Navy linebackers mesh

Varied in style, 3 seniors meet at ball carrier to raise Mids' defense

College Football

August 19, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

Navy senior outside linebacker Tyler Tidwell marvels at the way teammates Rob Caldwell and David Mahoney function on the football field.

Caldwell is wired for high energy, fiery in the huddle, consumed with the idea of crushing any ball carrier he gets his hands on, seemingly playing on the edge of losing control. Mahoney is the opposite, a calm, calculating type who is a natural at settling down a rattled teammate and laughs as he makes a play.

Tidwell considers himself somewhere in between those two.

"Rob would be the mean one on the field, the mad dog kind of guy. Dave is definitely the anchor. He never makes mental errors," Tidwell said.

"I can't stay as calm and loose as Dave, because I'll just get run over. But I can't be seeing red [like Caldwell], because I couldn't keep track of my assignments."

Not that Tidwell has any trouble fitting in with the other two seniors. Together, they form the heart of Navy's 3-4 defense - a unit determined to improve on last year's 26.1-points-per-game allowed - and might be the best linebacker foundation the Midshipmen have had in the five-year Paul Johnson era.

While sophomore Clint Sovie and senior Joe Cylc are fighting for one inside spot, Navy's power trio is set. Between them, Caldwell, Mahoney and Tidwell have started 53 games. And no matter which defense the Mids call, be it in on a running or passing down, those three will play.

"We ask our outside linebackers to do a lot of things, and Rob is one of those throwback middle linebackers, old school," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "They're always on the field, because they give us so much and allow us to do so much."

Caldwell, the 6-foot, 229-pound inside linebacker, emerged as a junior in 2005. His 140-tackle season, the best at Navy since 1993, included 21 against Air Force. He is the second-leading returning tackler in the nation (11.7).

Mahoney and Tidwell man the outside linebacker spots and can cause problems in different roles. Tidwell, 6-2, 224, who, like Caldwell, blossomed last year as a new starter, lines up on the weak side and excels at rushing the passer, as evidenced by his team-high 10 sacks. When the Mids switch to a four-man front, Tidwell moves to defensive end and relies on his quickness.

With 30 starts behind him, Mahoney, 5-9, 219, is the dean of the group and probably the most versatile. After playing inside early in his freshman season, Mahoney shifted outside, where he made 11 tackles in his first career start in 2003 and helped the Mids beat Air Force. He has not looked back.

Last year, Mahoney, who also plays nickel back in passing situations, made 76 tackles, third on the team. His eight sacks and 16 tackles for losses trailed only Tidwell, who led Navy with 19 stops behind the line.

"I've been undersized my whole life, even in Pop Warner," Mahoney said. "We're all pretty much the kid teams look at and say, `They've got talent but they're not big or fast enough.' We're all overachievers.

"There shouldn't be anything we see this year that will fool us. One thing our linebacking corps has is the same mentality. We all want to get to the ball and hit somebody as hard as we can."

Caldwell, who did not play as a freshman after suffering an ankle injury that required surgery, made such an impact a year ago that his teammates voted him a co-captain for 2006. He calls the defensive signals, roams among the large, interior offensive linemen and blocking backs, and depends on his defensive line to keep the blockers at bay long enough to let Caldwell do his thing.

"It's about being in the right position and hustling, and you've got to let the game come to you. You can't get to your spots if you're playing too fast," Caldwell said. "You need to be tough and smart."

Caldwell says the comfort level the threesome has reached after starting a full season together should make for a productive, final go-round together.

"David and Tid are the big-play guys coming off the edge and they're tough to block. I'm the quarterback of the defense and I have to know where everybody is lined up and get to the ball," Caldwell said.

"Maybe I'm supposed to [force a play] to David or he's supposed to turn it back to me, but we know where our help is and we pick each other up. We talk a lot out there. We can look at each other and have a good feeling we know what each other is supposed to do."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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