Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has shifted Kevin Brennan to free safety to replace Evan Fochtman, who announced his retirement this week because of multiple concussions.
Mitch West will now start at the rover spot previously occupied by Brennan, who is second on the squad with 47 tackles despite missing the equivalent of one game due to a targeting call.
“Kevin is the savvy veteran back there now. He is super smart and does a good job of making the defensive calls on the back end,” Newberry said. “You want your most athletic safety to the field, and with Evan out that is Kevin. You also need a sure tackler over there.”
Brennan acknowledged during a virtual news conference this week that free safety is a bit more challenging since he must cover more space. As rover, the 5-foot-11, 199-pound junior played to the boundary, or short side, of the field.
Before learning Fochtman would not return, Newberry kept Brennan at bandit and started sophomore Derek Atwaters at free safety. Brennan made his debut at free safety against Houston and led Navy with 11 tackles, while West made his second start of the season at bandit and contributed eight stops.
Atwaters will back up Brennan at free safety, while Brennan would shift back to rover if West left the game. Sophomore B.J. Gibson plays bandit in Navy’s dime package.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo said Fochtman would stay involved with the Navy football program by serving as a student coach. His knowledge and experience will be helpful in tutoring the likes of West, Atwaters and Gibson.
“Coach Newberry needs cerebral, tough safeties — guys that can do a lot of different things. Evan fit the safety profile to a tee: Smart, physical, very versatile,” Niumatalolo said. “He will be a valuable student coach because he knows and understands the defense. Also, I think being able to contribute during practice and be on the sidelines for games will lift his spirits.”
Fochtman has suffered five concussions over the past six years — two playing for Archbishop Spalding and three while at Navy.
“We’re going to miss Evan, who had a wonderful career. Personally, I was proud to have an Anne Arundel County guy come to the Naval Academy and do well,” Niumatalolo said. “It was very emotional for Evan to do what he did because he’s a competitor and loves this team. He made the right decision.”
Major momentum shift
Niumatalolo said this week the way the first half ended was the key momentum swing against Houston.
Navy forced a turnover in Houston territory and had an opportunity to put points on the board prior to halftime. Instead, the Midshipmen went three-and-out, taking less than a minute off the clock in the process.
Houston regained possession with 2:37 remaining in the second quarter and scored a touchdown when quarterback Clayton Tune connected with speedy wide receiver Marquez Stevenson on a 51-yard catch and run.
Trailing 16-13, Navy had time to get into position for a tying field goal and a 19-yard run by quarterback Dalen Morris jump-started the possession. Moments later, Morris was flagged for an illegal forward pass on a play that would have brought the ball close to field goal territory.
“I feel like the end of the first half was a huge deal. We get the turnover and normally we can at least get a field goal. It would have been nice to grind the clock and score,” Niumatalolo said. “At bare minimum, we get three and they get nothing. We lost momentum there with them scoring late.”
Things got worse on the opening possession of the second half as Navy drove into field goal territory. Kicker Bijan Nichols could have tied the game but missed a 41-yard field goal wide left.
“It took some life out of us when we missed that field goal,” Niumatalolo said.
It was a tough day for the normally reliable Nichols, who later missed another chip shot field goal and also had an extra point blocked.
“I’ve learned in 31 years don’t say anything to kickers. Just leave them alone,” Niumatalolo said when asked what he told Nichols after the game. “They’ve got their own rituals of how they do things and get ready. I don’t have any coaching points for them, so I just leave them alone.”
Let’s get physical
Navy did not engage in live contact during August training camp and paid the price in a 55-3 loss to BYU in the season opener.
Niumatalolo decided the following week to start hitting in practice and that has continued.
“We’ve done way more hitting in-season than we have in the past. Under the circumstances, that’s how we have to practice in order to improve,” Niumatalolo said. “We needed to become more physical up front on both sides of the ball.”
By all accounts, having the front-line offense and defense block and tackle at full speed has made a difference. Newberry believes the defense has become much more physical in recent games.
“Over the last few weeks, our practices have been ratcheted up and become a lot more physical. I think it’s really paid off for us,” Newberry said. “We’ll continue to harp on pad level, getting off the football and winning at the line of scrimmage.”
Brennan believes the physical practices have enabled the defense to regain its “mojo.”
“We’ve been practicing a lot tougher, just being really physical and working on running to the ball,” he said.
Good to see you again
About two weeks ago, Niumatalolo gained permission from the medical staff to conduct in-person position meetings provided the number of players involved was limited.
Newberry was among the assistants that pushed for replacing the Zoom meetings the team had been holding since training camp began. Each assistant has been meeting only with the players on the depth chart at their position.
“That’s been a really, really good deal for us. I think it’s good for the camaraderie of our players just to sit in a meeting together and shoot the breeze,” Newberry said. “I know it’s been great for the teaching part of things. It’s also been great for their interaction as well.”
Junior inside linebacker Diego Fagot agreed with that assessment, saying he finds in-person meetings much more productive. Fagot thinks players are much more easily distracted during online meetings.
“It’s a lot easier to learn and connect with coaches and teammates by meeting in-person,” he said. “Sitting behind a screen and having to unmute ourselves versus being in-person and interjecting to clarify things that might not make sense.”
Niumatalolo was asked if he thinks the in-person meetings have been helpful. The 13th-year coach believes one benefit is being able to keep players engaged.
When asked if he thinks the in-person meetings have been helpful, Niumatalolo said, “I hope so. Who knows for sure? You don’t know if a kid is taking notes or looking at his cell phone. Is he paying attention? When you are meeting in-person, you can see for yourself.”
Navy was flagged for three personal fouls against Houston, including two on the opening possession.
Fagot and outside linebacker John Marshall committed personal fouls on consecutive plays early in the game. Inside linebacker Tama Tuitele drew the same call and was disqualified from the game for targeting for delivering a forearm to the helmet of Tune, who slid after scrambling.
“I thought the personal foul with Diego early in the game was just a bad decision, very uncharacteristic of him,” Newberry said. “Tama was a tough deal. I don’t think it was a flagrant, malicious foul. It’s tough when the quarterback takes a dive and you’re already on your way to the ground. It’s hard to avoid those impacts sometimes.”
Donald Berniard Jr. made his second straight start at nose guard and performed well, Newberry said. The 6-foot, 280-pound plebe made a terrific play to record a tackle for loss — beating a block, breaking into the backfield and chasing down tailback Kyle Porter from behind.
“I like the way [Berniard] practices and plays. He’s a guy that is undersized, but plays with great leverage. He gets under people’s pads,” Newberry said. I like the way he goes about his business. He’s a real fighter."
Newberry praised defensive tackles coach Jerrick Hall with preparing the Louisiana native to play so early in his collegiate career. Navy has started three different nose guards — Michael Flowers, Christian Pearson and now Berniard.
“I’ve been really, really impressed with Daniel. He’s going to get better because he’s still in the process of learning things,” Newberry said. “Coach Hall did a good job of getting him schooled up in a hurry.”
Army-Navy Rugby Doubleheader
The Naval Academy Athletic Association has issued an important message regarding Saturday’s Army-Navy rugby doubleheader, being held at the Brigade Sports Complex. Attendance is limited to a select number from the Brigade of Midshipmen.
In support of this Saturday’s Army-Navy Rugby doubleheader and due to COVID-19 restrictions, Greenbury Point Road will be secured at the Brigade Sports Center from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The area past the Brigade Sports Complex will be closed, which includes Greenbury Point roads and its walking trails. Non-authorized vehicles and personnel will not be allowed in the area during this time period.