Navy's shuffled secondary is in a better place as Midshipmen prepare to face Notre Dame

The Baltimore Sun

Going into last week's game against Pittsburgh, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was asked whether he was going to change kickers after Nick Sloan missed an extra point that proved decisive in a 45-44 double-overtime defeat at Toledo in the previous game.

Niumatalolo wasn't asked whether he was going to make any moves in a secondary that had been shredded two weeks in a row.

There were two lasting images from Navy's 24-21 win Saturday over Pitt: Sloan's game-winning 30-yard field goal at the final gun and a reconfigured defense that helped the Midshipmen stop the Panthers down the stretch.

Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green moved junior Parrish Gaines from his regular spot at cornerback to safety and sent junior Chris Ferguson from safety to rover to replace a struggling Wave Ryder. Freshman Brendon Clements, who had started the first three games at cornerback when Kwazel Bertrand was injured, took over for Gaines opposite Bertrand.

"We're trying to get our best four out there and strengthen ourselves in [defending] the running game and making tackles," Green said after practice Tuesday. "The rover and free safety have been two key elements over the years in tackling."

They certainly will play an important part in Navy's next game, Saturday at Notre Dame (6-2). The secondary understands that it will be severely tested by an Irish offense that had little trouble with Air Force in a 45-10 win Saturday in Colorado Springs.

Navy (4-3) has its own memories of the pastings doled out by Notre Dame the past two years — 50-10 last season in Dublin, Ireland, and 56-14 in 2011 in South Bend, Ind.

"The last two times we played them, it wasn't too pretty for us," Niumatalolo said.

Recalling his first collegiate start, which came at Notre Dame in 2011, Gaines said, "They came out and hit us in the mouth."

It seemed to start that way last week against Pitt, which had little trouble moving the ball throughout the first half. Saturday's game marked the first time Gaines had played at safety since his sophomore year in high school.

"I had seen it the past two years, the communication with the safeties," Gaines said when asked how comfortable he felt playing the position again. "It wasn't a huge deal. I had to learn exactly where to line up. I knew most of the calls. I felt I came in with a clear conscience and everything was clicking."

Returning to the starting lineup was not a big deal for Clements, who despite being burned for touchdowns in wins over Indiana and Delaware had given the coaches confidence to move him in there when the opportunity allowed.

Clements made eight tackles against Pitt, broke up one pass and got away with what could have been a crucial penalty — a holding call on a second-and-15 from the Navy 16-yard line that kept a touchdown drive alive — had the Midshipmen lost. He helped force Pitt quarterback Tom Savage to the sideline for no gain on Navy's big defensive stand in the fourth quarter.

The experience early in the season helped Clements adjust against the Panthers.

"I think playing in the beginning, I already knew what was expected and the intensity of the situation," Clements said. "It's still my first year, so [the game] slowed down as much as it could have."

Niumatalolo said that the three games Clements started at the beginning of the season enabled the head coach to go through with the recommendations Green and secondary coach Keith Jones made last week for changing things up in the secondary.

"That allowed us some confidence that we could move Parrish to safety," Niumatalolo said. "We felt good that if [Clements] could play against Indiana's offense, he could play against anybody."

Niumatalolo has compared Clements to sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds in his ability to understand the game, and his ability to make plays. Gaines said Clements is constantly asking questions.

"He asks more questions than anybody on the team. ... He asks questions like every five seconds," Gaines said. "He was my roommate for a couple of [road] games, and he's asking me questions about everything. Not that he didn't know it, but he just wanted to be sure."

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