Testing the waters

The Baltimore Sun

It's a hot, steamy day on the football practice field at the Naval Academy. The kind of day that can make a player wonder why he's out there. The sweat is running, the uniforms are sticking, the lungs are burning and the mind can snap in an instant in a bad situation.

In the minds of the Navy coaches, it is a perfect day to build physical endurance and mental strength among a young, developing defensive unit.

"You set him up! Do you understand that? Get [mad] about doing something wrong," yells outside linebackers coach Keith Jones, with a cold stare into the eyes of senior Matt Humiston, a starter. "Give me 25."

Humiston, whose mistake had been to release his frustration with a late hit, turns and jogs to the sideline, his face frozen. The outside linebacker drops to the ground, and while several teammates tap him on the shoulders to encourage him, he does 25 rapid push-ups.

Jones looks over.

"Now get back in there," he shouts.

Meanwhile, defensive line coach Dale Pehrson's eyebrows come together. "We've got to get to the quarterback," he shouts, unhappy. "It's taking an hour to get to the quarterback!"

It's been trying for everyone on the defense. On the coaches trying to shape Navy's rebuilt 3-4 defense, and on the players, who have to endure as they attempt to learn their roles.

Navy opens its season tonight in Philadelphia against Temple with nine new defensive starters. Offensively, the team returns seven starters, including junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and its two leading running backs, Adam Ballard and Reggie Campbell.

This week, near the end of open practices, even head coach Paul Johnson said he isn't sure what he has.

"I don't know about this team," said Johnson, who is one victory away from his 100th career win. "We have so many guys that have never played."

Johnson is like most coaches, worrying about the negatives as he prepares a young team that has set major goals. Coming off its fourth straight winning season, its fourth straight bowl game, its fourth straight year winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy, Navy wants to make it five straight in every category.

The coach acknowledges his players are bigger, stronger and faster than they've been in the past, but said, "We're not going to win the games based on who runs the fastest and lifts the most weight."

The Mids, however, think they are coming together and ready to take on the toughest schedule Navy has faced in at least six years.

"We keep talking about we're young, we're young, we're young," said starting sophomore nose guard Nate Frazier, 6 feet 3, 285 pounds, who is getting rave reviews. "But [today], that goes out the window. You're ready or you're not. It's not about the talent. We have the talent. It's getting us to jell and communicate."

Starting inside linebacker Clint Sovie, for whom practice got easier last week once he signed to extend with the Navy after graduation and removed the stress that goes with making that commitment, said he believes the defense will mesh.

"Just because we're young doesn't mean we don't know the system and don't have chemistry," said Sovie, a junior. "All of us have been in the program for years. I'm playing with the guys who went through NAPS [Naval Academy Preparatory School] with me, who went through our plebe year together. So there's a little more chemistry. It's like being a freshman on the high school varsity [team], you can't wait to get to be an upperclassman and have all the kids you're friends with around you. It's that type of feeling now."

And Humiston, the senior who will share the starting outside linebacker positions with senior Matt Wimsatt and sophomore Matt Nechak, agreed.

"We haven't played a lot on Saturdays," he said. "But it's not like we're just stepping on the football field for the first time."

In fact, defensive coordinator Buddy Green said he has changed nothing in his 3-4 defensive scheme.

"The reason is our size," Green said. "We're not real big. We don't get the real big linemen to play a 4-3, so we've been a 3-4. We don't blitz a lot out of the 3-4 over the years, but we've converted [defensive backs] to outside linebackers and converted outside linebackers to the defensive line. The key for us is finding the guy at nose guard. That's a priority. ... That nose guard will always be our biggest lineman.

"None of that will change."

While players have had to do more than 200 push-ups in disciplinary situations and veteran players such as Sovie have been approached after practice to clarify assignments, the basics have not changed.

To win, Navy needs a disciplined and aggressive defense.

"We have a great group of disciplined young men," Green said. "But the discipline I'm talking about is what comes when everything is moving around you at 100 miles an hour. Even the smartest man, if he's not disciplined as a football player, bad things happen."

It's why Jones and his fellow coaches have been yelling more this year. This defense always has to have its eye on the football.

"We have to run to the football," Green said. "It's the only chance we have. We have to stop people and not give up the big plays."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

FIVE QUESTIONS FOR NAVY

Navy has lost nine starters on defense, including outstanding linebackers Rob Caldwell, Tyler Tidwell and David Mahoney. They were the Midshipmen's big-play men. Does Navy have replacements ready to step in - and up?

As coach Paul Johnson and defensive coordinator Buddy Green like to say, "We'll see when we tee it up." But junior Clint Sovie appears ready to take over the signal-calling duties Caldwell handled, and the three Matts - Humiston, Wimsatt and Nechak - seem to have complementary skills that could see them develop into a reliable crew.

With three new starters on the offensive line, will the Mids be among the nation's leading rushing teams as they have the past five years?

The veterans at left tackle and guard are gone, replaced by Josh Meek and Anthony Gaskins, and right guard Antron Harper has moved to center - the key spot in Navy's offensive line - leaving his old position to Ben Gabbard. It's a veteran crew behind them, and a familiar philosophy of playing hard and taking care of the ball should have this crew moving full speed ahead.

This season's schedule is thought to be one of the toughest in at least five years for the Mids. What impact will Rutgers, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have on Navy's hopes for a fifth straight bowl game?

Every team has to play the schedule it's handed, and, like most head coaches, Johnson and his staff follow the tried-and-true method of thinking only about their next opponent. Tonight it's Temple, a team the Mids handled well enough a year ago, but one Johnson said "will be playing like their hair's on fire."

Johnson, in his sixth season, will return his starting quarterback for the first time. What could that mean for Kaipu-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and the Mids?

Kaheaku-Enhada seems poised to step up to the next level. He had a strong fall training camp. He has shown leadership, improved knowledge of the offense and a better ability to read the opposing defense. Watch for Johnson to give him more latitude in changing the plays at the line of scrimmage and perhaps passing more often in the Mids' option offense.

Can a sophomore nose guard get the job done?

The Navy media guide spends only three paragraphs on sophomore Nate Frazier, but after a strong spring camp and an equally impressive fall practice season, Frazier caught the eye of nearly everyone who watched Navy football. Frazier, 6 feet 3, 285 pounds, is believed to be one of the team's better defensive line prospects in some time. He has size and some speed, but everyone singing his praises scares him just a little. "I don't know what they're looking at," he said. That added to the pleasure of his defensive coordinator, Buddy Green, who believes Frazier can grow into a "good" player, but doesn't think anyone should believe his press clippings - especially before even one game is played.

SANDRA McKEE

MIDS AT A GLANCE

Coach: Paul Johnson (sixth season, 37-25)

Last season: 9-4

Conference: Independent

Radio: Navy Radio Network, games carried on 1090 AM

Television: All home games carried on CSTV; tonight's season opener on ESPNU

Stadium: Jack Stephens Field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (34,000)

Tickets: 800-US4-NAVY or www.navysports.com

Parking: 800-US4-NAVY

Offense: Triple option. Defense: 3-4.

Top returning players: QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, FB Adam Ballard, S Jeff Deliz, C Antron Harper, LCB Rashawn King, RCB Ketric Buffin, SB-KR-PR Reggie Campbell, WR OJ Washington, OLT Josh Meek, SB Zerbin Singleton, ORT Andrew McGinn, ILB Clint Sovie, NG Nate Frazier, ILB Irv Spencer

Top newcomers: P Kyle Delahooke, ROV Wyatt Middleton, LCB Emmett Merchant, S Corey Johnson, ORT Matt Molloy

Strengths: Veteran-loaded offense led by second-year starter Kaheaku-Enhada, Ballard and Campbell. Combined with the move of veteran guard Harper to center to anchor the line, Navy should be off and running again.

Weaknesses: A lack of game experience on defense, where nine of 11 starters from last season graduated, will be the big "W," and right now, no one is sure if that stands for Winner or Wannabe.

Strongest opponent: There are at least four trouble spots on this year's schedule: Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

Key game: Rutgers on Sept. 7 is only the second game of the season, but the game is at the Scarlet Knights' home field in Piscataway, N.J., and should give Johnson a clear picture of how his newly constructed defense is coming together. Last season, with a veteran offense and defense, Navy lost, 34-0.

SANDRA McKEE

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