Navy defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter firmly believes that a little quickness and chicanery can be an undersized team's great equalizer.
"We're going to line up head up at the 50[-yard line], and that big guy doesn't know if I'm going here, I'm going there or I'm going right into him," said the 36-year-old, who demonstrated by taking a stance, then feigning movement to his left and right. "That gives you an advantage because they can't fire off. They have to guess where you're going."
He calls it the "three-way go principle," and said it's been no less than the defensive hymnal during past coaching stints at Ohio and Air Force. Now, in his first season with the Midshipmen, DeRuyter is helping transform a defense that ranked sixth-worst in Division I-A last season into a respectable unit.
Heading into Saturday's home game against Akron, Navy (2-4) is ranked 47th in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of about 348 yards a game -- 114 less than it averaged per game last year. Navy also is allowing eight fewer points per game than it did last year and is forcing more turnovers, including seven fumbles in six games.
A good portion of the credit goes to the team's new three-linemen, four-linebacker alignment, which DeRuyter installed during spring practice. The scheme takes better advantage of the quicker players common to service academy teams than did last season's alignment of four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs.
Safety Jamie Doffermyre, Navy's second-leading tackler, said there are other reasons for the defense's improved play. DeRuyter, he said, who played at Air Force in the early 1980s, has an easy time relating to Navy's players. Also, his hiring was a new beginning for players mired in ruts and for those who may have taken starting positions for granted.
"When a new coach comes in, everyone has to perform well for him," Doffermyre said. "He doesn't really know anybody unless you do something on the field."
DeRuyter was an integral part of a major turnaround at Ohio. When hired as defensive coordinator in 1995, he came to a program that had gone 0-11 and had the nation's longest active losing streak. In his second season, the Bobcats went 6-6 -- their first non-losing campaign in 14 years -- led by a defense that ranked 17th in the nation. In 1997, they finished 8-3, including an upset of Maryland, and finished 10th in the nation in scoring defense.
This season the Midshipmen have been mostly successful in stopping big plays and long drives, but there have been breakdowns. In the fourth quarter of a tie game at Rice last month, the Owls used a combination of power and option running plays, as well as some short passes, to put together a 16-play, 7-minute, 59-second drive that set up the winning field goal.
Then there's Navy's susceptibility to medium-range passes, something DeRuyter calls a "sacrifice" for better run defense. "We tell our secondary to play smart and don't give up the big play, but also realize that we're going to use an extra safety or two to stop the run," he said. "Most teams aren't patient enough to nickel and dime you down the field."
DeRuyter said he was most proud of his unit's performance in the first half against Air Force, when it held the Falcons to 67 yards and no points. Though the Midshipmen went on to lose, 19-14, he said the first 30 minutes showed just how good the defense can be.
"If a team is going to score on us," Doffermyre said, "most of the time they're going to have to drive the ball down the field and work for it."
Midshipmen Notes: Navy will hold a memorial tribute for longtime trainer Leon "Red" Romo Saturday morning at the academy chapel. The school also has established a scholarship fund in memory of Romo, who died in July.