Navy secondary clamping down on foes

Eliminating big plays, defensive unit ranks 4th in nation against pass

College Football

November 20, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

One of Paul Johnson's major priorities when he became the Navy head coach almost two years ago was to reduce the number of big plays - particularly scoring plays - against the team's defense and special teams.

In 2003, the pass prevention unit has certainly succeeded so far.

Entering Saturday's home finale against Central Michigan, the Midshipmen stand fourth nationally against the pass, behind only No. 1 Oklahoma, Penn State and Miami (Fla.). Navy ranked 63rd nationally last season and a lowly 116th in pass efficiency defense.

The team's lighter schedule is a factor, to be sure, but there is no doubt that the ship has been tightened by the installation of the 3-4 defensive scheme, greater speed among the defenders, an improved pass rush and perhaps, most important of all, a team-wide acceptance of coordinator Buddy Green's scheme.

"We feel like we're more of a team," said rover Eli Sanders. "You believe you've got people behind you that you can trust."

"There is more listening to the coaches, buying what they say and following their lead," added cornerback Shalimar Brazier. "Without question, trying to do your own thing wasn't it. We believe that if we follow coach Green's scheme, we'll succeed."

Sanders and Brazier are both seniors who experienced the lean times when opponents feasted on a feeble Navy pass rush and picked apart the secondary.

Last season, rivals riddled Navy for 10 scoring passes of 20 yards or more. Conversely, this autumn that total is zero, with a 15-yard completion by Rutgers marking the longest opposing score through the air.

"I think it's just a year in the system and working very hard to keep everything in front of them," said Green. "We don't leave the corners out on the island [in one-on-one situations] a lot even when we pressure people. And the seniors have been consistent."

It's not just the defensive backfield that has contributed to the decline. With four quick linebackers and a better front, the Midshipmen are attacking offenses more often rather than sitting back and hoping something good happens.

"One of the biggest things is applying more pressure," said Green. "We've been able to force the quick throw instead of giving people time to find the deep receiver."

And freshmen (whom Johnson and his staff are playing in academy-record numbers) like Kevin Newsome, DuJuan Price and Keenan Little have responded well to the leadership supplied by players like Brazier and Sanders and junior Josh Smith. It hasn't hurt at all that the secondary has stayed relatively free of injury as well.

"It's the whole attitude, too, not just in the secondary, but on the whole team," said Sanders. "We know our responsibilities and we don't have the change of coaches we had when we kept losing. I guess we've just been lucky with staying pretty healthy."

"Before, it was very disheartening. You wanted to do so much about the losing," added Brazier. "I think everybody tried so hard to do something about it. And it didn't work."

"I think we have tried to get good at a few things instead of trying to do everything," said Green. "We've had the patience we need."

Navy probably will finish the season with strong pass defense numbers. Central Michigan puts an accent on the running of freshman Jerry (Bam Bam) Seymour, and Army, the traditional final regular-season foe, is not known for its passing.

"To this point, we've done a much better job against the big play," said Johnson. "Long TD passes over our heads killed us last year. We've been fortunate."

In the air

Navy opponents 2003* 2002**

1st downs pass 76 108

Passing yards 1,498 2,643

Avg. per game 149.8 220.2

Yds per attempt 5.8 9.2

Yards per catch 9.9 14.0

TDs passing 6 24

*-10 games. **-12 games

Next for Navy

Matchup: Cen. Michigan (3-8) vs. Navy (6-4)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Radio: WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Navy by 20

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