Navy's young defense has room to grow

Louisiana Tech running back Jarred Craft (3) tries to fend off Navy linebacker Justin Norton (5) in the Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. (Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, TCN - OUTS **

FORT WORTH, TEXAS — It sort of makes sense that Navy set single-season school records for points and total yards this season. Those marks were established in 2007, which is the last time the Midshipmen struggled on defense as much as they did this year.

In 2007, just like 2016, Navy was forced to play a bunch of young, inexperienced defenders due to heavy graduation losses and in-season injuries. It was a season-long struggle and the Midshipmen had to routinely outscore opponents in order to compile an 8-5 record and earn a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl.


Many long-time fans may remember the lowlight of that season came in the Dallas suburb of Denton when Navy beat host North Texas, 74-62. That remained the highest-scoring game in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history until this season when Pittsburgh and Syracuse combined for 137 points.

I was there that day at tiny Fouts Field and remain convinced it was the moment head coach Paul Johnson decided he was leaving Navy. I'll never forget the incredulous look on Johnson's face as he gestured at the scoreboard and told me "that's (expletive) ridiculous."


Navy gave up 40 points or more a total of eight times in 2007 with a 59-52 homecoming loss to a Delaware squad led by quarterback Joe Flacco also ranking as a low point.

However, there is a silver lining to this story as all those young defenders that were pressed into action in 2007 grew up and led a darn good defense in 2009. Navy limited service academy rivals Air Force and Army to 13 and 3 points, respectively, that year. The Mids held a total of seven opponents to 18 points or less, gaining revenge on Delaware (35-18) and completely shutting down a potent Missouri offense (35-13) in the Texas Bowl.

Inside linebacker Ross Pospisil, who was a sophomore starter in 2007, led Navy in tackles in 2009. Safety Wyatt Middleton, who was a freshman starter in 2007, topped the team in interceptions and was second in tackles.

There are a lot of parallels between 2007 and 2016 in terms of the defense's makeup. I could see standout freshman safety Alohi Gilman, who was named ECAC Rookie of the Year, blossoming into the type of dominant defensive back as Middleton. I would not be surprised if sophomore inside linebacker Hudson Sullivan, who moved into the starting lineup because of a season-ending injury to senior captain Daniel Gonzales, led Navy in tackles in 2018.

Those two were among many youngters pressed into duty for the Navy defense, which allowed an average of almost 30 points and 430 total yards this season. There were nine sophomores or freshmen listed on the defensive two-deep for the Armed Forces Bowl. Six other starters or backups were juniors that did not play much in 2015.

Navy's defensive woes this season do not mean those players aren't athletic or talented.It was more a case of inexperience that led to a myriad of mental or physical mistakes. Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson admitted as much when talking to the media last week after practice at Kennedale High. Pehrson referred to "self-inflicted wounds" that hurt the Mids, assignment errors or miscommunications that resulted in big plays for the opposition.

Nowhere were those mistakes more magnified than the secondary, which was under siege all season by the slew of spread passing offenses the Midshipmen saw in the American Athletic Conference and again against Louisiana Tech on Friday.

Navy started a freshman (Gilman) and two sophomores (right cornerback Jarid Ryan and free safety Sean Williams) down the stretch this season. Left cornerback Tyris Wooten was a junior who was buried on the depth chart at wide receiver for the previous two years.


That unit was responsible for some coverage busts that were largely due to being greenhorns. I can recall Ryan turning a wide receiver loose because he expected safety help over the top and also remember sophomore safety Khaylan Williams getting burned one-on-one in the slot after getting caught looking into the backfield.

Such issues can be corrected through coaching, film study and just plain game experience. Ryan and Williams both learned lessons in those two instances and will be very careful to not make the same mistakes again.

Navy has some good parts in the secondary with freshman cornerback Noruwa Obanor another up-and-coming talent. With all four starters and three backups returning, you can bet the secondary will be vastly improved in 2017.

That said, it would have made a world of difference if senior Brendon Clements had not been dismissed from the team. Clements was the best cover corner in the program and really let down the team with his actions. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo gave Clements a second chance and the Miami native wasted it.

Losing Gonzales to a season-ending injury during the Air Force game also hurt big-time since he was the most aggressive and physical member of the defense. Outside linebacker Josiah Powell was enjoying a strong senior season until suffering a leg injury against Tulsa and missing the final five games.

By the way, not all of Navy's defensive problems were the fault of players. Sometimes, missed assignments and poor technique are because of coaching. This was one of the worst tackling teams I've covered since starting on the Navy footbal beat and that speaks to practice habits.


I've written it before and the coaching staff doesn't like to hear it, but the proof is in the pudding that Navy needs to do more live tackling in practice. Taking poor angles, using bad form and failing to wrap up can be fixed by practicing proper tackling technique at full speed and in physical fashion.

Navy has a lot of promising players returning on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore defensive end Jarvis Polu (6-3, 280) started every game and finished with 53 tackles and three sacks. Freshman nose guard Jackson Pittman (6-3, 315) was the backup all season and flashed the makings of an effective run-stuffer.

Middle linebacker Micah Thomas was the team's runaway leader with 107 tackles. The 6-foot-1, 249-pounder junior — a second team All-American Athletic Conference pick — is big, strong, fast and instinctive.

Outside linebacker D.J. Palmore was another bright spot with team-highs of 111/2 tackles for loss and six sacks. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound junior is the prototype of what the coaching staff is looking for at the position.

Junior Brandon Jones (6-4, 225) started in place of the injured Sullivan at the other inside linebacker spot on Friday and had a solid game with five tackles and a fumble recovery. The Midshipmen may have found an ideal outside linebacker to play against spread passing teams that use five wide receivers in Justin Norton, a converted safety who came on strong down the stretch.