Navy Spring Practice Recap - The Defense

Navy's defense came of age last year as it ranked 16th in nation in scoring defense. The Mids finished fourth in the nation in red zone scoring defense and 28th overall in total defense. This was a group that Navy fans watched mature into a terrific defense. In 2007 they were an overmatched group of underclassmen that surrendered a school record 473 points.

Last season a lot of those same players formed the nucleus of a ten win team that surrendered only 13 points to high powered Missouri in its bowl win.

Navy fans have become used to seeing players like Pospisil, Haberer, Carter and Vela, however, there are only five returning starters. The good news is Navy returns its two best defensive players, team captain Wyatt Middleton and defensive end Jabaree Tuani. Unlike 2007 Navy returns nearly the entire secondary and a number of upperclassmen that have played as backups. The biggest concern is the linebackers, which will feature only one player who has seen significant playing time. Fortunately the team seemed to have a number of talented players ready to step up and contribute at the conclusion of spring practice.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Defensive end Jabaree Tuani (No. 98) is the best defensive lineman Navy's produced since Bob Kuberski. Tuani is quick off the mark; plays with great leverage and can rush the passer. In Buddy Green's three-man front Tuani makes a startling number of plays in a position defense designed to free up the linebackers. The junior Tuani finished the year with 54 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Sophomore Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (No. 59), a converted linebacker, emerged as Tuani's backup this spring. The 6-2, 225 pound Dowling-Fitzpatrick is quick and can pursue. Sophomore Josh Jones (No. 73), who recorded four tackles for the Gold team, was impressive and moved up the depth chart. At nose guard most thought when Nate Frazier, who had started 26 straight games, was dismissed from the academy before last season that it would leave a huge hole in the middle of the Mids defensive line. Senior Chase Burge (No. 93) and the graduating Jordan Stephens did a great job filling the void. With the exception of the Temple game, it was hard to find a game in which Navy's defense really missed Big Nate. The powerful Burge plays a lot bigger than his 270-pound frame would suggest. It's probably easier to move the statue of Chief Tecumseh than knock Burge off the ball. Last year's third string nose guard Shane Bothel (No. 95) had a terrific spring and rose to the top of the depth chart. Bothel, a senior, recorded four tackles for the Gold team in the spring game. Junior Jared Marks (No. 91) is the biggest nose guard at 6-5, 288. Marks had five tackles for the Blue team in the spring game.

At right end senior Billy Yarborough (No. 90) is the new starter. Yarborough has good quickness and has recorded three sacks during his Navy career. Sophomore Wes Henderson (No. 99 last year No. 75) had a solid spring and is slated to backup Yarborough.

LINEBACKERS:

The linebacker position is the great unknown for Navy. In Buddy's Green 3-4 defense linebackers need to make plays. As mentioned earlier while most of the linebackers are raw they have ability.

The one proven quantity is hard hitting senior inside linebacker Tyler Simmons (No. 54) who missed spring practice with an injury. Despite being a backup Simmons was third on the team with 68 tackles. He's expected to be ready this fall. Junior Caleb King (No. 57) won the other starting inside linebacker job this spring. King, who ran the forty-yard dash in 4.46 seconds this spring, had five tackles in the spring game.

A number of inexperienced players moved up the depth chart behind the starters at inside linebacker.

Junior Max Blue (No. 44), who played mostly on special teams last year, backs up Simmons. Blue recorded five tackles for the Gold team in the spring game. Sophomore Matt Warrick (No. 51 last year 33) was very impressive this spring inside. Warrick moves well and has a nose for the ball. He led the Gold team with six tackles and had a sack in the spring game.

At the outside linebacker Raider position senior Jerry Hauburger (No. 31) is battling with rising sophomore Colin Sturdivant (No. 49 last year No. 66) for the starting spot. Hauburger, who has good speed, missed most of last year with a leg injury. Collin Sturdivant started camp at defensive end and was moved to outside linebacker. Buddy Green feels Sturdivant has the mobility and speed to play outside. Sophomore Adam Johnson (No. 40 last year No. 87) moved up the depth chart and adds depth.

