Navy football pass defense looking for improvement under new assistant Eric Lewis
The Capital April 26, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Navy football's defense was outstanding last season except in one area. The Midshipmen gave up way too many long passes, many becoming touchdowns.
It was an issue that confounded defensive coordinator Brian Newberry, who stressed to the safeties and cornerbacks the importance of not allowing balls to be thrown over their heads. Opponents averaged 19 yards per pass against Navy last season. The Midshipmen gave up seven completions of 50 yards or more.
Now, Newberry is Navy's head coach and shares the responsibility for fixing that problem with his successor, P.J. Volker, and newly-hired defensive passing game coordinator Eric Lewis.
Newberry and Volker, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in late December, spent considerable time evaluating every long pass play to determine what went wrong and how to fix it.
"That's something we studied extremely hard during the offseason. Obviously, we know where our blemishes were and we went out and tried to upgrade in terms of what we're doing schematically and teaching-wise," Volker said. "Bringing in Eric Lewis, who is a seasoned professional and has called defenses at a lot of places, is a big part of the solution."
Navy was relatively young and inexperienced in the secondary last season. Starting cornerbacks Elias Larry and Mbiti Williams, along with free safety Rayuan Lane were all sophomores. Bandit safety Eavan Gibbons was forced into the starting lineup due to injury midway through the 2022 campaign.
All those players, along with numerous backups, are more seasoned now and that alone should help eliminate some of the pass defense breakdowns. Volker called the cornerbacks the most improved unit on the defensive side of the ball during spring practice and praised position coach Robert Green for developing his players.
"We do have a lot of talent coming back, and when you have more experienced guys it's a huge benefit," Lewis said. "Young guys tend to be more undisciplined and more greedy. Sometimes they get into the game and want to be over aggressive and try to make plays they don't have business trying to make."
Lewis becomes the first defensive passing game coordinator in Navy football history and is charged with turning a weakness into a strength. He was a standout safety at San Diego State and closed his career as the program's all-time leader in pass breakups.
Lewis got into college coaching in 2001 and has worked with the secondary almost exclusively throughout his career. He was defensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan (2009), Weber State (2012-13), Georgia State (2015-16) and Bowling Green (2021-22).
Volker was the linebackers coach at Georgia State when Lewis was there and they have stayed in touch ever since. It did not take much for Volker to convince Lewis to leave Bowling Green, Ohio, for Annapolis.
"Coach Volker constantly told me this is the greatest place to coach in the country. From what I can tell since I've been here, he is right," Lewis said. "Getting the opportunity to work at the Naval Academy with these types of young men, it really wasn't a hard decision. I couldn't have been more sure about a career move in my life."
One of the first changes Lewis made was to bring the cornerbacks and safeties together into one meeting room. It sends a strong message the secondary is one cohesive unit and players at both positions are hearing the same talking points.
Lewis and Green are working together to coach the secondary during meetings. On the practice field, Lewis instructs the safeties and Green tutors the corners.
"We have shared custody of all the defensive backs and it's been a good thing," Green said. "I think the entire group is learning more about the defensive back position as a whole because we are now all working together."
Green played cornerback at Navy from 1994-97 and returned to his alma mater as Director of Player Development for the football program. He was still in uniform as a Marine Corps officer at the time.
Shortly after retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Green was promoted to the on-field coaching staff and is now entering his ninth season. He called Lewis "an awesome advocate" for the defensive backs and said he's brought great knowledge and a fresh perspective to the program.
"Having someone of Coach Lewis' experience and knowledge has helped the entire secondary immensely. It's a joy to have him around because I'm learning so much about the position," Green said.
Lewis knew coming in that Navy's pass defense was consistently shredded last season and took to the tape to see for himself. The Midshipmen gave up 35 pass plays of 25 yards or more, 13 of which were for 40 yards or more. Seven long pass completions resulted in touchdowns.
It was demoralizing to a defense that otherwise was rock-solid, ranking third nationally in rushing defense. However, a pass defense efficiency that ranked 124th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams was leading directly to losses.
"Like anything else, you have to acknowledge the problem. We know it was an issue last year, so we're trying to make some schematic changes to turn that around," Lewis said.
Some of the factors that enabled wide receivers to get behind the defense involved miscommunication, sloppy technique and poor situational awareness. By far the biggest issue involves defensive backs not properly reading their keys or seeing things wrong.
"I would say the No. 1 thing is just being disciplined with our eyes. Your eye discipline and progression is going to allow you to play fast and be more consistent," Lewis said. "That's probably the biggest area we're trying to focus on. When guys are looking at the right things, they tend to be in the right position."
The American Athletic Conference is loaded with powerful passing attacks featuring talented quarterbacks and speedy receivers. Several teams employ spread passing attacks that go no-huddle and throw the ball 40 to 50 times per game.
Lewis hopes to build a pass defense that limits the number of chunk yardage pass plays, especially those that produce long touchdowns. The Midshipmen want to force opponents to throw the ball underneath as opposed to over the top.
"We need to make an emphasis every day in meetings and in practices to play top-down and keep our leverage both horizontally and vertically," Lewis said. "We have to make sure that no matter what, we don't give up explosive plays in the passing game."
Not only does Navy return all four starters in the secondary, it also has several veteran backups that have shown significant improvement along with numerous young players with tremendous potential.
Every secondary player except one that was on the season-ending depth chart is back and many have taken big steps forward during spring camp. Lewis highlighted Joe Hutson and Jaxson Campbell as safeties who have really stood out. Green mentioned Andrew Duhart and Matthew Peters as cornerbacks playing at a high level.
Lane, who developed into a leader of the secondary this spring, believes the presence of Lewis has raised the performance level of the entire unit. The Gilman graduate said Lewis has introduced different drills during practice and changed some schemes.
"Coach Lewis is awesome. He's only been here a short period of time, but I've learned so much already," Lane said. "Just the little tidbits he talks about in the safeties room are awesome. Getting us to understand how offenses are trying to attack."
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