Pete Sampson: This is a first for our conversations about Navy, but I wanted to start with the defense. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green is on medical leave and the defense is statistically improved, allowing a yard less per play and cutting scoring almost in half. How is that defense better? Why is it better?
Bill Wagner: The personnel is deeper. They’re taking advantage of that by playing a lot of guys. Ken Niumatalolo has a formula for recruiting defense that’s given him choices. He didn’t have the depth in recent seasons, where if you got below the No. 1 nose guard, you just didn’t want the No. 2 taking many snaps because there was such a dramatic drop. They’ve been able to recruit for their system better and now they’ve got four good defensive ends, two good nose guards and four good outside linebackers. There’s one linebacker position where Navy has started four different guys in four games. And that’s a good thing.
If you’ve got four guys at one position good enough to start, just play them all. When you’re Navy you tend to be undersized and the less each guy has to play, the more you’re able to get guys to play 110 percent and feel strong at the end of games.
Niumatalolo raised some eyebrows last summer when the talked about Navy being more aggressive on defense and people wondered if they were going to start blitzing. It’s not like Navy suddenly has lockdown corners. He wanted a different mentality. Green had been preaching “end but don’t break” and it kind of created this mentality that you don’t attack at all. Niumatalolo realized he couldn’t sit back against spread offenses anymore because the quarterbacks are so good that they’ll pick you apart. So Navy is attacking more, but they’re being smart about it.
Defensive end Will Anthony has been outstanding and has really built up his game. He might be the best defensive end Navy has had. With this new approach sacks are up, tackles for loss are up, forced fumbles are up. They’ve got seven sacks already after posting eight all last season. They’re getting guys to play balls to the wall because maybe they’re only getting seven snaps a game because of the depth.
PS: Does the 4-0 start, Navy’s first since 2004, surprise you? How much does it just come down to Navy being No. 1 in penalties per game and No. 1 in turnovers lost?
BW: No, it doesn’t surprise me. They had a senior quarterback, one of the best they’ve ever had. Keenan Reynolds is a special talent. You knew you were going to have success with him on offense. But I’m surprised how good the defense has been. Granted, they’ll get their greatest test on Saturday. But so far, they’ve been a shutdown group. Against Notre Dame, maybe they can get a couple defensive stops to change the game. Notre Dame hasn’t punted against Navy in the last two games.
I think people look at this Navy team and know it can be special, maybe a 10-2 or 9-3 type team. The offense has always produced, going back to Paul Johnson. But the defense has been flat out awful a lot of years. Go back to 2007 when Navy beat North Texas, 74-62. I’m convinced Johnson decided to leave Navy after that game. Defenses were so bad you’re scoring 70+ and still almost losing.
PS: It’s obviously early, but how do you think being in the American Athletic Conference suits Navy?
BW: They had to do it, frankly. I agree wholeheartedly with their athletics director that independence was becoming untenable in college football today. Scheduling, TV money, bowls, that all dries up with independence. The American was the most logical landing spot. At first it was supposed to be the Big East with Rutgers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. People were wondering if that was too big a step. Really, the American is a lot of teams Navy already plays like East Carolina, Tulsa, SMU and Tulane. Navy is going to be competitive here.
I think it adds to the schedule even if the teams are the same. Before you’re playing a bunch of teams with no connection and you’re just building a record to get into a bowl. Now you can get into the conversation for a “Group Of Five” bowl bid on New Year’s Day. The goal here was always to beat Army and Air Force, win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, have a winning record. That was it. Now you’ve got a conference championship to play for too.
PS: The Georgia Tech dynamic is hard to quantify with Notre Dame. How much impact does Navy think is has? Brian Kelly talked about how it’s sort of an advantage for both, although it seems like that would favor the Irish.
BW: That’s exactly the same comment that Niumatalolo made. It helps both teams. Teams always say they can’t replicate the speed of the option. Well, Notre Dame’s players have already seen it full speed. But Navy has seen those lineups and those adjustments. So it’s an advantage for both teams, but a little more for Notre Dame. Frankly, Georgia Tech is Navy with better athletes but without a better quarterback. Navy has seen every adjustment to the option, so they should have a handle on how Notre Dame wants to play it.
PS: Have to talk more about Keenan Reynolds considering he’s four rushing touchdowns away from the NCAA record. How is he better this year?
BW: Remember that last year Reynolds was just getting back to being Reynolds by the Notre Dame game. He missed basically three games with an injury where he rushed back too soon. He was almost playing on one leg.
I think biggest thing is Reynolds got to take graduate courses in option football this off-season. Navy has never had a four-year starter in the triple option era and now Reynolds has had more reps at it than anyone else. The Notre Dame game will be his 37th career start. He’s like an offensive coordinator on the field now. It’s to the point that offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper doesn’t need to tell him what the defense is doing and how it is adjusting. Reynolds already knows. They don’t have to get on the headset. Reynolds knows how to counter before he gets to the sidelines.
PS: Looking ahead to Saturday, I think we basically agree that if Notre Dame plays well that Navy probably won’t be able to keep up. Any reason to adjust based on the last couple years?
BW: It’s hard to say. We’ve seen so many different things in this series. The last two years, Notre Dame has had no trouble moving the ball against Navy. The Irish haven’t punted. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case this year. Just think about Navy getting just one stop the last couple years. They might have won both those games.
The X-factor to me is Navy’s defense. Can they get a stop? Can they force a turnover? Navy is obviously very concerned about Notre Dame’s team speed. Talking to Niumatalolo on Tuesday, he mentioned Will Fuller and CJ Prosise. Fuller has run by everybody this year. Prosise’s speed is world class. There’s so many weapons.
Navy has been pretty good against the run this year, but the combination Notre Dame presents is the ability to mash you but then turn around and throw off of it. I think what I’m most concerned about if I’m Navy is getting run on and then getting hit with swing passes out of the backfield where Prosise gets a linebacker in the open field, makes him miss, and then it’s a huge play.