The striker outside linebacker, after a two-year apprenticeship, will be junior Aaron McCauley (No 29). McCauley has played the last two years on special teams. The undersized McCauley proved to be strong against the run this spring. Back up Andrew Sharp (No.43 last year No 46), a sophomore, was praised by outside linebacker coach Keith Jones as being the biggest surprise of camp. Junior converted safety Eric Stein (No 41 last year 45) and sophomore Kevin Moore (No.34 last year No. 88) provide depth.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

No player better illustrates Navy's defensive turnaround from 2007 through today than Kevin Edwards (No. 15). Edwards really struggled in coverage as a plebe. Since then he has developed into a terrific cover corner. Edwards has good feet, quickness and speed. Edwards ran the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team this spring at 4.44. He didn't practice this spring as he recovers from off season shoulder surgery. He will be ready in the fall. Behind Edwards at right corner is junior David Wright (No 18) who benefited from the extra snaps this spring and moved up the depth chart. Buddy Green told Bill Wagner of The Capital "David Wright competed very hard day-in and day-out. He improved his technique and showed good range. David showed me he deserves some playing time." De'Von Richardson (No. 3 new number last year No. 36), who made the depth chart as a freshman, has talent but didn't make a move this spring.

At left cornerback junior Kwesi Mitchell (No. 11) looks to have won the starting job. Mitchell runs a 4.5 forty-yard dash and like many Navy defensive backs has played both safety and corner. He started two games last year and posted 29 tackles and broke up two passes. With Navy's depth at wide receiver the staff entered spring practice with a plan to convert wide receiver Mario Washington (No.1 formerly No. 85), a senior, to left cornerback. However a series of minor injuries limited his practice reps.. Washington is listed on top of both the receiver and cornerback position. You can rest assure that he won't be Navy's Chuck Bednarik and play both ways. At the end of camp he was moved to offense but it's unclear if he will receive repetitions at cornerback once summer camp opens. One former offensive player who found a home at cornerback is junior Corey James (No. 20 last year 24). James escaped the crowd at slot back and has made a nice transition. Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green told Bill Wagner, "Cory James has been a very pleasant surprise. He's definitely found a home at the corner spot. He looks very comfortable there." Sophomore Caleb Lucas (No. 6 last year No 4) is also in the mix.

Rover will once again be manned by senior captain Wyatt Middleton (No. 8) . Middleton is a four-year starter who was named first team All-East last year. He had 68 tackles, four interceptions and broke up seven passes while causing a fumble and recovering two fumbles. Wyatt did everything except sell programs. With his size, speed and sure tackling he's often been Navy's last line of defense and almost always answers the call. After dropping a few sure interceptions earlier in his career Middleton added ballhawk to his resume as he picked off 4 passes. Two promising sophomores emerged at Rover behind Middleton this spring. Tra'ves Bush (No. 9 last year No. 19) won the backup spot while Dylon Portas (No. 32 last year No. 21) was named winner of the Vice Admiral William P. Mack Award for the most improved player with his hard-hitting style.

Senior free safety Emmett Merchant (No. 7) returns as starter. Merchant is an undersized but active safety. Last year he recorded 54 tackles, forced two fumbles, picked off two passes and batted down four more. Former quarterback recruit Brian Blick (No. 5), a junior, is now the backup. He has average speed but is physical. Senior Jason Wright (No. 19 last year No.16) who had two tackles in spring game and sophomore Jordan Frazer (No. 13), who led the Blue defense in tackles, are in a battle for third string.

Coach Green's read and react defense has been very effective most of his tenure at Navy. Last year Navy allowed the fewest points per game (19.4 ppg) in Green's eight-year tenure. Navy returns plenty of talent and experience on the defensive front and in the secondary. How the new linebackers develop and play will determine how successful this unit will be. With Navy's explosive offensive this defense doesn't need to be the second coming of the "Steel Curtain" defense for the Mids to have a winning season. If the linebackers play well Navy has a chance to be a Top 25 team.

GoMids.com will next look at the Navy special teams.

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