Note: This is the first article in a series of pre-spring stories featuring exclusive material from Adam Nettina's recent conversation with Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Subsequent stories, as well as full transcripts from the interviews, will be made available to GoMids.com premium subscribers.
Expecting to see senior Mario Washington listed atop the depth chart at wide receiver, you can only imagine the amount of double takes when inquiring eyes instead found the veteran playmaker listed as a defensive back. Washington, who led all Navy wideouts with nine catches in 2009, has played the better part of the last two seasons at the position, and also worked as the team's primary punt returner in 2008 and 2009. The 6-foot, 193-pound native of Boiling Springs, North Carolina was assumed by many to make Navy's 2010 receiving corps amongst the best in school history – an accolade which likely led to the recent decision by Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo to experiment with moving Washington.
"It's just an experiment," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. "It was more of my thought process. We are going to try it out this spring. Mario knows what we are doing on offense, so if it doesn't work we can always move him back."
Speaking in an exclusive interview with GoMids.com, Navy's third year head coach made it clear that Washington's switch is far from set in stone, and pointed to the considerable depth Navy has established at receiver as a deciding factor in his decision to move Washington to defense. Navy returns several players with starting experience at the receiver position in 2010, including seniors Greg Jones (6 catches, 149 yards, 1 TD) and Mike Schupp (6 catches, 61 yards). In addition to the established depth, Niumatalolo said that moving Washington over to defense -- even if only a temporarily move -- will open up opportunities for up-and-comers like Brandon Turner to get more reps during the spring.
"We feel good about our receiving core with Gary Myers, Greg Jones and Mike Schupp," Niumatalolo said. "They are guys who've played a ton of football for us. We're excited about Brandon Turner and some of the younger guys we have coming from the prep school too, so we feel like we're pretty deep there."
An abundance of capable receivers wasn't the only reason for Niumatalolo's decision. While Navy's 2010 secondary is expected to be one of the best in recent memory (returning three starters, including two three-year safety starters in Wyatt Middleton and Emmett Merchant) the unit is a relative unknown after the first line. In addition to questions abounding as to who will backup Navy's current starters, the Mids also head into spring practice without the services of cornerback Kevin Edwards, who is rehabbing a shoulder after offseason surgery. These factors made the move a welcome experiment for longtime Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who said he is also looking for an extra defensive back to come in and play in ‘Nickel' packages.
"Numbers wise we have three guys who are obviously coming back who started last year, but as far as tremendous depth at defensive back, we don't have that many numbers compared to other positions on defense," said Green, who mentioned that he currently has Washington listed as a starter going into the spring.
"Bottom line is that if he can come over – and Mario is athletic and he has played corner before – and if he can help us at that spot and fight for a starting job it would be a tremendous asset for our team," Green added.
While Washington has excelled at receiver over the past two seasons for Navy, he won't exactly be in the dark when making the transition to cornerback for the spring. A former three-sport star at Crest High School in North Carolina, Washington played both ways on the high school level, and has the speed and quickness necessary to play the position in college.
"He played in high school. He was really a good corner, and had been a starter since his sophomore year," said Green.
While Green and Niumatalolo are expecting big things from Washington this spring, both coaches caution against putting too much emphasis on the permanence of the move, and continued to point out that it's more of an experiment than anything else. Navy may lack an abundance of players who've logged snaps in the secondary, but the unit does have some proven backups in Kwesi Mitchell and David Wright returning in 2010. Green expects both players to compete with Washington this spring, and looks forward to seeing the position battles play out in the coming weeks.
"I hope we have a lot of competition," said Green. "Kwesi [Mitchell] played nickel for us in the bowl game, and even played safety for us in quite a few games last year. He has experience at both safety and corner. David Wright, who got some experience with us on special teams last year, is another guy who I think is going to battle. With Kevin out this spring, and rehabbing with his shoulder, it's going to really give us a chance to look at two guys at the right and left corner spots. I think it'll be a good competition in the spring."
Above all, Washington's move to the defensive backfield highlights the strength of the wide receiver position on Navy's roster, and testifies to the athleticism of one of Navy's most proven veterans. Whether the experiment ends up working or not, one thing is clear for Niumatalolo and Navy – no matter what happens during the next few weeks, the staff is committed to getting their twenty two best players on the field in whatever way they can.
"I just felt like with losing Blake [Carter] and with Kevin [Edwards] being hurt this spring, just from a depth standpoint to see if Mario can help us," said Niumtaolo. "Spring is always when you're tinkering with things and just trying to get your best guys on the field."
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Navy's Washington Switching Fields
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