Navy's Defense Full of New Faces
A Rash of Injuries Forces the Use of 20 Defensive Starters
Thursday, October 25, 2007; Page E09
Nine plays into his team's Sept. 7 game against Rutgers, Navy senior Jeff Deliz, a starting safety and team captain, was lost for the season because of an injury to his right leg. On the first play of the Scarlet Knights' next drive, junior Clint Sovie, a starting linebacker, was lost for the season with an injured left ankle.
The defense has hardly recovered. Those injuries were the first of several that have plagued the Midshipmen (4-3) for most of the year, and it shows in their results. Entering Saturday's game against Delaware, Navy is 119th (out of 119) in pass efficiency defense and sacks, and 105th in scoring defense.
The Midshipmen have used 20 defensive starters through seven games; since they began tracking defensive starters in 1991, they have not used more than 22 in a season. (By way of comparison, the Midshipmen have used 13 starters on offense this year.) The four previous times 20 or more players started on defense, the team finished 2-10 (2002), 0-10 (2001), 1-10 (2000) and 3-8 (1998).
And more new faces may be on the way. Sophomore nose guard Andy Lark and freshman defensive back Emmett Merchant are on the cusp of an increase in playing time, according to defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Neither has started a game this season.
"You can't get discouraged," senior linebacker Irv Spencer said. "It would be one thing if you were getting physically manhandled, but that's not it. That's the frustrating part. Everyone is lined up in their gaps and in position."
Junior safety Kevin Snyder (Paint Branch) became the 20th starter against Wake Forest last week. He finished with five tackles in a 44-24 loss. He began the season ostensibly as the fifth-string safety.
Of the four in front of him, Deliz is out for the year; junior Ketric Buffin is out for another month; sophomore Jesse Iwuji is questionable to play Saturday; and sophomore Blake Carter has moved to cornerback.
"In my years of coaching, which is a long time, you'd like to find those four or five guys in nickel-back situations who work together all the time," said Green, who is in his 29th year as a coach. "So they get that type of chemistry. Due to circumstances, we haven't had that yet."
Navy's formula on defense is hardly original. Green said he emphasizes limiting big plays -- i.e. plays longer than 25 yards -- and succeeding on "possession downs," i.e. third or fourth downs when a change of possession is imminent.
Yet opposing players have had landmark games against the Midshipmen in almost every contest this year, in rushing, passing and receiving.
Rutgers running back Ray Rice rushed for 175 yards in a 41-24 victory; in two previous starts against Navy, he had 173 yards combined.
Ball State running back MiQuale Lewis rushed for a career-high 161 yards in a 34-31 overtime win on Sept. 15. Duke wide receiver Eron Riley had career highs with 235 receiving yards and four touchdowns in a 46-43 loss on Sept. 22.
Air Force senior quarterback Shaun Carney, a four-year starter, set a career-high with 237 yards passing a week later.
Freshman LeSean McCoy rushed for 165 yards for Pitt on Oct. 10. Last Saturday, Wake Forest threw to senior wide receiver Kenny Moore 16 times. He caught 15 of those passes, for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense will be tested again Saturday. Delaware senior quarterback Joe Flacco, a transfer from Pittsburgh, has completed 155 of 213 passes (72.8 percent) for 1,974 yards, with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
In the teams' previous meeting, a 34-20 Navy win in 2004, the Blue Hens threw 50 passes.
But senior running back Omar Cuff (C.H. Flowers) has 20 rushing touchdowns this year -- among his 24 total -- and averages 123.3 yards rushing per game. Overall, the Blue Hens average 36.7 points.
"We are throwing some changes in there, but you can't just go away from what you know," Spencer said.
As inopportune as the injuries have been, circumstances have not helped. Green noted that the four most significant injuries -- to Deliz, Sovie, Buffin and Iwuji -- have come either in the first quarter or early in the second quarter.
The Midshipmen have cut down on their missed tackles. They had 26 against the Demon Deacons after having 30 in a double-overtime win against Pittsburgh on Oct. 10 and more than 30 against Rutgers. Spencer is providing the leadership that went with Deliz, who has gone back to his home town of Clinton Township, Mich., to rehab his injury.
Spencer leads the team with 50 tackles and has taken over most of the defensive captain's duties.
"I'm trying to make plays," Spencer said. "I'm trying to get my guys excited and go from there. I make a play, then I tell them, now it's your turn to make a play . . . Or if you mess up a play, get it back.
"You really can't worry about it. I love the guys I play with. They play hard. Sometimes they're just hesitant, or they know something so well but they don't react to it well . . . They want to make sure they're doing the right job and they're not really ready to take a risk. They're saying, 'I did my job, Coach' instead of going and trying to make a [big] play."