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Hybrid linebacker Nicholas Straw ‘separating himself’ for Navy football, but questions remain at defensive end

Navy defensive end Deondrae Williams, pictured against Tulsa in 2019, "is having a phenomenal spring," said assistant coach Kevin Downing.
Navy defensive end Deondrae Williams, pictured against Tulsa in 2019, "is having a phenomenal spring," said assistant coach Kevin Downing. (Phil Hoffmann)

One of the most important players the Navy football program must replace is Jackson Perkins, who was a productive player on the field and the consummate captain off it.

A two-year starter at defensive end, Perkins recorded 51 tackles as a junior and senior. However, the greatest value the Illinois native brought to the table was an unflinching work ethic that set a shining example day-in and day-out, which was especially needed during the unusual circumstances caused by the pandemic.

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“We understand what we’re going to be replacing there. We’re really going to miss Jackson Perkins for the type of leader he was,” said assistant Kevin Downing, who coaches the defensive ends and the hybrid outside linebacker position known as raider. “The guy never had a bad day on the practice field. He always brought great energy.”

That leadership void will likely be filled by multi-year standout starters such as inside linebacker Diego Fagot and safety Kevin Brennan. Downing and defensive coordinator Brian Newberry may be looking at a couple youngsters to fill the very large shoes of the 6-foot-6 Perkins at left end.

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Rising senior Deondrae Williams was initially listed atop the depth chart at that position, but he has been spending this spring practicing at defensive tackle. Newberry said Williams had bulked up to 275 pounds during the offseason and the coaching staff is evaluating whether he can hold up at the tackle spot in Navy’s 3-4 defensive alignment.

That move also enables Newberry and Downing to give more repetitions to rising sophomores Max Meeuwsen and Jacob Busic at left end. Depending on the development of those two current plebes, Williams could remain at tackle or move back to end.

“Deondre is having a phenomenal spring and you will see him flying around on the field next season,” said Downing. “Right now, we’re trying to see what those other two guys can do.”

Downing works closely with assistant Jerrick Hall, who coaches the defensive tackles and nose guards, and they cross-train the tackles and ends to play both positions. Last season, J’arius Warren opened the season at left end then switched back to tackle, which is where he played in 2019.

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“Coach Hall and I speak the same language. When we do move guys around it’s not a big adjustment,” said Downing, noting the tackle and end spots have “transferrable skills.”

With spring camp winding down, Meeuwsen and Busic are locked in a battle.

Meeuwsen is the son of a former Navy football player, as his father Ben is a 1991 graduate of the academy. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound product of Bay Port High in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was first team All-State in football as a senior and was also a two-time state champion as a heavyweight wrestler.

“Max is a tough, hard-nosed football player. We really like his really good motor and effort,” Downing said. “He’s a guy that plays extremely hard and wants to be really good. Just a sturdy, solid football player.”

Busic was a three-time All-Carroll County Times selection at Westminster High, amassing 115 tackles and 17 sacks as a junior and senior. He chose Navy over archrival Army and Villanova after receiving 17 scholarship offers.

“Jacob is extremely athletic — a long, tall kid who is 260 pounds and can run. I’m super excited about the player he can become,” Downing said. “Jacob has shown enough that we can say we like what we see there.”

Busic spent the 2019-20 academic year at the Naval Academy Prep School, while Meeuwsen was a direct-entry recruit. Downing said the competition between the two is too close to call and reiterated that Williams could wind up back at left end if neither of the youngsters appears ready to start.

It’s incumbent upon Busic and Meeuwsen to show they are physical enough to hold the point of attack against rushing plays. While the end has some freedom to get after the quarterback on obvious passing downs, pass rushing is of secondary importance at that position.

“Everything starts with stopping the run and you do that with physicality. You can’t get around the importance of being physical at the point of attack,” Downing said.

Jacob Busic was a three-time All-Carroll County Times honoree while at Westminster High. Busic terrorized quarterbacks such as South Carroll's Cole Evans while amassing 17 sacks as a junior and senior.
Jacob Busic was a three-time All-Carroll County Times honoree while at Westminster High. Busic terrorized quarterbacks such as South Carroll's Cole Evans while amassing 17 sacks as a junior and senior. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

It’s a much clearer picture at raider, where current sophomore Nicholas Straw has “separated himself,” Downing said. Straw was switched from inside linebacker to outside linebacker out of necessity last season after Tommy Lawley sustained a career-ending injury.

Lawley started four straight games to begin the season before going down. Straw started the last six contests and become more and more comfortable in his new position as the season went along.

“Nicholas is having a really good spring so far. He’s a lot more confident with the schemes as far as knowing what’s going on,” Downing said.

Straw completed the 2020 campaign with 40 tackles (3 ½ for loss) and a sack. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound product of Lebanon, Ohio, saved his best performance for last by recording a career-best 10 tackles versus archrival Army.

Raider needs to be a disruptive position for the Navy defense. That player is often tasked with rushing off the edge and should finish the season with decent numbers in the sacks and tackles for loss categories.

Rising junior Max Sandlin is slightly ahead of rising senior John Kelly III in the battle to back up Straw. The 6-foot-4, 222-pound Sandlin was a All-State performer at Chandler High in Arizona and chose Navy over Army and Air Force.

“Athletically, Max can do everything you want out of a guy at that spot,” Downing said.

Downing coaches two positions that are critical toward creating negative plays in Navy’s defensive system. The Midshipmen managed only six sacks and 16 quarterback hurries in 2020, down from 30 and 37 the season before.

After recording 80 tackles for loss in 2019, Newberry’s first as defensive coordinator, the Mids dropped to 45 last season. Downing acknowledged placing an emphasis on getting into the backfield and being disruptive when working with the left ends and raiders this spring.

Improvement in those areas starts with simplifying some schemes and Downing has gone back to the basics in terms of teaching. However, sacks and quarterback hurries only happen when the opposing offense gets into second- or third-and-long situations.

Newberry is known for using exotic blitzes and disguising coverages to create havoc — often leading to sacks, quarterback hurries and tackles for loss.

“I think it all starts with stopping the run. If you’re not good against the run, you’re not going to be good at rushing the passer,” Downing said. “We need to get teams into longer down situations. That’s when all of what coach Newberry does comes into play.

“If we get better at stopping the run, I promise you the sacks and pressures will get better.”

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