Navy football coach Brian Newberry made sure the Midshipmen got plenty of full-contact scrimmage situations during an open practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Navy football coach Brian Newberry made sure the Midshipmen got plenty of full-contact scrimmage situations during an open practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (Navy Football/X)

(Tribune News Service) — Navy football coach Brian Newberry is disappointed that his team has not gotten as many live scrimmage opportunities as he hoped during spring camp.

Heavy rainstorms that have soaked the grass practice fields along the Severn River have limited the full contact practice periods. The Midshipmen have been forced to utilize the Rip Miller artificial turf field for practice instead.

Newberry said he is not comfortable holding full-contact sessions on the artificial surface for fear of injuries.

Newberry made sure the Mids got plenty of full-contact scrimmage situations during an open practice held Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. A large contingent of fans filled the seats, all the coaches wore headsets and a crew of officials was brought in — enabling the coaching staff to mimic game conditions.

“We wanted to get some live work in and really compete. I wanted to see if some of these young guys can tackle and finish blocks,” Newberry said.

Navy’s offense and defense occupied opposite sidelines with coordinators Drew Cronic and P.J. Volker calling plays the same way they would during a regular-season game.

“Everything has been scripted for the most part in our practices, so I wanted to let Drew and P.J. call it off the hip a little bit,” Newberry said. “I loved seeing that it was back-and-forth and we had some success on both sides of the ball.”

Freshman quarterback Braxton Woodson made one of the biggest offensive plays, breaking loose for a long touchdown run off an option keeper. He carried the ball down the line of scrimmage with a trailing slotback providing a pitch element, slipped through a hole on the perimeter and outraced several chasing defenders to the end zone.

Sophomore quarterback Blake Horvath completed a deep pass to slotback Isaiah Bryant, who was wide-open down the seam thanks to a well-designed rollout play that had the entire defense flowing to the other side of the field.

Tight end Thomas Scully caught a touchdown pass after getting a free release from the line of scrimmage and finding himself all alone in the end zone.

Newberry was not pleased with the running game overall as ball carriers too often got swarmed at the line of scrimmage. The defense had plenty of sacks and tackles for loss along with at least one interception.

“We need to be able to run the ball more consistently. We had some missed assignments and some one-on-one blocks that didn’t get made,” the second-year coach said. “I thought we did some positive things offensively. I think Blake ran the offense really well and Braxton had some really nice runs.”

Saturday’s event was somewhat of a spring version of the “fan fest” Navy football hosts in August with a carnival for kids being held under one of the tents in the end zone area of the concourse. There was a strolling magician, a caricature artist, face painting, games and prizes. Navy players signed autographs along the main concourse afterward.

Home run hire

There has been universal praise for Cronic’s performance so far as offensive coordinator, both in terms of the Wing-T schemes he’s installing and the personality he brings to the program.

Cronic estimates that he has implemented about 40% of his offensive package and said last week the Mids are still at the “100 level,” or in the basic stages of learning the offense. He would like to conclude spring camp at the 200 level with the goal of reaching 400 before the Aug. 31 season opener against Bucknell.

Meanwhile, Navy is now in its sixth year of employing the same defensive system that Newberry brought when he was hired as coordinator in 2019. Volker came to Navy from Kennesaw State along with Newberry and has added some wrinkles since taking over as defensive coordinator last spring.

One would expect the Navy defense would be ahead of the offense, and that has been the case at times this spring. However, the offense has enjoyed positive moments and hit a lot of big plays as Cronic’s schemes have fooled the defense.

“We’re still in the beginning stages of implementing what we’re doing, but I think everybody can see the versatility of what we’re doing,” Cronic said. “I am certainly encouraged by the way these kids have responded to what we’re doing.”

Volker readily acknowledged that Cronic’s “millennial version” of the Wing-T that incorporates triple-option and run-pass option elements is difficult to defend. Cronic uses multiple alignments, motion and shifting to confuse defenders and runs different plays out of the same looks.

