When Navy opened spring football practice roughly three weeks ago, coach Ken Niumatalolo knew he would be without bedrock defensive players such as Wyatt Middleton, Tyler Simmons and Billy Yarborough. Those seniors had been part of one of the most decorated classes in program history, and soon they would be departing to fulfill their military obligations.
What he hadn't necessarily accounted for was the absence of defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who through all the turnover in nearly a decade at the academy has continued to construct formidable units, often from undersized and slower players. Green is recovering from gallbladder surgery that has kept him out longer than anticipated, thus making him regularly unavailable for practices. The two-time nominee for National Assistant Coach of the year has been watching film with his players, though, and is expected to be back full time when Navy opens training camp in earnest during the summer.
"It's different without him here," junior inside linebacker Matt Warrick said. "But we're still doing the same thing we always do. It's a noticeable absence without him here. We're just hoping he's doing all right and hoping for his return."
The overhauled defense remains in the embryonic stages. Navy has just three starters back from the unit that played in the Mids' final game of 2010, a 35-14 loss to San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Several players are competing for starting slots, but for the most part, the unit is untried.
Two others from the starting defense left for other reasons. Free safety De'Von Richardson, a sophomore, made his ninth straight start in the Poinsettia Bowl but was dismissed in January on academic grounds. Then junior starting outside linebacker Aaron McCauley chose to leave the academy.
"We have a lot of first-time guys out there, but I think they're coming together slowly," said Dale Pehrson, a top assistant who has been overseeing the defense while Green convalesces. "They just have to learn how to play. We have some very talented young players. The atmosphere's been really good. Buddy's spirit is never far away."
Neither is that of the many prominent seniors who collectively won 35 games, matching the most at Navy in the modern era. Juniors such as defensive end Jabaree Tuani and cornerback Kwesi Mitchell speak regularly with Middleton, Simmons and others in the class of 2011, seeking counsel about the responsibilities of leadership and how best to extend the Midshipmen's unprecedented run of prosperity.
With Tuani, a co-captain, sitting out spring practice as he heals from offseason surgery on his right knee, Mitchell has become a spokesman for the defense, which finished 46th in the country in points allowed. Mitchell has started 14 consecutive games dating to 2009, including 12 last season.
The rest of the secondary is in flux, although Tra'ves Bush and David Wright combined to start three games last season. The Midshipmen also are replacing three starting linebackers and two defensive linemen, including the all-important nose guard.
Both Niumatalolo and Pehrson mentioned defensive end Jamel Dobbs as an underclassman who has distinguished himself during the spring. The 6-foot-1, 255-pound freshman did not participate in any games this past season, but he might be in the mix for playing time this year provided that progress continues.
"Teach them how we play defense here," Mitchell said when asked what the focus has been over the spring to get the new players ready. "Definitely four-quarter football, physical. We're not the biggest guys, so we definitely have to run to the ball. We have to be a lot more conditioned than a lot of the other teams to be able to play a whole 60 minutes without being tired. Those are some of the things you've got to get the young guys to understand going into fall camp because it's going to be a lot harder."