Navy football’s Nicholas Straw switched from inside to outside linebacker out of necessity as a sophomore.
Injuries had depleted the hybrid position known as raider, and Straw was a backup at inside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry liked the youngster’s potential and felt he had the skills necessary to play on the outside in Navy’s 3-4 alignment.
Straw proved a revelation, quickly adjusting to raider and getting better and better with each game. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound product of Lebanon, Ohio, had his best game against archrival Army with 10 tackles.
Spring practice provided an opportunity to perfect the fundamental skills and techniques required of the raider, and assistant coach Kevin Downing said Straw had “separated himself” at the position. An impressive August training camp had Downing and Newberry predicting that Straw, now a junior, would become an impact player in 2021.
However, there was an unexpected speed bump on Straw’s road to stardom. Three games into the season, Newberry implemented an innovative 3-3-5 alignment and Straw was suddenly the odd man out. Newberry’s new scheme replaced the raider linebacker with a third safety and that bumped Straw out of the lineup.
“It’s a tough situation. You’re talking about a guy that’s done a lot of really good things for [the Midshipmen]. I’m sure Nick’s disappointed he hasn’t played as many snaps,” Newberry said. “Fortunately, you talk about being a good teammate and Nick Straw is one of the very best. All he cares about is winning games and is willing to do whatever it takes for that to happen.”
Straw saw minimal playing time against Houston and SMU, totaling just one tackle in those two games. To get a good player on the field more, Downing started using Straw at defensive end as backup to starter Jacob Busic.
Straw quickly showed he had the versatility to make the transition by recording four tackles, including three solo and two for losses totaling minus-12 yards, against SMU.
“I had to adjust my role from being the starter at raider to being the backup at defensive end,” Straw said matter-of-factly. “I embraced it and I’m just trying to support Busic whenever he gets tired or needs a break in there.”
Straw, who earned All-State honors as an inside linebacker at Lebanon High, has never been a down linemen. While Busic puts his hand down in a three-point stance, Straw prefers to stand up whenever playing end.
“It’s definitely been a challenge for sure. It’s a difference scheme and I have different assignments,” said Straw, who was mostly asked to provide outside leverage and containment at raider.
“At defensive end in our three-man front, you’re playing inside in a four-technique. I’m going up against big offensive linemen and have to use my hands more. I’m trying my best to do the best I can on whatever snaps I get.”
It helps that Downing coaches both the ends and raiders for Navy and therefore has been able to cross-train Straw. He was confident Straw could hold up physically at end while bringing a bit more athleticism to the position.
“We knew that Straw could survive in there, just maybe not at the volume of every snap. He’s a tough, physical sturdy kid who plays with good technique,” said Downing, estimating Straw has been playing anywhere between 20 and 30 snaps per game at defensive end.
Downing said Straw reminds him of former Navy raider Nizaire Cromartie, who was also asked to occasionally play along the line as a stand-up end.
“Straw’s play demands he get on the field. He’s not a guy we can keep off,” Downing said. “That being said, Straw doesn’t care about his snaps, doesn’t care about his stats – it’s all about what gives us the best chance to win.”
In the meeting room, Downing demonstrates to Straw what his responsibilities would be on certain defensive play calls whether Newberry is employing Navy’s base 3-4 defense or the 3-3-5 nickel scheme.
“When we draw things up, he looks at the responsibilities from both spots,” Downing said.
Newberry decided to use the 3-4 alignment for most of Saturday’s loss 27-20 loss to No. 2 Cincinnati, a change Straw said he welcomed. When Straw learned the game plan during a Monday walk-through, he thanked Newberry.
“I told Coach New I was excited during practice when he put [the base defense] back in.
I was like: ‘I really appreciate it coach.’ It was good to get back to playing my main position,” Straw said.
The Midshipmen were determined to stop the Bearcats’ running game and needed a big, physical outside linebacker to do so. Newberry’s plan worked to perfection as Cincinnati was held to 95 rushing yards, most of which came on a 43-yard touchdown run by tailback Jerome Ford.
“I thought Nick played well against Cincinnati and was holding his own against those big offensive tackles. He just plays really hard and is very physical,” Newberry said. “I’m really pleased with his overall attitude. He’s just a very unselfish kid.”
Straw did not play exclusively outside linebacker against Cincinnati. There were times when Navy switched to its nickel package and Straw was asked to bump down to end.
“On Saturday, I went back to defensive end during the game after playing raider in practice during the week,” he said. “Fortunately, [Downing] does a great job of coaching me up. It’s just a matter of keeping it all straight in my head.”
Most players would be disappointed, perhaps even disgruntled, to learn their starting spot had been eliminated by a change in schemes. That just isn’t how Straw approaches playing football for Navy.
“Whether defensive end or raider, I’ll do whatever I can to keep playing. This team is bigger than me, that’s for sure,” he said.
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