The Leader of the Pack

Navy fans had heard the story before. A freshman defensive back comes to the Academy. Out of nowhere he establishes himself as one of the best defenders on the field, raking up tackles and big plays with uncommon frequency. He's the kind of gifted athlete who transitions into a starting role with remarkable ease, causing opposing coaches to scratch their heads and ask how they could have ...

... possibly missed recruiting him out of high school. The record setting performer with all the potential in the world, he draws the lofty praise of insiders and fans alike who openly speculate on his ability to become "one of the greatest" in program history.


And then, the bombshell.


After a measly semester in the program and at the Academy, he says he has had enough. No, it wasn't the football team, but rather the life of a Midshipman. With a possible path to the NFL beckoning on his horizon, the opportunity to take his game to the next level is just too attractive to pass up. With the Navy's five year service commitment after graduation, three more years at the Academy just don't fit into his plans.


Jeromy Miles wasn't the first "can't miss" freshman to leave the Naval Academy after a tremendous rookie season, and he won't be the last. Yet for Navy fans watching the similar on-field progression of a young defensive back named Wyatt Middleton in 2007, the parallels between the two players seemed eerily similar. Fears that the rising star would follow in the footsteps of Miles were only heightened after Paul Johnson departed for Georgia Tech following the Army-Navy game in 2007. That December, a Washington Post article made mention of several opportunities Middleton had to leave both the Naval Academy Prep school after the 2006 season and the Naval Academy in 2007. A quote from Middleton's father, Al, nearly sent the Navy fan community into shock when he hinted that his son may have had the opportunity to join Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech. Similar fears continued to echo in the minds of Navy fans throughout the 2008 season. Navy football players, like all Midshipmen, have the opportunity to leave with "no questions asked" before signing their "two for seven" commitment to the Navy prior to their junior year. Considering Navy's policy of preventing immediate post-graduate forays into the professional ranks, the mere presence of a potential NFL talent on the grounds of Annapolis has become cause enough for concern for Navy fans hoping to see the program's recent success continue.


With his own "two for seven" commitment just weeks away, some Navy fans have begun to worry again about Middleton, whose two years of starting experience in the Navy secondary figure to prove invaluable heading into 2009. These fears are unfounded however, and Middleton – now poised to make good on his freshman year potential – is more than happy to put any lingering concerns over his commitment to rest.


"When you come across a great athlete at Navy, there has always been talk about somebody leaving," says Middleton, who is currently majoring in Systems Engineering at the Academy. "I know there has always been talk about me leaving, but that's all I can say about that…it's just been talk."


The talk, believes Middleton, had and continues to have much to do with the on-field similarities between himself and Miles, who started most of the 2006 season before transferring to the University of Massachusetts. Both players were inserted into the starting lineup because of injuries, and both ended up finishing amongst the team's leading tacklers during their respective rookie seasons. Middleton says he thinks that for better or worse, some Navy fans hit the panic button based on those similarities alone.


"Jeremy Miles was a freshman who started. So it's like: ‘here's a guy who was the starting safety of the team, did very well his freshmen year and got a lot of hype, and then left.' I feel like some people felt like I would do the same thing just because I was a freshman who started and got some hype, and maybe some people thought I would follow in his footsteps."


Added Middleton: "There has always been talk about people leaving here. That's just how it is [at Navy.]"


While talk of players leaving the Naval Academy is something Midshipmen fans have grown accustomed to, the bonds which hold Navy's football players together are often enough to prevent the team's highest profile stars from following Miles' example. These bonds – often referred to collectively as ‘The Brotherhood' – are especially apparent for the members of Navy's starting secondary heading into 2009, as the hardships endured through a trying 2007 season have come back to pay dividends for the now veteran unit. It was during the 2007  season that Navy's secondary was riddled by injuries, forcing defensive coordinator Buddy Green to rely on three freshmen – Middleton, cornerback Kevin Edwards, and nickelback Emmett Merchant – to fill the void left by his injured veterans. By the end of the season all three were playing with regularity, and starting along with sophomore cornerback Blake Carter.


 "Those guys - because of the injuries we absorbed that year - those guys ended up starting and playing a lot as true freshmen and were under the fire, and because of that they are a close group," explains Green, who served as Defensive Coordinator at N.C. State before coming to Annapolis in 2002. "They were a close group coming from NAPS, and when they came in as freshmen they got their chance to step in and play and they did some good things."


