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Depleted Navy defense faces another stiff test at Memphis, which ranks 11th nationally in total offense

Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan, a true freshman, has thrown for 1,938 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He will face a Navy defense hit hard by injuries on Thursday night.
Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan, a true freshman, has thrown for 1,938 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He will face a Navy defense hit hard by injuries on Thursday night. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

It seems like with each passing game the Navy defense becomes more depleted.

Injuries have hit the Midshipmen defense especially hard and the coaching staff has been forced to go deep into the bench at several positions.

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However, there’s no rest for the weary as the next opponent always features another high-powered offense.

The secondary — a unit particularly affected by mounting injuries — has another stiff test Thursday night when Navy faces Memphis at the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen have held three straight opponents — Houston, Central Florida, SMU — well below their scoring average and will look to do so again against the Tigers, who are averaging 36 points per game.

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“It’s another huge challenge — not only schematically and preparing for the tempo, but who they are personnel-wise,” Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said. “They have some outstanding skill players that are really fast and a freshman quarterback who is getting better and better every week.”

Quarterback Seth Henigan is the trigger man of an explosive offense that ranks 11th nationally in total yards (499) and passing yards (323) per game. Henigan, a true freshman from Denton, Texas, has completed 60% of his passes for 1,938 yards and 14 touchdowns and threw for a career-high 463 yards in Saturday night’s 35-29 loss at Tulsa.

Newberry has been impressed with the confidence of the rookie signal-caller.

“He’s a gunslinger. Really polished for a freshman and understands the system really well,” Newberry said. “A really good athlete as well. Can beat you with his feet when he needs to. Every week it seems like we see great quarterbacks, and this week is no exception.”

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Memphis has one of the most dangerous weapons in the American Athletic Conference in speedy wide receiver Calvin Austin III, who ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards (162) and receiving yards (139.5).

Austin, who is also an All-American sprinter for the Memphis track and field team, is a highly regarded NFL prospect. The Memphis native collected 13 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown versus Tulsa.

Whenever Memphis needs to convert a third-and-long situation, Henigan looks for Austin.

“[Austin] is an excellent receiver. He has good hands and runs crisp routes really fast. He’s a guy that is hard to tackle in a phone booth, much less out in space,” Newberry said. “We have to do a good job of knowing where he’s at. They do a good job of moving him around and making it hard for you to do anything special in coverage against him.”

Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin III (4) runs for a touchdown as offensive lineman Dylan Parham (56) follows during the second half against Mississippi State on Sept. 18 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin III (4) runs for a touchdown as offensive lineman Dylan Parham (56) follows during the second half against Mississippi State on Sept. 18 in Memphis, Tennessee. (John Amis/AP)

Starting tailback Brandon Thomas has run for 586 yards and six touchdowns as the Tigers have displayed decent balance. Backup running back Rodrigues Clark sat out the second half against Tulsa and may not be available for Memphis, which is averaging 176 yards rushing.

Two other offensive starters — left guard Isaac Ellis and wide receiver Gabriel Rogers — missed their second straight game last Saturday and will likely be game-time decisions on Thursday night.

Also of note, kicker David Kemp missed three field goals and an extra point in the six-point loss to Tulsa.

Short in secondary

Starting bandit safety Mitch West suffered a season-ending injury, while backup Eaven Gibbons has missed two straight games with a concussion. Taylor Robinson is now starting at that spot with sophomore Colin O’Connor as the backup.

Starting free safety Kevin Brennan was bothered by a hamstring issue and did not start against Central Florida. Sophomore Marcus Moore started that game, while freshman Rayuan Lane (Gilman School) has seen action at that spot as well.

The string of losses continues on Saturday against SMU. Senior cornerback Michael McMorris left the game early with an injury, while classmate and fellow starter Jamal Glenn was ejected for targeting.

That meant the Midshipmen played most of the game with sophomore Willie Collins V at boundary corner and freshman Elias Larry at field corner. Mbita Williams, another plebe, also saw significant action.

“We can’t catch a break health-wise in the secondary. We’ve definitely had some bad luck, but it’s a next-man-up mentality in our room,” Newberry said. “All these guys always prepare like they’re going to play. We’re always preaching that to them, and it’s certainly come to fruition so far this season.”

Glenn knows how it feels to be thrust into action, going from scout team to starter late last season. While sitting out the second half, the senior from Laurel provided wisdom and advice to the three young corners.

“I’m really proud of Eli, Mbiti and Willie for going in and doing their jobs. I was in that situation last season. You get called to go into the game for the first time and it’s your chance to show you can play,” Glenn said. “I just tried to make sure they were calm and collected and also tried to help them out as far as tendencies the other team tries to do.”

Three safety scheme

Brennan likes the 3-3-5 alignment Newberry has devised as he is now one of three high safeties on the back end. Robinson and fellow junior John Marshall have been playing on the outside with Brennan in the middle.

Newberry’s strategy is to ensure the Midshipmen keep the ball in front of them and don’t give up big plays. Brennan said the statistics show it’s been working.

Brennan often pushes up to the second level and is like another linebacker in certain situations. The alignment means each safety has less ground to cover than in a 3-4-4 look in which there are only two defenders in the back end.

“It’s all about reading slow and reacting fast. You have to trigger to run but at the same time you also have play the pass,” Brennan said. “That’s why it’s so crucial to watch film. You have to understand the situation, the formation you’re getting and what personnel they have in. That way you can anticipate certain things.”

NAVY@MEMPHIS

Today, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Line: Memphis by 10 1/2

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