Extreme makeover for Navy defense

Jabaree Tuani had seen enough.

As another play by the scout-team offense had found another hole in Navy's first-team defense, the senior defensive end stomped around like an old-time wrestler, spit flying to punctuate his frustration.

Watching from a few yards away at a practice last week, defensive coordinator Buddy Green couldn't have been prouder.

"Tuani and I are on the same page. I expect him to be an extension of me," Green said. "He knows how I think, he knows what we want in the effort level and what we've got to have in intensity. I think we're in great hands with a great leader on defense. He's perfect for that role, because that's the way he plays."

Tuani, who has started since early in his freshman year, will lead Navy's defense when the Midshipmen open the 2011 season Saturday at home against Delaware. But with the majority of the eight new starters having barely played on defense — including a converted wide receiver at safety — it isn't clear who will follow Tuani.

For a program that perennially ranks in the top five nationally in rushing, the focus this season will be on defense. While the defense wasn't exactly stellar last season — finishing 75th in the country by giving up more than 390 yards a game, by far the worst in coach Ken Niumatalolo's first three years — it was experienced enough to make big plays when needed.

Having lost its five leading tacklers, including four-year starter Wyatt Middleton at safety, Navy hopes that Tuani and freshman Jamel Dobbs (a distant cousin to former quarterback Ricky Dobbs) will put enough pressure up front to give a mostly new group of linebackers and a rebuilt secondary the time to make stops.

"We've basically started from the bottom up," said senior strong safety Kwesi Mitchell, the only other fulltime starter aside from Tuani who has returned. "In the beginning of camp, every day we were taking baby steps, stumbling a little bit, that kind of thing. But now I like the direction we're going in. We have a few weeks of camp under our belt, a couple of scrimmages. It's looking a lot more promising."

It is reminiscent of 2008, when the Midshipmen were coming off a shaky year defensively (99th in the country at more than 440 yards a game) with a young cast who had not started a lot of games. But the difference was that group, which finished a respectable 53rd in the country and chopped more than 100 yards allowed off a game, had many more players with experience.

Tuani, whose emergence as a future star helped the 2008 team gain some respect, sees some similarities to this season.

"We definitely have those young guys that people never heard of, and we know they can perform," said Tuani, who undoubtedly will face many double-teams this season until players such as Dobbs and senior defensive end Jared Marks prove themselves. "When the pressure comes, when they step into the limelight, I'm confident and Coach Green is confident they can do the job."

Said Green, going into his 10th season at Navy, "It's a little different because a lot of the guys in '08 were young guys but they had played a lot of snaps for us in ballgames on defense and some of them had started as freshmen. A lot of guys in this group have played a lot of snaps on special teams or have played at nickel [backs]."

And then there is sophomore free safety Shawn Lynch. Not only is he being asked to replace Middleton, but he hasn't played defense since being used on third-down passing situations during his junior year at Pine Forest High School in Pelham, Ala. Lynch got into two games last year at wide receiver as a freshman.

"Me personally, I feel a lot of pressure because I haven't played at all [on defense] and I've been a receiver," Lynch said. "All I'm trying to do is learn the defensive mentality from the other players, just learn as much as I can from Coach Green and guys like Kwesi and Jabaree."

Since being asked to switch, Lynch moved quickly up the depth chart, eventually displacing expected starter Tra'ves Bush, who played in all 13 games last season and started once.

"To me, the offensive mentality is totally different than the defensive mentality," Lynch said. "You have to be just all-around rough. It's kind of finesse on the offensive side. On defense you're trying to knock people out."

Green — and Tuani — love hearing those words.

Green, who missed much of spring practice after undergoing gall bladder surgery, said that he has seen improvement. But with the Blue Hens (ranked fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision) not to be taken lightly, with 12th-ranked South Carolina on the road in three weeks and 16th-ranked Notre Dame looking to exact revenge later in the season in South Bend, the Midshipmen will likely go only as far as their defense takes them.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Green said.


Navy at a glance

COACH: Ken Niumatalolo (fourth season)

CONFERENCE: Independent


RADIO: WBAL (1090-AM), WNAV (1430-AM)

STADIUM: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

TICKETS: Season tickets are sold out. Single-game tickets available for all home games except Oct. 1 vs. Air Force. Standing room tickets are available for Air Force. The Army-Navy game at FedEx Field on Dec. 10 is sold out.

PARKING: Season parking passes available for $100 for regular vehicles and $300 for RVs

OFFENSE: Triple option


OUTLOOK: Navy won nine games last season to improve Ken Niumatalolo's overall record to 27-13, and beat Notre Dame for the third time in four years, but the Midshipmen saw their seven-year hold on the Commander-in-Chief's trophy and 15-game winning streak over the other service academies end with a 14-6 loss at Air Force. Navy will get a chance to avenge that loss Oct. 1 in a nationally televised game in Annapolis and extend its sudden dominance over the Fighting Irish on Oct. 29. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor replaces Ricky Dobbs, who ranks fifth all-time in rushing at Navy and set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns (49). Proctor will play behind an experienced offensive line and in front of fullback Alex Teich, who pounded Notre Dame for 210 yards but was held to 38 yards by Air Force and later by San Diego State in a season-ending 35-14 Poinsettia Bowl defeat. Proctor has a stable of experienced slotbacks, led by Gee Gee Greene and Aaron Santiago, but needs to find a steady, reliable receiver to replace Greg Jones. Senior Doug Furman seems to be the most likely candidate. The kicking game is also in transition, with senior Jon Teague adding field goals to his kickoff duties, and freshman punter Pablo Beltran a summer replacement after Justin Haan left suddenly on a church mission.