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Navy football loses starting safety Mitch West to season-ending knee injury | NOTEBOOK

Navy senior safety Mitch West suffered a season-ending injury early in the Air Force game. West, shown tackling Tulsa wide receiver Keylon Stokes last season, will undergo surgery that will prematurely end his college football career. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Navy senior safety Mitch West suffered a season-ending injury early in the Air Force game. West, shown tackling Tulsa wide receiver Keylon Stokes last season, will undergo surgery that will prematurely end his college football career. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass/AP)

On the play that resulted in a season-ending injury, Mitch West showed the development he’s made as a defender.

Navy’s starting bandit safety immediately diagnosed a third-down pass in the flat to the tight end during a 23-3 loss to Air Force and exploded toward the intended receiver like he’d been shot out of a cannon. West arrived at the same time as the ball and drilled the Falcons’ Kyle Patterson to break up the pass and force a punt.

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It was read-and-react at the highest level.

West slammed into the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Patterson with such force and velocity that he hurt himself. Because the senior safety launched his body at the big tight end, the right leg that was in the air swung around and hyperextended.

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West fell to the ground and rolled, and that is when he suffered a torn ACL. He will undergo surgery in mid-October that will end his college career.

Although West felt a pop and felt the knee wasn’t stable, he was not in pain. However, team doctors evaluated the right leg on the sideline between series and immediately recognized all the classic signs of a torn ACL.

“It’s been an emotional couple of days and I’m just now starting to accept it,” West told The Capital on Friday. “It’s really upsetting, to be honest. I wish it didn’t have to be like this. I’ll always wonder what would have happened this season if I hadn’t sustained this injury. It’s still hard for me to swallow.”

West took over as a starting safety after the third game of last season. Evan Fochtman suffered a season-ending injury and West was the next man up. The Illinois native only made three tackles in his first career start against Temple and none at East Carolina.

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However, the game began to slow down for West and he started playing more instinctively, recording a career-high 10 tackles versus SMU and eight in three other games. By the end of the 2020 campaign, the 5-10, 192-pound safety was one of Navy’s best defensive players.

That level of play continued into this season with West flying around during the season opener against Marshall while leading the team with eight tackles and also forcing a fumble. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry acknowledged during his weekly news conference last week that losing West was tough.

“I’m really disappointed for Mitch because of what he’s done for our program, especially over the last two seasons. The way Mitch handles himself, the way he practices and the way he plays — I never question his effort and his loyalty to his teammates,” Newberry said.

“Really disappointed for Mitch to have that type of injury. He doesn’t deserve going out in his senior year in just the second game. I’m really torn up about it, to be honest,” Newberry added. “It certainly hurts losing Mitch — not only because he’s a good player, but because of the type of person he is and what he does for our football team outside of game day.”

West will remain an integral part of the Navy football program while serving as a student coach. He’ll help tutor junior Taylor Robinson, who will be the starter at bandit safety.

“I definitely want to be around the team. I don’t want to be stuck in my room having negative thoughts,” West said. “We have some young safeties playing now, and I feel my presence might help ease the stress on them.”

West’s injury occurred early in the game and Robinson saw the most extensive action of his career as a result. The Missouri native, whose first varsity action came on special teams in the season opener, finished third among Midshipmen with seven tackles, one of which was for loss.

Robinson was listed third on the depth chart going into the Air Force game, but Newberry revealed last week that he had been elevated to second string after performing well in practice.

“I thought Taylor played really, really well. He certainly showed me something, that he could go in there and compete and fly around,” Newberry said. “He made a couple mistakes, but those are mistakes you would expect out of someone playing their first meaningful snaps.”

Navy starting free safety Kevin Brennan also left the Air Force game with an injury, which initially looked serious. However, the coaching staff received a positive report from the training staff about Brennan, who earned first team All-ECAC honors after ranking second on the squad with 68 tackles.

Newberry was naturally relieved that Brennan will not be sidelined, especially considering the 5-foot-11, 199-pound senior has amassed 159 tackles, nine pass breakups and three interceptions over the last three seasons.

“Kevin is going to be fine. He’s a tough dude. We got a little better prognosis today than we originally did. I expect him to be back for Houston game,” Newberry told the media on Tuesday afternoon.

Sophomore Colin O’Connor replaced Brennan at free safety for the remainder of the game and contributed three tackles. A graduate of Gonzaga College High in D.C., the Virginia native did not see varsity action as a plebe.

