Something was missing for the Navy football team as it prepared last spring for the 2011 season. The practices were quieter, and for those on defense, a little too easy. What was missing — in retrospect, who was missing — was longtime defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who sat out spring practice after complications following gall bladder surgery.
Even then, after Green returned for his 10th season, fourth-year Ken Niumatalolo knew that the Midshipmen might be in trouble defensively when the season began. It played out during the fall, when a defense ranked 86th in the country overall contributed to Navy's 5-7 record, Niumatalolo's first losing year as a head coach.
"I knew when it was happening (last spring)," said Niumatalolo earlier this week. "He's a major, major part of our program. Not to have him was a huge loss. I don't want to think about that. Yeah, we lost some games, but I'm grateful that Buddy is here."
Navy will play its spring game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday at noon.
The presence of Green, who despite Navy's defensive problems last season interviewed for Tennessee's defensive coordinator in January, has brought an intensity back to spring practice for the Midshipmen. It has been demonstrated in his unit's solid performances during the team's two intrasquad scrimmages. The defense won both, dominating the first.
Niumatalolo and Green are hoping that a defense that lost four-year starter and co-captain Jabari Tuani, one of the most respected Navy players in recent memory, will improve on last season. The Midshipmen had trouble stopping anyone on third down (117th in efficiency) and weren't much better on first or second (112th in passing efficiency).
Beyond the statistics, there was something a little more intangible lacking — toughness.
It played a large part in Niumatalolo's decision to go "live" this spring nearly from the start — allowing everybody but sophomore quarterback Trey Miller to get hit.
"Don't get me wrong, the schematic part of it, the technique is definitely up there, but we're trying to teach these guys the way we play, and that's the level that we need to play with," Niumatalolo said. "The mental toughness. It's good to have [Green] back to have him set the standard in what we're trying to look for."
Said Green, "For the whole team – offense, defense, everybody – we've got to get tougher. We've got to play the game. We got plenty of reps this spring in playing the game, the physical aspects of it and at the same time, more importantly, we've got to make sure that as we get tougher, we have to make sure fundamentally we're improving."
It was an interesting 2011 season for Green. He knew going into the season that Tuani would be the unquestioned defensive leader, but was hoping for some of the other upperclassmen to help him. When a number of veteran players faltered, changes were made.
By the end of the year, Green was starting two freshmen, safety Chris Ferguson and cornerback Parrish Gaines, in the secondary. Several others, including sophomore nose guard Alex Doolittle as well as junior ends Josh Dowling-Kirkpatrick, Wes Henderson and Collin Sturdivant, were getting their first chance at significant playing time.
Green, who also coached the last month of the season from the press box after the team broke a six-game losing streak with him sitting up there, now sees the benefit of getting several players experience in the line of fire rather than in the comfort of spring ball.
"There's no doubt, guys like Parrish and Chris are much better in the spring, doing so many things better than they were a year ago in the spring," Green said after last Saturday's scrimmage. "Up front the same way. (Barry) Dabney stuck out to me today, at nose guard. He got a chance to make some plays inside. Some of the guys who got some reps last year, got some experience, I've seen them get a little better."
The defense remains in transition, especially the line. Along with the graduation of Tuani, the line lost two players who started games last season when sophomore Jamel Dobbs left the academy and junior Joshua Jones decided to finish out his time at the academy without football.
Shaun Nua, a former star at Brigham Young who earned a Super Bowl ring with the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, has been added to help coach the defensive line. Unaware of the defensive problems the line had last season, Nua has been impressed by what he has seen.
"They already have a blue-collar toughness about them," Nua said. "It's doable, it's already here, we've just got to get it out of them."
Said Niumatalolo, " I feel much better coming out of spring than I did before spring. The light might be a little dim, hopefully we can put a little more electricity, a few more watts into it. I think they're starting to get it."