After two seasons of competition in the American Athletic Conference, Navy made a significant change in its defensive structure.
Most of the teams in the AAC employ high-powered passing offenses featuring four receiver sets. Navy’s outside linebacker constantly had to cover a speedy slot receiver, usually resulting in a mismatch.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson decided to go in a different direction following the 2016 campaign. They felt the outside linebacker spot known as “striker” needed to be filled by a player with strong coverage skills. They also altered the job description of the position and devised schemes to make it more of a defensive weapon.
Jerry Thompson and Justin Norton were asked to usher in the new era of Navy strikers. Those two seniors combined to record 65 tackles (7 for loss) and 3 ½ sacks. Now Navy is developing a new crop of strikers led by junior Elan Nash, who appeared in 10 games a year ago and contributed 11 tackles.
“Last year, Jerry and Justin really started the position. They were the first guys to play in the new striker system,” Nash said. “They did a really good job of taking us under their wings and showing us how the position was supposed to be played. We learned a lot from those guys.”
Thompson started nine games before sustaining a broken forearm against Notre Dame. Norton took over and wound up making four starts with Nash elevating into the backup role.
“That was the first time I was thrown into a game and got meaningful reps with the defense,” Nash said of replacing the injured Norton at Notre Dame Stadium. “I think it will help me a lot this year, just knowing that I have game experience under my belt.”
Having redefined the striker role, the Navy coaching staff needed to identify players suited to manning the hybrid position. It requires a multi-talented defender capable of running stride-for-stride with a slot receiver while also possessing the size and strength required to hold up against the run.
“This position has kind of evolved the last couple years from being a true outside linebacker into more of a nickel back,” said assistant coach Napoleon Sykes, who oversees the strikers. “We have not recruited to the new-look striker position so we’ve kind of been misfit toys.”
Sykes said the program’s first batch of striker 2.0 recruits are currently attending the Naval Academy Prep School. In the meantime, the staff has been forced to find defensive backs big and aggressive enough to move up to the second level.
Nash played cornerback at Unionville High in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, and as a freshman member of the scout team at Navy.
“I think the experience playing corner has really helped me with being an outside linebacker that can really cover,” Nash said. “I feel like the coaching staff can trust me to cover that curl flat or be the underneath guy in zone coverage. I understand the defensive back role in pass coverage.”
Nash moved to striker prior to spring practice as a plebe and spent the summer working hard to add weight and strength. He now carries 196 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame and no longer physically resembles the player who arrived in Annapolis.
“I definitely had to adapt to being in the box and banging with the big guys. No matter what I do, I’m not going to be able to post up a tackle who is 300 pounds,” Nash said. “Coach Sykes does a good job of teaching us how to use speed and quickness to our advantage so we can get the job done as the undersized guys that we are.”
Nash is the only current member of the striker unit to have appeared in a game at that position. Junior Walter Little was slated to see action in 2017, but sat out his entire sophomore season with an injury.
Sophomore Evan Fochtman entered August training camp as the backup behind Nash even though he is brand new to the position. Forrest Forte, who was listed No. 3 on the preseason depth chart, left the team this summer. Sophomore Austin Talbert-Loving, a Bowie resident, is now battling with Fochtman and Little for playing time behind Nash.
“I’m pretty excited about this group. Nash is a smart kid and a real steady Eddie. Walter would have been in the rotation if he had been healthy last season,” Sykes said. “ATL is a young guy who is coming along, a really physical kid. Evan has come over and brought good insight from being a quarterback.”
Sykes said he does not post a depth chart in the striker meeting room and doles out practice repetitions evenly to the top four players at the position.
“During my coaching career, I have always felt that you have to play multiple guys. By the nature of that position, guys are going to get banged up or hurt,” he said.
Sykes, who played outside linebacker at Wake Forest, believes in rotating as many players as possible at his position group.
“I preached that to Nash last season when he wasn’t getting a lot of reps. I said ‘Someone is going to get hurt and you will have to be ready to go.’ One week you might be running down on kickoff coverage and the next thing you know you’re turn is up on defense,” Sykes recalled. “We try to get all of them as many reps as we can so they’re ready in case we need to call on them.”
Added Nash: It’s a really competitive room. Everyone at the position can really play so it’s been good that everyone has been able to get a lot of reps and really improve.”
Opponents still targeted the Navy striker last season, testing to see if he could cover a slot receiver out in space. Norton and Thompson, who had both bulked up to play striker in its previous iteration, struggled at times.
“Last season, we had some trouble with isolation on that position and weren’t as good in man-to-man coverage as we needed to be,” Sykes admitted. “This group is a little bit better in man-to-man so I’m not as worried about them.”
Navy has countered by shifting the striker around and often utilizing him in a variety of blitz packages.
“We do a lot with that guy so it’s really hard to figure out what he is doing from play-to-play,” Sykes said. “The way that player is built into our defense, he’s trying to destroy the pre-snap read of the quarterback all the time. That is because so many offenses read that guy’s overhang. So we do a lot of different stuff with that guy to make him hard to read.”
Nash welcomes opponents going after the striker in pass coverage and said it’s important for those playing the position to make quarterbacks pay for that strategy.
“In our league we go against some of the most dangerous slot receivers you’ll see anywhere in the country. So it is a challenge,” he said. “I think teams will be very surprised that every one of Navy’s strikers is a good athlete who can cover. Everyone in the room has come from defensive back so no one is afraid of any challenge we get in man-to-man coverage against the slot.”
Fochtman was named Capital Gazette Newspapers Player of the Year after accounting for 2,867 yards of total offense as a senior at Archbishop Spalding. The Columbia resident, who was co-winner of the Jim Rhodes Trophy as Anne Arundel County’s best football player, passed for 1,747 yards and rushed for another 1,120 yards.
Fochtman toiled on the scout team last season and probably would have done so again as a sophomore had he not been moved to defense.
“Honestly, I’m not too disappointed that it happened. I’m just trying to get on the field and help the team in any way I can,” he said. “I liked playing quarterback here, but honestly I was pretty far down the depth chart. I jumped at the chance to move to another position that would get me on the field faster. I definitely would not be traveling this season if I was still at quarterback.”
Fochtman turned heads almost immediately after moving to safety, delivering some bone-jarring hits during spring camp. The 6-foot-1, 194-pounder was so physical he prompted the coaching staff to push him up to the second level of the defense.
“Evan has been awesome. For a guy that has never really played defense, he is picking things up a lot faster than we thought he would,” Sykes said. “We knew Evan could do it athletically, but the mental part has been the surprise that he’s picked it up that quickly. I think seeing the game from the quarterback perspective has helped with his transition.”
Fochtman last played defense for an entire season as a safety on the freshman team at Spalding. Now the youngster is vying for the backup job at hybrid position that is part linebacker and part cornerback.
“Striker is a pretty complicated position, but I’m learning every day. I’m nowhere close to being where I need to be in order to play in a game, but I’ll get there soon,” Fochtman said. “Coach Sykes is a great mentor and so are Elan Nash and Walter Little. I’m getting more and more comfortable and feel I can do the job at striker.”