ANNAPOLIS -- Just as he did a year ago, Navy football coach George Chaump spent the days before the annual spring game singing the praises of his team's improvement. But this time around, he also voiced a bit of caution.
"When you talk so much about [improvement] and you're not able to win, it becomes a snickering affair," Chaump said yesterday. "We don't want that to happen."
There was quite a bit of snickering last season when what was billed as a bigger, stronger and improved Navy team was on the verge of a winless season before defeating Army to finish at 1-10. With that miserable season fresh in their minds, the Midshipmen went into spring practice, which concludes Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with the annual Blue-Gold game, looking to correct the deficiencies that made Navy one of the worst teams in Division I-A.
"It's hard to talk unless you've won a few games," said Chaump, who is 6-16 in two seasons at Navy. "We'll just have to wait until the season and see what happens. I have a lot of confidence."
Confidence for Chaump comes in the form of new defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, who helped shape Utah as the top defensive team in the high scoring, pass-happy Western Athletic Conference. McMackin is one of three new defensive coaches at Navy.
"I'd be surprised if [McMackin] doesn't prove himself as one of the best defensive coordinators in the game," Chaump said.
McMackin's job has been to shore up a Navy defense that was vulnerable to the big play all season and had a big role in opponents scoring an average of more than 29 points.
The key next season may be the play of the team's secondary. Based on the spring depth chart, the group will contain a group of talented, but inexperienced, sophomores. Sophomore free safety Chris Hart and senior safety Chad Chatlos will provide the experience for the group that -- along with the defensive line -- has been impressive in practice.
"The defense has stepped up -- they've been knocking the heck out of our offense," Chaump said. "You'll like what you see on defense. It's a highly aggressive attack defense that players really enjoy playing."
Chaump is hoping for more stability on offense where, for the first time in three spring practices, he has a clear-cut favorite to start the season. Sophomore Jim Kubiak, who as a plebe started five games and completed 94 of 154 passes, gives Chaump a quarterback with the potential to execute his preferred offense, which emphasizes the passing game.
"Jim is stronger and more mature," Chaump said of his quarterback, who didn't have the advantage of a spring practice last year. "Jim has a strong arm, he throws with a high degree of accuracy and he's picked up a lot of savvy and a lot of quarterback maturity."
In the backfield Jason Van Matre, the quarterback at the start of last season, will begin the season at tailback. But there is doubt whether fullback Brad Stramanak, who scored a team-high five touchdowns, can come back from knee surgery.
"Our players are bigger, stronger and faster than the previous three years," Chaump said. "Our marks in the weight tests we give are considerably higher. We are now approaching criteria that a I-A football team should have in the front line with our ability to squat and bench press.
"I think we're probably not where we like to be," Chaump said. "But we're better off than we have been."
Navy fans will get a chance to see for themselves on Saturday.