Brian Newberry feels good about the Navy defense going into the 2020 season.
Newberry spent his first year as defensive coordinator installing his system and instructing the players at various positions on how to operate within it.
That process began during spring practice and continued throughout the season. By the time of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in late December, Newberry estimated the Midshipmen had digested 90 percent of the defensive schemes in his playbook.
“Having been in the system for a year will be very beneficial to the players coming back,” Newberry told The Capital during a postseason interview earlier this month. “As a coaching staff, we have a much better feel for the personnel in terms of what certain players can and cannot do. Also, the players know us now. They know what the standards and expectations are.”
Multiple media outlets are reporting that Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry interviewed for the same position at Mississippi State on Saturday. According to 247 Sports, newly-hired head coach Mike Leach was going to offer Newberry the position during their meeting in Starkville.
Prior to heading out on the road recruiting, apparently with a diversion this past weekend to meet with Leach, Newberry spent time reviewing film from the 2019 season to evaluate personnel and performance.
“We’ll start watching cut-ups from the season in order to self-evaluate,” he said. “We’ll figure out what we did and didn’t do well, what were our strengths and weaknesses. We’ll see if there is anything we want to tweak or add.”
Newberry said the plan going into spring camp is to “dive deeper” with regards to expanding the system and teaching the players how to perform at a higher level.
“I really feel we have a chance to be better moving forward. Most of the players were so focused on doing their own jobs they couldn’t understand the big-picture stuff,” Newberry said. “Little picture is what is my technique, what is my assignment? Big picture is what are the people around me doing and where is my help coming from?”
Newberry spent the previous four years as defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State and felt it was not until the 2018 season that his players there truly understood the defense. He discovered this past season there were slight differences between the personnel at Kennesaw State and Navy.
“At Kennesaw we could get pressure rushing four and playing base coverage. Here, if we’re going to rush four there needs to be perceived pressure,” Newberry said. “On the other hand, at Kennesaw we didn’t have some of the sturdy bodies we have here. I also think there were more things we could do coverage-wise here.”
Not surprisingly, Newberry liked the type of players he worked with during his first year at Navy.
“I think you have super conscientious kids here. They work hard to get things figured out,” he said. “They care a lot and want to be good. They are able to recognize their weaknesses and embrace them.”
If Newberry remains at Navy, one of his goals during spring practice is to experiment with adding a nickel package.
“Right now, we have a base package and a dime package and nothing in-between. On those 50-50 downs, you’d like to be in more of a nickel package and get a third high safety on the field,” said Newberry, noting that Navy took a defensive lineman and inside linebacker off the field in order to insert two defensive backs for the dime alignment.
In terms of personnel, Newberry was asked to address the key losses Navy’s defense is suffering and evaluate the returning talent.
Jackson Pittman, a three-year starter at nose guard, is a significant loss and will clearly be missed. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder completed his career with 95 tackles (12 for loss), but statistics don’t tell the full story of his value.
“Pittman is tough to replace because he was so difficult to block,” Newberry said. “Most importantly, you lose a guy that’s extremely sturdy against the run. Pittman played big in our two CIC games.”
Navy also graduates backup nose guard Dave Tolentino, leaving third stringer Alefosia Saipaia as the next man up. The 6-foot, 280-pound plebe has potential, but did not play any meaningful defensive snaps last season.
“(Saipaia) is a young who has a long way to go. He needs to change his body a bit,” Newberry said.
Newberry thinks Michael Flowers, who was listed as the backup at defensive tackle for most of 2019, could be an answer at nose guard. The 6-foot-3, 318-pound junior appeared in six games in relief of starter J’arius Warren and was credited with six tackles (1 ½ for loss), a forced fumble and pass breakup.
“Flowers needs to have a great offseason. He’s flashed some things but needs to become more reliable and consistent,” Newberry said. “Flowers needs to improve his fundamentals and play with better pad level.”
Navy returns two starters along the defensive line in Warren and left end Jackson Perkins. Newberry is considering the idea of swapping the two with Warren moving to end and Perkins playing tackle.
“We’ve talked to Perkins about gaining some weight and possibly making that switch to the three technique,” Newberry said. “Warren is the more athletic of the two and might be more of a pass rusher coming off the edge.”
Sophomore Deondrae Williams, who was listed third at left end, is the only other returning defensive lineman who was on the final depth chart.
Navy is rebuilding at the raider position that became more of a rush end in Newberry’s system. Starter Nizaire Cromartie and backup Carter Bankston both graduate, leaving junior Ian Blake as the heir apparent.
Cromartie had a solid senior season — amassing 38 tackles, including 9 ½ for loss. However, the 6-foot-2, 237-pounder only produced 3 ½ sacks and three quarterback hurries — low numbers for a primary pass rusher.
