Two linebackers begin to crouch. One sneaks forward only to violently step back the next moment, his eyes vigorously darting between the statuesque offensive linemen in front of the defense. The other listens attentively to the quarterback's cadence, cycling through the backfield players while barking out his own pre-snap checks. He steps forward and back again, his six-foot frame shadowing back and forth between the line splits of the defenders in front of him, like the ripples pulsing back and forth on the nearby Chesapeake Bay.
In an instant the ball is snapped. Offensive linemen fire out of their stances, cutting the defenders at the knees. The quarterback quickly pivots and raises the ball in front of his chest, instinctively looking through the collapsing window beyond in an effort to determine what to do next. Between the meeting of pads on pads there is a moment where his eyes lock with the inside linebacker, and in an instant the race is on. The quarterback pulls the ball back and lets the fullback run through the mesh untouched. Behind him, with the ball tightly secured, the signal caller dashes unnoticed through the narrow gap in the line, head rising to plot his next move. The path to the endzone looks clear and undaunted, but it is a mirage.
Out of nowhere that same inside linebacker reappears, slicing through the clumsy attempts of the offensive lineman to redirect him. The quarterback doesn't see him until the last moment, but already it is too late. He's thrown off balance by the linebacker's charging fury, only to receive a second, more punishing blow from the other inside linebacker, who has since shed the fullback's block. The play is over, and even though a modest gain has been won by the offense, the combination of Navy's two inside linebackers has once again provided the quarterback with a rude reminder that speed and cunning are often acceptable substitutes to mass and sheer force.
It is a lesson which has been dished out by Midshipmen linebackers Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer in scrimmages against the Navy offense many times before, but today it is different. That's because today it was neither Pospisil nor Haberer flying in to make the play. Instead it was current plebes Max Blue and Caleb King, who despite coming into the spring as virtual unknowns on the Navy roster have already made a distinct impression to both coaches and onlookers through the first full week of April.
"I'm excited about our linebackers," said coach Niumatalolo after Saturday's scrimmage, which the second year head coach described as otherwise lacking the intensity and focus he would have liked to have seen. "Caleb King, Max Blue, Tyler Simmons… [they have all] had great camps."
If Navy fans were buzzing about "that 28 kid" or "number 33 at linebacker" instead of pointing out Max Blue or Caleb King by name on Saturday then they may have had an acceptable excuse, as neither linebacker had previously risen above third on the depth chart. In fact, most Navy fans were expecting the unit to be a virtual deadlock in terms of its groupings, with juniors Trey Grissom and Tyler Simmons providing solid depth behind returning starters Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer. And while Blue and King started with the "C" group during Saturday's scrimmage, their presence below a trio of talented Navy upperclassman didn't stop them from shining when given the opportunity, as both quickly earned reps with the "B" group. King recorded six tackles (including one tackle for a loss) on the morning, while Blue contributed another two tackles for a loss, including a brilliant open field form tackle which drew cheers from the crowd. For position coach Steve Johns the performance did not come as a total surprise. Johns, who enters his second year at Navy, said that while his two youngest inside linebackers still have "a long way to go" before the season starts, they have clearly shown progress in the first two-and-a-half weeks of spring ball.
"They've gotten better," said Johns after practice on Monday. "They have a long way to go before they can play in games, but they are running around and trying to do the right things. Caleb is playing more physical and Max is running fast."
While both Blue and King feel they performed well in the scrimmage, they agree with their position coach in that there is plenty of room for improvement. King, who played his high school ball at Warner Christian Academy in Port Orange, Florida, was especially modest about his performance in the scrimmage, commenting that he didn't even feel he stood out to the crowd.
"I think I did alright. Obviously in a game or a scrimmage there are some things that you can always fix, things that you didn't get right…Playing option is all about assignments, so you just have to follow your assignments and hope for the best. I'm just trying to play aggressive and hopefully get noticed out here."
Both Blue and King cite hard work in the weight room and hours of offseason film study among the many reasons for their seemingly sudden improvement. While neither saw the field last year as a member of the varsity squad, both credit their experience on the JV team and a year spent at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in helping them prepare for the rigors of Division I football and Academy life. Above all, however, they say that the lessons learned from fellow inside linebackers Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer –along with fellow inside linebacker Tyler Simmons and Trey Grissom - have proved invaluable coming into the spring campaign.
"We definitely have seniors in Ross and Tony who have asserted themselves and done great things over the past few years," said Max Blue when asked about the two Navy senior inside linebackers. "They help us in the meeting room, the weight room…always pushing us and helping us to get better. They set the tempo and we try to follow everyday. I try to play up to their standards and kind of just follow their tracks."
And while both Blue and King credit Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer with helping them in their progression both on the field and in film study, it was Pospisil who had nothing but good things to say about the two underclassman, who he claims are "leaps and bounds" ahead of where he was coming off of his own freshman season two years ago.
"I can't speak enough about our younger guys" said Pospisil, who finished Saturday's scrimmage with seven stops. "Guys like Max, guys like Caleb… They are leaps and bounds ahead of where I was at their age. We were meeting the other day and talking about coverages and I mean they were all over it. But first and foremost those guys just fly around. They have a great mentality, a great attitude about the game, and they love playing it. So it has been fun watching them."
As for his own role in shaping the improvement of the two sophomores-to-be, Pospisil downplayed it, saying that if anything the competition provided by all six inside linebacker on the three-deep has helped the entire unit improve.
"You know we as an ‘A' group like to set the tone but [the second and third stringers] have been pushing us. But no matter how long you play I don't believe your position is ever succor. So we push each other and have a blast."
Pushing each other may just be what Navy's defense needs heading into a 2009 slate which figures to be one of the toughest in recent memory. With games at Ohio State, at Notre Dame, and at Pittsburgh, the Midshipmen defense plans on having no shortage of physical offenses to challenge next season, a point which coach Johns made more than clear when talking about the importance of depth at the inside linebacker position. Johns, who expects Pospisil and Haberer to start, says he's not above using junior Tyler Simmons in conjunction with the two senior ‘backers, and says that Blue and King need to be ready as well if called upon.
"We're going to have to be ready to have five guys ready to play" said the no-nonsense Johns. "We were fortunate last year that no one got hurt but you can't always count on that…we can't just be preparing two guys to play. Tyler [Simmons] is going to be ready on the first day, but all three of those guys can play either position, and they have to be ready to fill in and not have any drop-off."
For that to happen, says Johns, both Blue and King will need to continue to elevate their play throughout the spring and into the summer. Praising their athleticism but warning that they are still far from field tested, Johns laid out exactly what he wants to see from his youngest pupils over the next several months.
"Max needs to learn how to play more physical and Caleb needs to do a better job at getting off blocks. [Caleb] is getting better physically, but both need to be firmer inside. They can run around o.k. but they've got to be able to hold up inside. They are getting better but they just need experience."
For Max Blue and Caleb King that experience continues to come one play at a time this spring, with both saying that they look forward to contributing to the teams goals in whatever way they can. For Caleb King it's a simple mantra, but one which he takes very seriously.
"I just try to go 100% all the time and take advantage of every opportunity the good Lord gives."
Adam Nettina can be reached at AdamNettina@gmail.com.