It has taken senior linebacker Travis Cooley only a few weeks of spring practice to discern what a difference a winning season and a bowl victory have meant to the attitude of the Navy football team.

"It's unbelievable," said Cooley, one of the leaders of a veteran defensive unit. "We're up to a different level. We know we can play better now, and we expect more of each other.

"We really get on each other for making mistakes. There's no excuses for not having another big year this season. But we still have to make it happen."

Graduation claimed a number of players who were instrumental in the Midshipmen posting a 9-3 record last fall, their first winning season since 1982.

Gone are linebacker and vocal leader Clint Bruce; backup quarterback Ben Fay, who directed the dramatic, 42-38, come-from-behind victory over California in the Aloha Bowl; clutch receiver Cory Schemm, and Omar Nelson, who rushed for 957 yards and nine touchdowns.

But coach Charlie Weatherbie, who concludes spring workouts Saturday with a noon intrasquad scrimmage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, says he has the nucleus to duplicate or even improve on last year's record.

Said Weatherbie: "With every team I've been involved with as a coach or player, when the defense dominates in the spring, you usually have a good team in the fall."

The Mids boast both depth and size on defense. In the past, Navy lacked the beef to compete against the likes of Notre Dame, but that has changed dramatically.

"I've got David Viger and Jason Snider, both around 270 pounds, playing in front of me now," said Cooley. "That makes it a lot easier for the linebackers to do their job."

With two experienced seniors -- Cooley and Jason Coffey -- at linebacker, Weatherbie says the Mids will be able to compensate for Bruce's absence.

The secondary is also solid with the return of co-captain Gervy Alota, All-America candidate Sean Andrews and opportunistic Rashad Smith, who had four interceptions -- two for touchdowns -- and two fumble recoveries last season.

Offensively, the ball is still in the hands of Heisman Trophy candidate Chris McCoy, who accounted for 1,987 yards running and passing as a junior. No major shake-up in play-calling is expected, despite the departure of offensive coordinator Paul Johnson, who has been replaced by protege Ken Niumatalolo.

Promising junior Irv Dingle is pushing senior Tim Cannada for the starting fullback job, and junior wide-out Mark Mill has shown signs of filling the big-play void left by Schemm.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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