“In Cromartie you’re losing a great leader and captain. He played really hard and set a great example for everyone else,” Newberry said. “We’re starting from scratch at raider. We need to identify some people that can do the job at that position.”
Newberry mentioned sophomore Tommy Lawley (6-2, 219) and freshman Nicholas Straw (6-2, 230) as youngsters that need to show up during spring camp.
Statistically, Jacob Springer had a strong season at the striker spot — ranking third on the team in total tackles (69), while leading Navy in both tackles for loss (16) and sacks (8). The 6-foot-1, 206-pound junior rushed off the edge a lot and was a big part of the blitz package.
“Springer is a high football IQ type of guy who understands and processes things very well,” Newberry said. “I think Springer can be a lot better. We need Springer to be more of a leader. Jacob needs to practice at a higher level. There were times when I didn’t think he played hard enough, and there were times when he was out of position.”
Navy had a pair of sophomores — Tony Brown (6-3, 201) and Dakare Coston (6-2, 192) — listed second and third at striker going into the Liberty Bowl.
“I think Tony Brown is still developing. He’s talented and plays extremely hard,” Newberry said.
This sets up as a position of strength for Navy in 2020 with sophomore Diego Fagot and freshman Tama Tuitele projected as the starters.
“Diego is a special player, and I think he can become a dominant player if he attacks the weight room and develops his body,” Newberry said. “We need to figure out what Diego’s prime weight is. That said, he is only going to get bigger, faster and stronger.”
Newberry would like to find ways to utilize Fagot’s natural ability to get into the backfield and be disruptive.
Malcolm Perry, the Navy quarterback who’s eyeing a pro career as a receiver, felt good about what he accomplished before scouts in town to evaluate prospects.
By FRED GOODALL
Jan 19, 2020 | 5:11 PM
“I’d like to create a package to feature Diego more as a pass rusher instead of dropping him into coverage in passing situations,” he said.
Tuitele started four games alongside Fagot and performed well before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound plebe recorded 19 tackles in six games while displaying a nose for the ball. The Colorado native will not participate in spring practice while rehabilitating from surgery.
“I think we have two really good inside backers — two big bodies and guys that process things really fast,” Newberry said. “Depth is a different story at that position. We need to rebuild that a little.”
Paul Carothers and Tyler Pistorio, who shared the WILL position after Tuitele went down, are both graduating. Two other seniors — Sion Harrington and Walter Little — were also on the depth chart at inside linebacker.
Michael McMorris may have ranked third behind Fagot and Pittman in the voting for most valuable defender for Navy. The 5-foot-9, 166-pound sophomore started all 13 games at field corner and graded out well — totaling 47 tackles and nine pass breakups.
“I thought McMorris was outstanding. If you look at how many times he got targeted and how many catches were made it was a pretty good percentage,” Newberry said. “Despite his size, McMorris won most of the 50-50 balls and was a really good tackler. He plays really hard, really savvy and is really explosive.”
“From a coverage standpoint, Kinley is long and can run. He was solid in that area,” Newberry said. “Kinley needs to work on his toughness and physicality. He needs to get better at taking on blocks and forcing the run game.”
Junior Micah Farrar saw significant action in the dime package through nine games, sitting out against Memphis, Air Force, South Florida and SMU due to a nagging shoulder injury.
“Farrar might be the most talented corner we have. We need to keep him healthy,” Newberry said.
Sophomores Caleb Clear and Daniel Taylor lead a talented crop of younger corner.
This position, like inside linebacker, figures to be a major strength for Navy in 2020 with season-long starters Kevin Brennan and Evan Fochtman both returning.
Fochtman switched from striker to free safety and blossomed — totaling 53 tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions. The Archbishop Spalding product was physical in run support and effective in pass coverage.
Brennan started 11 of 13 games and ranked second on the squad with 81 tackles, while notching two interceptions and four pass breakups. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound sophomore is an aggressive defender and sure tackler.
“I feel great about Brennan and Fochtman. I thought they played really well and did their jobs the way we would hope,” Newberry said. “Good news is they’re both going to get better.”
Navy's defense was overlooked again in the afterglow of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl victory as the media focused on quarterback Malcolm Perry and the offense. Nose guard Jackson Pittman and inside linebacker Diego Fagot spearheaded a defense that shut down Kansas State.
Navy has a third standout safety in Chelen Garnes, who was a real revelation as a freshman. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Waldorf resident was also part of the dime package and proved quite productive with 11 tackles, two interceptions and a pass breakup in limited snaps.
“Chelen is a guy that’s going to be a really good player and we need to find ways to get him on the field more,” Newberry said of the North Point High graduate.
Elan Nash, who started two games at bandit safety, will be graduating. Noruwa Obanor, who played quite a bit at free safety, is also a senior. Sophomore Mitchell West is the only other member of the final depth charter returning at safety.