Navy enters the 2015 season on defense surrounded in large part by unexpected change. The injury bug has bitten several times throughout camp forcing projected starters to miss extended periods of time while giving inexperienced players more chances to get valuable reps with the first and second team.
The loss of defensive coordinator Buddy Green was also an unexpected blow this summer. Green will be taking the year off as defensive coordinator in order to recover from offseason neck surgery. While he is still working in some capacity as a consultant for the team, his presence on and off the field will be felt as Dale Pehrson is asked to step in and replace the fourteen year coordinator. Pehrson is entering his twentieth season at Navy and has spent the majority of that time as the defensive line coach.
The loss of Coach Green also forced some other changes on the defensive staff. Coach Dan O’Brien has shifted his focus from the outside linebackers to the secondary, where he has previous experience as a graduate assistant at Alabama and secondary coach at Elon. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Green has moved into the vacancy at outside linebackers left by O’Brien. Green served as the Director of Player Development the last three years, but he is a USNA grad and understands the culture and expectations of the program.
The loss of Buddy Green is certainly eased through the continuity of the coaches that head coach Ken Niumatalolo has on staff, but that does not mean the transition will be completely smooth. There will certainly be differences in style and approach between Pehrson and Green, and much of this may not manifest itself completely until the ball is spotted and the season begins on Saturday.
Navy returns six starters from a unit that finished the season 71st in total defense last season. While the defense returns most of the secondary and defensive line, there will be inexperience at linebacker and a lack of depth could be a problem across the board.
The defensive line has a chance to be a very successful unit this fall. Returning starter and defensive team captain Bernie Sarra will anchor the line once again this year at nose guard. Sarra has been ranked the seventh strongest man in college football this season by NFL.com. He also enters the season tied among active players for the most blocked kicks in the NCAA with three.
Returning starter Will Anthony promises to be a headache for opposing offensive lines this year. He has excellent speed coming off the edge and if Amos Mason continues to emerge as the starter opposite him, Navy’s front three could provide some much needed pressure on the quarterback.
The linebacker corps enters this season as probably the most inexperienced position group on either side of the ball. Daniel Gonzales is the lone returning starter and he will be counted on heavily to be a difference maker for the Mids this season. He is coming off an outstanding season in which he finished second on the team with 86 tackles and intercepted a team-leading three passes. He has shifted from the MIKE to SAM position this summer.
The rest of the group is talented but inexperienced heading into the season. Josiah Powell will open up the season at the striker position, having played several games on special teams last year. Myer Krah was expected to emerge as the starter this year, but he has been hampered by injuries so far in camp and is currently listed as third on the depth chart as he works his way back.
Micah Thomas and Tyler Goble are listed as co-starters at the MIKE position. USA Today has named Thomas one of the top ten breakout players of the Group of Five conferences, and he has flashed his athleticism and potential throughout camp. Goble brings senior leadership and experience in the system the past four years. Both figure to factor heavily in the rotation this fall.
D.J. Palmore has emerged as the starter at the raider position, having played some as a freshman last year. He is backed up by A.K. Akpunku who has moved from linebacker to defensive end and back to linebacker.
If the defense plans to make it a point to increase the pressure on the quarterback as Coach Niumatalolo has emphasized the need for, they will rely extensively on an inexperienced linebacker corps to grow up quickly this fall.
If Navy hopes to get more pressure on the quarterback and dial up more blitzes throughout the season, one reason for their ability to do so should be the experience returning in the secondary. While the linebacker corps may be the most inexperienced group as a whole, this is not the case on the back end.
Brendon Clements and Quincy Adams both return as starters at cornerback. Not only are they returning starters, but they could go down as one of the most successful corner duos Navy has had in recent memory. Adams has spent the majority of fall camp nursing a hamstring injury though, and he will not be starting this Saturday against Colgate. Elijah Merchant will start in his place.
In addition to Adams’ injury, Shelley White suffered an Achilles injury early in camp, which has forced freshman Sean Williams to take a significant number of snaps with the first unit. If Adams is able to get healthy and make it back into the lineup as expected, the cornerbacks could provide Pehrson the opportunity to dial up the pressure he is looking for.
Kwazel Bertrand returns to the rover position after starting nine games last year before being limited with an injury sustained in the opening drive of the Notre Dame game. Lorentez Barbour will be a first year starter at free safety, but he is an experienced defensive back who has spent the past three years learning from some great players like Parrish Gaines, Wave Ryder, and George Jamison. He will be counted on to be the signal-caller on defense, but he appears to be up to the challenge and poised to have a successful 2015 campaign.
Across the entire defense, depth will be a concern throughout the season. While the defensive line and secondary bring significant experience to the starting lineup, there is not a lot of experience behind them. This coupled with the inexperience of the linebacker group could provide some challenges down the road. If they remain healthy and are able to bring the second and third stringers along throughout the season and get them meaningful game experience, then the Navy defense has the chance to be successful this year.
Coach Pehrson and Coach Niumatalolo have declared their desire to get more pressure on the quarterback this season. Navy was second to last in FBS last year in sacks, getting only eight of them during the entire season. This had a direct effect on their inability to get off the field with any sort of regularity on third down.
As Coach Pehrson puts his own touches on the defense this fall, you can expect more blitz packages to be used in an attempt to alleviate some of these deficiencies.
Under Coach Green, Navy often conceded long drives in order to avoid big plays and shrink the field into a more manageable situation. This can be seen by the fact that Navy ranked 115th in the country last year in "methodical drives" or drives that lasted 10 or more plays, but was in the top 15 in the country in preventing "explosive drives," or drives in which a team averages 10 or more yards per play. By shrinking the field and having a very successful red zone defense (38th in the country), Navy was able to really showcase Coach Green’s defensive strategy.
In my opinion, this will become a balancing act this season as Navy looks to get more pressure on the quarterback and get off the field while staying true to their calling card of avoiding explosive drives and having a solid red zone defense. It will take some adjusting throughout the season as they continue to work through the transition process of having a new play-caller, and this could have an impact on the offense’s attempts to open up their playbook more as well.
This is a defense that brings back a rock solid secondary and more than capable defensive line. While they are inexperienced at linebacker, what they lack in experience they can hopefully make up for in athleticism and talent. This is a group that will have some obstacles to overcome in the early part of the season, but I strongly believe they have what it takes to make the necessary adjustments and lead Navy to a successful inaugural campaign in the American Athletic Conference.