“I thought Colin did some good things while he was in there. He’s a young guy that hasn’t played a lot of snaps. We need to continue to develop him,’ Newberry said. “He’s very talented and still learning the system.”

Navy's Diego Fagot sacks Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels in the first quarter. The visiting Air Force Falcons played the Navy Midshipmen in NCAA Football Saturday, September 11, 2021, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Navy's Diego Fagot sacks Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels in the first quarter. The visiting Air Force Falcons played the Navy Midshipmen in NCAA Football Saturday, September 11, 2021, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Significant Improvement

Navy’s defense was vastly improved from the season opener against Marshall when it surrendered 49 points and 464 total yards.

It was a completely different story against Air Force, which finished with 225 total yards. All three Falcons touchdowns came as a result of short fields due to special teams mistakes by the Midshipmen.

A 19-yard punt by freshman Kellen Grave de Peralta gave Air Force the ball at the Navy 43-yard line, while a roughing the punter penalty put the visitors at the 41-yard line of the home team. Long snapper sailed the ball way over the head of the punter and through the end zone for a safety. That was followed by a free kick and the Falcons took over at their own 42-yard line.

What improvements most pleased Newberry?

“I think the things I lamented last week – not seeing our guys play with the kind of effort fight and aggressiveness we’re used to seeing. I thought we were back on our heels a bit, waiting around for things to happen instead of making things happen. We addressed that after the game,” he said.

“Against Air Force, I thought our guys came out extremely hard. When we do that, it covers up some deficiencies and mistakes. I thought that’s what you saw on Saturday, along with us executing at a very high level,” Newbery added. “I thought our effort was what I expect and what we need to have to win football games around here. We flew around and had guys playing for each other. It was fun to watch.”

Air Force was forced to punt on five straight possessions to start the game. The Falcons also punted on two straight possessions to start the third quarter.

Navy’s defense also came up big in a sudden-change situation. After Chance Warren fumbled a punt at his own 23-yard line, Air Force went three-and-out and was forced to attempt a field goal. The Midshipmen came away unscathed after kicker Matthew Dapore missed from 35 yards.

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Ever the perfectionist, Newberry was not pleased that Air Force converted three third down situations on its first touchdown drive and that quarterback Haaziq Daniels broke an option keeper for a 28-yard touchdown.

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“Would still like to have gotten off the field in some critical third down situations. There also were a few times when we didn’t execute,” Newberry said. “Outside of that, I thought our kids played really well and I was proud of what we did despite the loss.”

Inside linebacker Diego Fagot rebounded from a rare quiet game in the opener to lead Navy with 13 tackles against Air Force, including 1 ½ for loss. Fellow inside linebacker Will Harbour added nine tackles and a pass breakup, while nose guard Daniel “Biscuit” Berniard Jr. notched seven stops.

“It was a very physical football game, and I thought our front seven played really well. We had guys flying around on the back end as well,” Newberry said. “There is something to be said after game is over about being able to look in the mirror and say we gave it everything we had, we left it all on the field and we don’t have any regrets. I thought our guys could certainly do that on Saturday.”

Air Force's Brad Roberts is stopped by the Navy defense for no gain on a fourth quarter run during the Falcons' 23-3 win on Sept. 11 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Air Force's Brad Roberts is stopped by the Navy defense for no gain on a fourth quarter run during the Falcons' 23-3 win on Sept. 11 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Option gameplan

Navy came out in a unique defensive alignment against Air Force with John Marshall starting at cornerback and Johnny Hodges replacing his classmate at the hybrid outside linebacker position known as striker.

Marshall practiced at boundary corner during the week, primarily because Newberry wanted a physical tackler at that spot. However, the strategy was also influenced by the fact regular starter Michael McMorris was injured and a game-time decision.

Hodges is a backup inside linebacker who played on the outside to put another strong, physical tackler on the field.

“It’s an option game plan and we felt like our boundary corner against the option is more of a force player,” said Newberry, referring to someone who comes up in run support. “We also wanted a bigger body like Hodges at striker against what Air Force does. They use the tight end a bunch and run some power with the two-man run game.”

“We just felt we were putting guys in positions to be successful by doing that.”

It turns out McMorris was able to play, and he entered the game early in the first quarter and wound up playing the majority of snaps at boundary corner. The 5-9, 173-pound senior finished with four tackles, while Hodges notched three. Marshall did not play as many snaps as planned and made just one stop.

NAVY@HOUSTON

Saturday, 7 p.m.

TV: ESPNU Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

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