The path that cornerback Brendon Clements has taken in his freshman season at Navy has precedent. The player he replaced in the starting lineup, injured sophomore Kwazel Bertrand, also started as a freshman. So had two other members of the secondary, junior cornerback Parrish Gaines and junior safety Chris Ferguson.
The way Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has talked about Clements since he announced that Bertrand would be out for an extended period of time after suffering a knee injury in preseason camp also has precedent. It is very similar to the way he spoke about sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds when he replaced injured starter Trey Miller last season.
"The kid is beyond his years mentally," Niumatalolo said of Clements earlier this week. "We've had some guys who've had his physical skills, but he's like Keenan. The guy's a smart football player. His football IQ is very high. For a freshman to have a football IQ like that is unusual. I was super concerned when Kwazel went down before Indiana, but the kid played has played well in both games."
Said secondary coach Keith Jones: "He has good instincts. He has football sense. He's got great ball skills."
Going into Saturday's game at Western Kentucky, Clements has done little to make Niumatalolo, Jones and defensive coordinator Buddy Green concerned that he is overmatched. Even though he has been beaten for a touchdown in each of Navy's first two games, Clements has also made plays in both games to help the Midshipmen (2-0) beat Indiana and Delaware.
"He just has a nose for the football," Niumatalolo said of Clements, who made five tackles in each game and also had his first career interception in a 51-7 win over the Blue Hens on Sept. 14. "Everything he's done to this point, he did in [preseason] camp, so it doesn't surprise us."
Said Gaines: "He came in with all the freshmen looking wide-eyed and lost, but you could tell in our position drills that he had a little step on all the freshmen. He reads and he doesn't hesitate. He sees something, he doesn't question himself, which a lot of DBs do, especially his age. He just does it."
It doesn't surprise Chevas Clements, who coached his son from Pop Warner Football through Coral Reef High School in Miami. The elder Clements, a former Division II running back and a high school coach in talent-rich South Florida for the past 15 years, said the oldest of his three sons has been around the game "since he was able to walk and run around."
Chevas Clements said with some seriousness that "his football IQ was higher at age 6. It sounds ridiculous, but I'm not joking at all," and that "he would know where the plays were going, where the players were going, and it would allow him to make big plays on a 65-pound, 75-pound Pop Warner team. He understands the game as a coach."
Much like Reynolds, who began watching game film with his father (also a former high school coach) when he was in middle school, the younger Clements hung around practices, meetings, film sessions and games wherever his father coached. Given the area in which he grew up, it put the younger Clements in contact with or closely following players now in the NFL.
"I liked those electric players who could make plays," said Brendon Clements, listing former University of Miami players Willis McGahee, Devin Hester and the late Sean Taylor among his favorites.
When Chevas Clements got his first head coaching job at Coral Reef, a magnet school considered among the top academic high schools in the country, his son "was my first recruit."
The younger Clements, who rarely left the field while playing quarterback, running back, cornerback and also returning kicks and punts, said that his team "rose from the ashes" to reach the third round of the playoffs as a senior.
The elder Clements thought his son could play at a bigger school, but most Football Bowl Subdivision coaches thought he was a step too slow to play at that level. The younger Clements spent a year in the Naval Academy Prep School before coming to Annapolis and, like Reynolds did as a freshman straight from high school, caught the eye of Niumatalolo in his first camp.
"Whenever we turned around, he was making an interception or some kind of play," Niumatalolo said. "He has a nose for the football."
Said Brendon Clements: "I came here with the idea that I wanted to start, but I knew it would be hard to do. I had it in my mind, but I knew it necessarily wasn't going to be the reality."
It became a reality a few days before the season opener, when Bertrand suffered a torn meniscus in his knee during an intrasquad scrimmage. Clements, 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds, was immediately moved into the lineup and went into Indiana's Memorial Stadium with more than just a No. 1 on the back of his jersey.
After the Midshipmen built an early 17-0 lead, the Hoosiers went after Clements.
Though he allowed Kofi Hughes to get behind him on what turned out to be a 45-yard touchdown pass from Nate Sudfield, Clements later broke up a pass to Hughes in the end zone. Not only were the Hoosiers aware that Clements was a freshman, but it turns out that Indiana was one of the bigger schools that had rejected him out of high school.
"I'm friendly with a couple of their coaches, and I had actually given them a whole bunch of crap about not offering him a scholarship because they came down here looking for DBs and they said he couldn't play D-1 football," Chevas Clements said. "They put their best receiver on him, but I thought he stood up well after he gave up the post."
Asked to assess his son's performance so far, the elder Clements said: "I think he's played well. He hasn't made many mental errors. Physically, the speed of the game, he has to know that he can recognize things a little bit sooner so he's in position to make plays."
Said Brendon Clements: "You've got to play every game. There's going to be things that happen every week, you've got to have a short memory. I've had to get adjusted to the speed, but I won't blame it on that. I've got to read my keys properly."
Much like Reynolds, the younger Clements credits his more experienced teammates "for helping me do what I need to do." And, much like Navy's star quarterback, the preparation began for Clements when he was much younger.
"I've dreamt of this my whole life, getting the opportunity to play Division I football," he said. "It's been a lot of fun."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun