The fortunes of the Navy football team diverged in a loss to Rutgers in the second week of last season.
Season-ending injuries to linebacker Clint Sovie and safety Jeff Deliz against the Scarlet Knights contributed to a defense that was one of the worst in the country. The Midshipmen finished toward the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in several categories, including last in pass-defense efficiency.
With new Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada trying to keep the offense as potent as it was under Paul Johnson - the Mids led the nation in rushing for the third straight season and scored a school-record 511 points - the return of Sovie and Deliz could allow the Midshipmen to be as competitive in 2008 as they were when they finished 8-5 a year ago.
"We've obviously got to get better on defense," Niumatalolo, the former offensive coordinator who was promoted when Johnson left for Georgia Tech, said as practice opened in Annapolis yesterday. "But the main thing I saw was as a defensive unit, we got better."
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green isn't as diplomatic.
"We were awful. We gave up too many points," Green said of a defense that ranked 108th of 119 among FBS teams by surrendering 36.4 points a game. "I say awful, if you look statwise and what we gave up and how much better we could have been. There's a tremendous amount of improvement to be made."
But like Niumatalolo, Green said he thinks the numbers are a bit deceiving.
"I was proud of the way after we lost Jeff and after we lost Clint, after we lost our whole secondary after four games, we hung together and made some plays in the Air Force game, made some plays in the Notre Dame game, made some plays throughout the year to help us win eight ballgames," Green said.
Deliz and Sovie are hoping they can remain healthy. Last season, each sustained serious foot injuries, with Deliz suffering a separation that required two surgeries and forced him to withdraw from school for 21/2 months to rehabilitate near his home outside Detroit.
Sovie had considered returning for the last two games of the season, against Army and in the Poinsettia Bowl against Utah.
"I was able physically to come back and play," Sovie recalled. "The challenging part was I had to use my brain and say, 'Would you rather play an extra season, or would you rather play two more games?' Watching the guys step in and do an outstanding job, I know I'm going to have to work harder to win my spot back."
Sovie, one of the team's co-captains this season, is still working toward that goal. He is listed along with junior Tony Haberer for a starting job at inside linebacker. The same is true for Deliz, who sat out spring practice and is competing with sophomore Emmett Merchant at the rover position.
The benefit to the injuries came in the fact that more than half the starting defensive players last season were sophomores and freshmen.
With the return of Sovie and Deliz, who was a team captain when he got hurt, the defense is bound to be improved.
It will be needed as Kaheaku-Enhada finds his playmakers.
"A lot of the times last year, we had to rely on our offense to carry us through late in games," said Deliz, a fifth-year senior who received a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA to be eligible this season.
"We want to have the responsibility of having to take over games ourselves."