“I think Coach Cronic has a well-designed offense and is an excellent play-caller. He’s got a lot of complimentary plays to some of the things you see that really challenge your eyes,” Volker said. “It is an eye discipline operation. You’ve got to have great eye discipline on every play, and even when you do it’s still really hard to defend. I see the offense getting better and better on every single play.”

Fans in attendance Saturday saw one significant new element that Cronic has unveiled with the entire offensive line shifting right or left at the last possible moment before the ball is snapped. Cronic has long utilized that ploy to catch the defense off guard.

“You’re trying to create advantages and make the defense think about one more thing, make them play as vanilla as you can,” he said. “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors to make them be a little more flat-footed defensively.”

Newberry said Navy is “doing some really, really good things offensively,” but noted the unit needs to be more consistent. There have been too many instances in which 10 players do the right thing, but one does not and the play gets blown up.

Newberry has spent considerable time studying Cronic’s entire catalog and is impressed by how he has tailored the attack to suit the available personnel. While many of the basic principles remain, the offense Cronic employed as coach at Mercer and Lenoir-Rhyne looks different from the one he developed as offensive coordinator at Furman and Reinhardt.

“It’s something that is still going to evolve and take shape based on who we are and what we can and can’t do. The great thing about Drew is that he’s done so many different things and has been at some places where he’s had to do more with less,” Newberry said. “He’s really good at understanding the personnel and what their strengths and weaknesses are. He knows what we have to do offensively to win games here. He’s had success everywhere he’s been and he’s going to have success here, too.”

Just as important as the Xs and Os Cronic is drawing on the dry-erase board has been the relationships he’s building with the players and coaches. Newberry said the new offensive coordinator has a “great demeanor” and that he’s heard “nothing but positive feedback” from the players about his coaching style.

Cronic mentioned that he “hit it off” immediately with quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper, who served as offensive coordinator under former coach Ken Niumatalolo. He appreciates the collaboration as Navy builds an offense that retains some of the triple-option schemes that Jasper learned from Hall of Fame coach Paul Johnson.

“Coach Jasper has been awesome. One of the things we have going for us is his expertise in the option game and I’ve learned a lot there. At the same time, he’s learning our system,” Cronic said. “I think we’ve got a really good staff on offense. We enjoy each other and everybody brings something to the table. That part has been really positive.”

Quarterback update

Horvath and Woodson are getting plenty of practice repetitions with the starting offense, but it appears the former is slightly ahead in the battle to become the starter in 2024.

During Saturday’s scrimmage situations, Horvath always ran the first huddle with Woodson directing the second. Horvath is the more instinctive runner and has dramatically improved as a passer, according to Jasper.

Woodson has a stronger arm but needs to make better decisions in the passing game. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound signal-caller is a long strider with the speed to go the distance, as he showed during the long touchdown run.

“I think the quarterbacks have a really good grasp of the offense and feel comfortable with what we’re doing. They understand the system,” Newberry said. “Blake’s made tremendous progress and looks really comfortable out there now. I think Braxton is getting there.”

Cronic believes Navy can win games in the American Athletic Conference with either Horvath or Woodson, describing both as athletic and intelligent. Both have shown the ability to execute in both the run and pass game this spring.

“Those two kids are good football players and they’re getting more and more comfortable. I’m really excited about both of those guys,” Cronic said. “We’re asking them to be a combination of a triple-option guy, but having to do some pro-style things as well. They’re improving their footwork, improving their fundamentals and playing faster every day.”

Horvath and Woodson have been forced to grow up fast while working against a veteran defense that is constantly shifting, routinely blitzing and showing several looks. Cronic has been impressed with the ability of both to improvise when necessary.

“It’s extremely challenging going against our defense every day because it’s very multiple,” said Cronic, who spends considerable time personally tutoring the quarterbacks during practice. “It’s challenging trying to learn a new system and seeing a lot of stuff happening in front of you.”

(c)2024 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)


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