Of course, there were some not-so-good things they did as well. Middleton admits that the 2007 season helped to solidify the bonds that he and his classmates formed in the secondary, but is more candid about the unit's struggles during that 2007 season than his coach is willing to admit. Navy finished dead last in the country in passing efficiency defense in 2007, with Middleton and his fellow defensive backs surrendering a 163.44% average passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. The second worst team in the country (Idaho), "only" gave up an average opponent passer rating of 155.14%.


"Now I can say this, but I am kind of glad that we went through that year," reflects Middleton. "Back then I would not have said it, but now – looking back on it and having been at the bottom of the bottom – we know how it feels. I think that is why our defense has been working so hard to improve, because we know what it is like to have been down at the bottom and we don't want that to happen again. We know what to do now and what not to do. So I think that year helped us out a lot and I know it helped coach Green out a lot too."


The lessons of 2007 would not go unheeded. Middleton and his classmates made every effort to improve over the course of the 2008 preseason, placing particular emphasis on relearning the coverages they were hastily forced to absorb during the previous season. A renewed effort to improve the unit's open-field tackling was also stressed, with Middleton, Carter, Edwards, and Merchant receiving a crash course on the importance of getting the ballcarrier to the ground by whatever means necessary.


Says Middleton on the importance of tackling: "I take a lot of pride in tackling. I mean I'm on defense, so to me a missed tackle is like a fumble if I was a running back."


The steps taken last offseason paid off. Despite the coaching change from Johnson to Niumatalolo, Navy's defense posted one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the country from 2007 to 2008, seeing their pass efficiency defense rating improve by over 20 points. Not only was the pass defense remarkably improved, but Navy's defense posted the highest point per game improvement of any unit in the country, giving up 14.4 points less per contest in 2008 than in 2007.


Aside from the ‘trial by fire' of 2007, Middleton credits Green with helping the unit post such a dramatic turnaround last season. Citing the former Wolfpack defensive coordinator as "one of the best coaches in the country," Middleton says that Green was especially helpful in his own improvement, and continues to play a role in helping the Georgia native take his game to the next level.  


"Coach Green got on me my freshman year a lot, and my sophomore year he sort of pulled back on me a little bit because I guess he saw that I was developing," Middleton says. "Ever since then he has been more of a ‘father figure' to me. I ask him a lot of questions and he asks me questions. Things like ‘what would work best for the defense?' or ‘how are the guys doing or hanging in there?' It goes back and forth."


The trust Middleton has developed with Green is mutual for the longtime coordinator, who doesn't hesitate to point out that Middleton, despite being only a junior, has established himself as the leader in the secondary going into 2009.


"With the way he plays - with that tremendous amount of maturity and with the plays he has made in the passing and running games – without a doubt he is our leader. I don't see anything for him but being a better player this coming year. He has worked hard in the spring and in the offseason, doing some things which we both talked about…If he continues to work hard he can have an outstanding year this coming year."


Green says Middleton's leadership qualities aren't just apparent on the field either, and testifies to the junior's role in helping bring the secondary's talented but inexperienced backups up to speed during spring camp.  Yet of all of Middleton's achievements thus far at Navy, his greatest contribution to the team may have come this offseason, when fellow defensive back Emmett Merchant briefly left the team. Middleton, firmly committed to the ideas of ‘The Brotherhood' and looking out for the best interests of his friend and teammate, was instrumental in helping Merchant make the decision to return to the team.


"I know that Emmett and Wyatt are real close," begins Green. "I know they were close not only on-the-field but off-the-field too, and I know that Emmett truly values the leadership qualities that Wyatt has and I think Wyatt was probably influential in helping Emmett get through some things when times were tough. I think Wyatt was very influential in that aspect."


As for 2009 and beyond, Middleton isn't looking too far in advance. While he admits that seeing his brother, William, drafted into the NFL has perked his interest into the possibility of an NFL future, the talented defensive back remains firmly committed to serving out his five years in the Navy. Hoping for a post-graduate job in the highly selective field of Naval Intelligence, Middleton is preparing for the upcoming season and letting his actions as a leader both on and off-the-field speak for themselves.


"I am focused on Ohio State right now and the next eleven after that. If [an NFL] career is going to happen, it is going to happen; but I am going to try my best on and off the field and if it is meant to be then it is meant to be."


Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be reached at AdamNettina[at] Top Stories