Heart of defense a concern for Navy heading into spring football practice

Football and baseball are similar in that teams need to be strong up the middle on defense.

On the diamond, that means having a catcher, shortstop and center fielder that are good with the glove. On the gridiron, it's important to have defensive tackles, inside linebackers and safeties that can get off blocks and make plays.

Navy, which employs a 3-4 defensive alignment, has some question marks at all three of those key positions as it begins spring practice on Monday afternoon. Impending graduation losses have left the Midshipmen inexperienced at nose guard, inside linebacker and strong safety.

Bernie Sarra returns as the starting nose guard after a strong sophomore season in which he emerged as one of Navy's best defenders. The 6-foot-1, 303-pound Pennsylvania native was a difference-maker up front and was sorely missed while sitting out four games with an injury.

However, Navy has lost its second and third string nose guards as Travis Bridges and Barry Dabney will be commissioned as officers in May. Bridges really stepped up as a senior and filled in capably as the starter while Sarra was sidelined, finishing as the second-leading tackler among defensive linemen.

Defensive line coach Dale Pehrson will be in teaching mode this spring as Navy enters camp with a pair of plebes that played junior varsity last season listed second and third on the depth chart behind Sarra. Patrick Forrestal (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and Cam Henson (6-3, 290) certainly have the size to play the position, but have a lot to learn in terms of technique while also adjusting to the rigors of taking on double-teams and holding the point of attack at the Division I level.

"We don't know much about those guys," Niumatalolo said when asked about Forrestal and Henson. "We have some young kids with the size and mass we're looking for at that spot, but they both have a long way to go."

Things are even more dire at inside linebacker, where the Mids must replace both starters. Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti ranked one-two on the team with 142 and 110 tackles, respectively. Rising junior Don Pearson is the only returning inside linebacker that saw significant action on defense, but the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder recorded just eight tackles.

"Those jobs are wide-open. Pearson is the only guy that got meaningful snaps," Niumatalolo said during a lunch meeting with the media last week. "That's going to be a tough one, but I feel good that we have people with the physical talent to do the job."

James Britton was switched from safety to inside linebacker last spring and was listed atop the depth chart for a while. However, the 6-foot-2, 223-pounder had a difficult adjustment to the position and that prompted the coaching staff to move Sargenti from outside to inside during August camp. Britton wound up playing in 12 of 13 games, primarily on special teams, as a junior in 2013.

"It took some time for (Britton) to make the transition and he had some nagging injuries that held him back," Niumatalolo said. "I think he's feeling more and more comfortable at the position. Jimmy is what we're looking for there. He's tough and athletic. He will hit you and has the ability to cover (a running back or tight end) when necessary."

Rising senior Maika Polamalu (6-0, 218) and rising junior Tyler Goble (6-1, 228) are second on the depth chart entering spring drills while rising seniors Joe Worth (6-2, 210) and Nick Martinez (6-2, 222) are third.

Inside linebackers are required to make the majority of tackles in Navy's 3-4 scheme and it is concerning there is no proven performer there. However, Niumatalolo expressed confidence that inside linebackers coach Steve Johns will develop a quality rotation, pointing out that Peterson was a converted fullback while Sargenti arrived in Annapolis as a quarterback.

"I'm encouraged because Coach Johns is a great teacher. He knows how to get these guys ready," Niumatalolo said of the seventh-year assistant.

Navy calls its strong safety a Rover and will have first-year starter there in 2014 as 11-game starter Wave Ryder will graduate while two-game starter Chris Ferguson retired toward the end of last season due to multiple concussions.

Ryder, who played the best football of his career toward the end of last season, was the team's fifth-leading tackler with 58. Ferguson was the starter at free safety for five games then replaced Ryder at Rover for a couple games before calling it a career with one year of eligibility remaining.

Rising senior Lonnie Richardson became the backup after Ferguson was lost and will get first crack at taking over as the starter. The 5-foot-11, 188-pound Pennsylvania native started at free safety against Toledo and notched a career-high eight tackles in relief of Ferguson at Duke.

"That's a spot I'm concerned about," Niumatalolo said when asked about the Rover vacancy. "In our scheme, those guys have to be tacklers. You need the range to cover, but also the strength to fill the alley."

Current sophomore Lorentez Barbour and rising senior Shakir Robinson are listed second and third on the depth chart entering spring camp. However, Niumatalolo mentioned several other defensive backs that could get into the mix there, including backup free safety George Jamison along with cornerbacks Myer Krah and Quincy Adams.

Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Buddy Green cross-trains all the defensive backs and Niumatalolo said the goal is to get the best four on the field. Senior free safety and defensive captain Parrish Gaines is the leader back there while cornerbacks Kwazel Bertrand and Brendon Clements are also returning starters.

Jamison was one of the heroes of the Armed Forces Bowl victory over Middle Tennessee State, entering the game after Ryder was ejected for targeting and Richardson was knocked out with a concussion. The 6-foot, 197-pound Tennessee resident registered a career-high six tackles, including one on a critical fourth-down stop in the red zone, and also recorded his first career interception.

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