The lights were on. The stadium was buzzing. The players hitting. What more could the football starved fan of mid April ask for? Yet while Navy's ‘Gold Team' combination of the first team offense and second team defense may have taken home the 19-0 "victory" over their ‘Blue Team' counterparts this past Friday night, the proverbial question of "what did we actually learn?" echoes for Navy fans the weekend after the end of spring ball.
Above all, the most important thing to take from the Blue and Gold game is exactly what coach Niumatalolo said in his post-game presser; namely that the team escaped both the intra-squad game and the four week spring campaign without any major injuries. While the loss of Emmett Merchant before the spring hurts the team and in some ways is just as big of a hit to the defensive unit as a season-ending injury would be, the fortunate aspect of the timing of Merchant's departure was that it allowed coordinator Buddy Green to find a potential replacement in senior defensive back Darius Terry. Likewise it allowed sophomores Brian Blick and Brian Alsup to receive much needed reps this spring at the position, while at the same time giving Kwesi Mitchell the chance to play with the first and second teams. That several of his secondary players could get a "head start" during these four weeks of spring saves coach Green and coach Speed a lot of time and effort this summer, and should translate into better cohesion for the unit as the secondary tries to find its best working combination for the opener.
As for what else mattered about the spring game itself, the consensus is that only so much can be learned from an event which in some ways is more of a reward for the players than it is a chance to advance up the depth chart. Coach Niumatalolo emphasized as much in his post game press conference, saying that while he was pleased that his team was able to "compete a little bit," he felt it was more important that they "had fun" while dodging the injury bug. And while I completely agree with the affirmation that Navy's spring game is more of a benefit for the fans than an accurate representation of the team and its future success and/or failure, I would not dismiss everything we saw on Friday night as just backyard heroics. I often find that the players who shine the most in the spring game are the ones who have performed the best or improved the most over the course of the entire spring. The fact that they can "put it all together" so to speak, and allow their competitive drive and focus to carry over to even a somewhat meaningless event says a lot about their determination and character when it comes to how they approach their role on the team. Tyler Simmons is a great example of this concept from last season's spring game, which ultimately highlighted his own personal improvement through the spring of 2008. And as most Navy fans have seen in recent weeks, Tyler has seized on that opportunity and continued his progress this year, to the point where he'll likely see duty with Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer at inside linebacker next season. What Tyler's example proves is that while having a great spring campaign is ultimately what matters for players looking to climb their way up the depth chart, showing that they can perform keep their intensity level up even when they aren't always expected to is sometimes equally important. I believe it is a key, if not undervalued trait for talented newcomers who sometimes find themselves star-struck or overwhelmed heading into a new season with a greater role on their shoulders.
Even with this fact in mind, it's important to remember the inherit limitations of the spring game in terms of unit development and even player development. That Navy's offensive linemen and slotbacks did not utilize cut blocks in order to protect the health of their defensive teammates severely limited the two offenses' ability to move the ball on the outside, while the noticeable absences of a number of players for precautionary reasons further undermines the competitive concept of the game. Added to the fact that getting out of the spring healthy is the number one priority for any team over the course of the spring, and it can sometimes be tough to tell which players are going 100% and which players are not.
Wanting to understand this dynamic of spring football better, I asked several people within the program if not being able to cut block gave the defense a distinct advantage over the offense, and all indicated that they felt like it did. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo himself admitted as much, saying that his team was looking to "take care of each other" by not allowing the practice of cut blocking.
"We didn't really cut with our A-backs on our linebackers, which we normally do," said the second-year head coach. "We try to take care of each other this spring. We're going to go hard…we're going to try to compete as hard as we can but also take care of each other."
Despite these apparent truths in the level of competition and the intended intensity of the Blue and Gold game, Navy fans were more than happy to see even a glimpse of what their team might look like in 2009. With fall camp still three-and-a-half months away, Friday night's action – however meaningful or meaningless – will have to serve as the lone respite for Navy football fans trying to break to drudgery of another long off-season. And that in and of itself was more than enough reason to be thankful for what we saw on Friday night.
Coming next- personnel thoughts.