year's version of Craig Schaefer. He may be more of a natural inside linebacker, but could compete for time on the outside if Sovie is moved back inside.
Trey Grissom: Also impressive during spring drills a year ago, Grissom single-handedly gave Navy's first team offense fits during the Spring Game when he posted 3.5 tackles for a loss, a sack, and recovered a fumble in only a half of playing time. Like Simmons he brings great size and speed to the position, and has shown a real ability to be able to shift through traffic and flow to the ballcarrier.
Travis Sudderth: The younger brother of former Navy defensive back/wide receiver Greg Sudderth, Travis saw his only real action last year in mop-up duty against Towson in the opener. Still, he was a fixture on the three-deep after a fine fall camp a year ago, and should build on that momentum heading into the spring.
Others to Watch
Aaron McCauley- Rising sophomore who saw extensive special teams playing time as a plebe. Recorded seven tackles in 2008.
Ian Meredith- Has good size at 6'3, but has yet to see significant playing time in game situations.
Bayard Roberts- Solid athlete who has struggled as a backup defensive end in Green's 3-4 scheme. Could be tested at outside linebacker in the spring.
Ridiculously Early Pre-Spring Verdict:
Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green will have plenty of options when it comes to filling both the ‘Raider' and ‘Striker' positions at outside linebacker during the spring. Both Craig Schaefer and Ram Vela have had experience starting at each position during games in the past, while Clint Sovie brings a veteran and athletic presence to the edge which has made him one of the best Navy defenders over the past three seasons. While all three are more than capable of starting and having success at the two positions, the interesting element of this position battle will be how they respond to the talented group of former second and third stringers who came on strong during spring ball a year ago. Both Tyler Simmons and Trey Grissom have the physical tools to thrive at either the ‘Striker' or ‘Raider' positions, and now as rising upperclassman should be familiar enough with the system to make an impact. Another variable to watch out for will be how Green chooses his personnel packages when Navy goes to the ‘nickel' look. With plenty of depth at the position it's more than likely that the Mids could go with the fast but undersized Vela in the package, while still keeping two starting outside linebackers on the field. Wherever the answer lays, Navy's defense should be in good hands heading out of the spring and into the summer.
More Spring Position Battle Previews:
Part 1:Kickoff Returner