Life After ‘Big Nate'

There is no disputing it. Navy's defensive line will not be as strong in 2009 now that nose guard Nate Frazier has been dismissed from the team. Navy's defense – which posted the greatest improvement by any FBS team a year ago in terms of points allowed – will not be as stout either. But how much will the Navy team suffer, and will Frazier's loss in the lineup equate to losses on the field?

It's an open question, and one which I don't pretend to have a set-in-stone answer to. I don't need to remind any of you that athletic, 300-pound nose guards don't grow on trees for any NCAA team, much less a service academy team playing a ‘50' odd-man front defense. Frazier wasn't just a big body in the middle for Navy's defense, and he wasn't just 13.5 career tackles for a loss and 2.5 career sacks. He was, simply put, the closest thing the Midshipmen had to a blue chip player as there ever was one, and his ability to take on double teams and clog up the ‘A' and ‘B' gaps helped to make players like Ross Pospisil and Tony Haberer the tackling machines they are. Frazier's experience would have been invaluable for Navy heading into the season, but his unheard of combination of size, strength, and speed was the factor which set the player fans affectionately called ‘Big Nate' apart from previous Midshipmen nose guards. In that regard, the spot vacated by Frazier will be virtually impossible for defensive coordinator Buddy Green to fill.

Still, that is exactly what the Midshipmen will be trying to do this week, as the long awaited season opener with Ohio State draws closer. If you weren't already leery of Navy's chances going into the game, you certainly are now, as the Buckeyes enter the contest with a capable running back duo composed of powerful junior Brandon Saine (6'1'', 220-pounds) and speedy sophomore Dan Herron (5'10'', 193-pounds). Given Navy's now weakened defensive front – coupled with Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel's penchant for conservative game management in season openers – it doesn't take a rocket scientist to hypothesize the Buckeye plan of attack. Run the ball right at the middle of Navy's defense.

That being said, Frazier's dismissal isn't exactly a death sentence for the 2009 Midshipmen, who'll play twelve other games this season after their opener in Columbus. Bowl eligibility won't be won or loss in week one, and it won't be gained or forfeited due to the absence of one player. We are, after all, talking about the Navy team, to include all three phases of the game – offense, defense, and special teams. We've seen one unit pick up the slack for another before (2007 certainly comes to mind), and we can't forget that Navy's defense still remains composed of veteran players at all three levels. Junior Chase Burge, the player who will most likely be called upon to fill in for Frazier, was a consistent standout in the spring, and will have his chance to show that his practice reps were no fluke. More than anything else, however, the Mids will be banking on a familiar concept to overcome the loss of Frazier – resiliency.

"I've been at the Naval Academy for 12 years and I've learned these kids are resilient," commented Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo during a recent interview with The Annapolis Capital. "I've seen it in the past when other guys stepped up. This is an opportunity for someone else to step up."

It's tempting for skeptics and national observers to overlook this particular team intangible, but Navy fans – not to mention Navy's players- know firsthand just how far a little fight can go. You don't have to look any farther than Navy's comeback victory over Temple last year to see that, or any of the numerous cases of underclassmen stepping up for injured Navy defenders throughout the 2007 season. Navy's players have weathered storms before, and while the loss of the team's best player certainly hurts, it's by no means a setback which cannot be overcome.

Not only is this current Navy team composed of some of the most resilient players found anywhere in the country, but it is coached by one of the game's best defensive minds. True, Frazier had much to do with Navy's defensive improvement from 2007 to 2008, but don't forget that coordinator Buddy Green put Frazier and Navy's other defenders in a position to make plays. The thing I think most fans don't realize about Green – who was heavily criticized during Navy's 2007 season – is that he is both a master of scheme and of using one component of the defense to compensate for the weakness of another. And it's not like the cupboard is bare, either. Even with the loss of Frazier, Navy's defensive line is arguably the deepest it has been within the past decade, while the secondary and linebacker units remain veteran and talented.

Navy won't replace Frazier on the defensive line this season, and the loss of the senior will likely be felt especially hard against teams intent on establishing an inside presence against Navy's undersized defensive front. Yet even if the defense suffers, and even if Navy's opponents are able to gash the Midshipmen up the middle, the Mids' expectations for another successful 2009 season shouldn't be put on hold. With a proven core of defensive returnees who have proven their talent on the field -- not to mention one of college football's most unheralded but brilliant defensive coordinators – Navy's defense can overcome the loss of even its best player. Above all however, it is the Midshipmen team, characterized by a resilient cast of players and coaches, which will ultimately prove that intangibles really do matter, and that there is life after the loss of ‘Big Nate' Frazier.

MidsDaily.com Top Stories