In Navy's 3-4 defensive alignment, the nose guard's primary responsibility is to hold the point of attack and prevent interior blockers from reaching the second level.
Considering that inside linebackers Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti combined to make 252 tackles last season, one would have to assume that Bernie Sarra did his job pretty well.
"I feel that I'm a good fit for the scheme we play. The way I play is a big help for our inside backers and the other guys behind me," said Sarra, who started nine of 13 games at nose guard in 2013. "Cody and D.J. made a lot of tackles last year so that says something."
Sarra is the bell cow of Navy's defensive line, which will get a stiff test in the Aug. 30 season opener against Ohio State. The Buckeyes' starting offensive line averages 307 pounds per man with junior tackle Taylor Decker (6-foot-7, 315 pounds) leading the way.
That is nothing new for Navy, which is significantly outweighed in the trenches by every opponent. The Midshipmen rely on technique, desire and experience – all of which Sarra possesses. Under the tutelage of defensive line coaches Dale Pehrson and Shaun Nua, Sarra has become a shining example of how to maintain a solid base, use leverage as an advantage and win one-on-one battles with good footwork and strong hands.
"Bernie gets better every year. He's a lot stronger than he was last year and obviously knows the defense better so he's playing a little faster," Navy defensive line coach Dale Pehrson said.
"Experience is everything, especially inside because it all happens so fast. Bernie is one of those guys that comes to work every day so he's always improving."
Navy's nose guards have steadily gotten bigger in recent years with Sarra listed at 6-foot-1, 303 pounds. Pehrson said the Pennsylvania native is extremely strong and a "very, very smart player who doesn't make the same mistake twice."
Sarra was the rare nose guard who saw playing time as a plebe, really emerging in the regular season finale against archrival Army with five tackles and disruptive play. The product of Greensburg Central Catholic recorded 24 tackles and two quarterback hurries last season despite missing three games with a broken ankle.
"Time flies. I remember coming in as a freshman all wide-eyed and flying around. I didn't really know what was going on," Sarra said when asked about taking on a leadership role. "Blink twice and two years later here I am, one of the veteran guys."
Sarra, who grew up the western Pennsylvania town of Monessan, was overlooked by many major conference schools because of his height. He took particularly joy in Navy's 24-21 victory over Pitt last season since the hometown school elected not to offer him a scholarship.
Navy lost a good nose guard to graduation in Travis Bridges, a 318-pounder who started three games in Sarra's absence and enjoyed a breakout senior season. Third stringer Barry Dabney is also now a commissioned officer, requiring a bit of rebuilding at the position.
Sophomores Patrick Forrestal and Rob Dusz are currently listed second and third on the depth chart. Classmate Cam Henson, who opened preseason camp at No. 3, quit the team last week after being hobbled by an injury.
At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Forrestal has the size Navy is looking for at nose guard, but has yet to play a down in a varsity game. The Georgia native is a direct-entry recruit and grandson of one of Navy's greatest players – All-American quarterback Tom Forrestal (Class of 1958).
"(Forrestal) has good size, pretty good strength and is very flexible," Pehrson said. "He's a big body in there and will develop over time. Hopefully, he won't have to get a ton of reps from the beginning, but I'm not afraid to put him in the game."
Sarra has become a personal tutor for Forrestal, who struggled to learn the schemes and assignments during spring camp. Sarra said the youngster was "a little shaky during the spring so I was in his pocket all summer trying to get him better."
"I just try to give him all the knowledge I can, whether that's the physical stuff such as technique or the mental stuff," Sarra said of his advice to Forrestal. "I tell him that it's just football, that you can't freak out and make it more than it is. So I'm just trying to build him up physically and calm him down mentally."
Lack of experience among the backups means Sarra will probably get more game repetitions than usual, but Pehrson knows nose guard is a very demanding position physically and therefore requires a rotation. Navy often shifts a defensive end to nose guard as part of its nickel package so senior Aaron Davis (6-0, 257) will see considerable action inside.
NAVY VS. OHIO STATE
Aug. 30, noon, at M&T Bank Stadium
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