For Navy's Green, Speed is Key

Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green stills remember the 2007 season like it was yesterday. Forced to play a host of inexperienced underclassman because of injury and graduation, his Midshipmen defense ranked amongst the worst in the country, surrendering some 36 points and 439 yards per game. In fact, the performances were so bad that many Navy fans called for Green's firing during the season.

Fortunately for Navy, the calls for Green's job never materialized outside of the proverbial message board post or Sunday morning quarterback banter. That's because the trials of his youthful defense in 2007 paid dividends in 2008, in turn silencing the critics and validating the former UT-Chattanooga head coach's job security at Navy. The numbers alone paint a picture of dramatic improvement. The Midshipmen defense posted the greatest turnaround in scoring defense of any team in the country last year, yielding some 14 points per game less than they allowed in 2007.  Likewise, Green's defense gave up an average of only 22 points per game in 2008, and recorded back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1996.


What spurred the improvement? While an improved turnover margin certainly helped, (the Mids gained 14 more turnovers in 2008 compared to 2007) a more likely reason for the turnaround from 2007 to 2008 came from the natural maturation of Navy's previously inexperienced defenders, as well as a renewed emphasis on the part of the coaching staff to maximize speed in various personnel packages. It's a tried and true combination which has served Green in the past, and one which looks to make Navy's defense even better coming out of spring camp this season.


When it comes to 2009, Green says that he is most excited about his front seven, which returns six starters from a season ago. Pointing out that numerous backup defensive linemen were able to earn reps during the spring because of injuries to defensive ends Michael Walsh and Matt Nechak, Green said in a recent interview that he felt like Navy's defensive line in particular should be the deepest in his seven year tenure at the Academy.


"At [the defensive line positions] we felt like we came out of spring better than in other year's that we've been here. We just feel like we have more depth and more guys who we can put in to play."


Green figures to have plenty of options at defensive end in 2009, as three players with starting experience return this summer to battle for the two starting spots. While ECAC Freshmen of the Year Jabari Tuani (42 tkl, 9 tfl in 2008) looks to follow up a breakout season along with fellow defensive end Matt Nechak, the return of the veteran Walsh from injury gives Green unprecedented depth at the position. If that wasn't enough, coach Green said the performances of several talented backups, taken together with the continued improvement of nose guard Nate Frazier, make Navy's defensive line a force to be reckoned with coming out of the spring.


"Jordan Stephans had a really solid spring," said Green in reference to his six-foot, four-inch backup defensive end. "He probably played as well as anyone this spring along with [defensive tackle] Chase Burge, who is one of those other guys who we need to be ready to play at the nose spot. I also felt that [defensive end Billy] Yarborough made some improvement, and Nate and Jabari…well those guys just got better overall this spring."


The defensive line wasn't the only position which Green said he felt improved its standing this spring, as the former NC State defensive coordinator also pointed to the considerable depth established at linebacker as indicative of the defense's continued progression. With veterans Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer returning, Green said he feels Navy has a proven combination at inside linebacker, while the emergence of junior Tyler Simmons has only added to the unit's overall depth.


"[At linebacker], I think the most positive thing was the improvement of Tyler Simmons," said Green when referencing the Admiral Mack Award winner, who recorded four tackles in the annual Blue and Gold spring game.


"He really jumped off the charts while playing both SAM and MIKE linebacker, and I think he'll battle to be in that rotation with Ross [Pospisil] and Tony [Haberer]. I think that will give us three guys inside who we can depend on."


Likewise, Green said he was pleased with what he saw from his outside linebackers, in particular senior Clint Sovie, who despite being limited by injury during the spring still showed off the speed and instincts which caused Green to move him to the position following three seasons at inside linebacker.


"Clint was not healthy all spring but I think we made a good move by putting him at outside linebacker. If you go back and look at the cutups from last year - when we had him coming off the edge - he made some plays, and I think it's a position that is really suited for him."


While depth in the front seven figures to play a prominent role in what Green hopes is a trend of continued defensive improvement, the seventh year defensive coordinator also said that getting speed onto the field will be just as important in Navy's ability to stop opposing offenses in 2009. While Green acknowledged that his team has always looked to be as fast as possible on defense, he also made mention to the increased importance of getting the "fastest eleven out on the field" due to the increase in spread offenses around the game. It's a growing trend Navy has seen in recent years against the likes of teams such as North Texas and Southern Methodist, but one which figures to be taken to another level when the Mids open the season with a perennially ranked Ohio State ballclub.


"I think the trend, and what we have seen both last year and the last four or five years, is that teams spread you out, and they try to make you play in space" said Green, who pointed to Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor as a prime example of this dynamic.


"The hard part is that when you have a mobile quarterback that can put pressure on you with the threat of quarterback powers, quarterback isos, quarterback draws, and the zone read. It puts a lot of pressure on guys underneath to play run but at the same time be able to match up on receivers who can run 4.3 or 4.4 and catch balls underneath in space.


The only way to counter such offensive speed, said Green, is to match it with defensive speed. To do that, Green said that he and his staff look to convert players "down" from their high school positions, taking "tweener" defenders who may have been passed up by bigger name programs because of their size and teaching them to play in space. It's a strategy which has worked in the past for Navy's front seven, and one which Green said he is counting on in helping to alleviate pressure on a thin secondary in 2009.


"Ever since we have been here we have tried to get speed…It's the number one thing we look for. Traditionally we have converted bigger safeties to outside linebackers and bigger outside ‘linebackers to defensive linemen…We're constantly looking to get more speed on the field and to get our fastest eleven out on the field. That is the name of the game when it comes to playing teams which spread you out."


Adam Nettina can be reached via email at Adam Top Stories