Navy defense looks to fill unexpected vacancy
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: August 14, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson thought he had his entire starting secondary coming back. During spring practice, it was reassuring to see seasoned players operating at all four positions.
That was before free safety Alohi Gilman announced he was transferring to Notre Dame. Now the Midshpimen have a major hole to fill on the back end of the defense.
Secondary coach Dan O'Brien is looking at anybody and everybody as he holds August auditions for the unexpected vacancy. Junior Jarid Ryan is listed atop the depth chart at strong safety and was working at that spot during Saturday morning's practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
However, O'Brien has also given veterans John Gillis, Randy Beggs and Juan Hailey plenty of repetitions. There are several freshmen in the mix as well, including Cameron Kinley and Micah Farrar.
"We have some guys back there that have been working hard and showing what they can do. At this point in time, we're just trying to give them all plenty of repetitions and evaluate them as best we can," O'Brien said. "There is not really one guy that has separated himself from the others right now. By the time camp is over we'll figure out who is the best fit back there."
Navy does have one more experienced safety returning in junior Sean Williams, who started 12 of 14 games last season. Williams, who made 11 of his starts at strong safety, ranked third on the team with 74 tackles in 2016.
"We don't have a ton of experience back there at the safety position. Sean is really the only guy with a significant amount of game experience," O'Brien said. "Fortunately, we have plenty of experience at cornerback. We have a lot of leadership out there, which helps. Obviously, we feel a little more comfortable at cornerback than we do at safety for the time being."
For now, the focus is on finding depth at the two safety spots as none of the candidates has played a meaningful down on defense during a game.
"We have a couple freshmen that we've given an opportunity to show what they've got – how much they can learn and if they can play at this level. So far, a lot of them have been doing really well, which is a plus for the secondary as a whole," O'Brien said. "We're not afraid to play a freshman, as you saw last year with Alohi. We just try to simplify things for them as best we can."
Williams, who has 25 career games under his belt, has become the clear leader among the safeties. He's another Memphis native and has shown the on-field intelligence to handle the role of calling defensive signals from the back end.
"When you get to be an upperclassman you are kind of forced into that role. Your experience has prepared you to be a leader, whether you're ready for it or not," Williams said. "It will show in practices and games when the younger players need advice. It's something that comes to me naturally and I really look forward to it."
Williams does not know who will line up alongside him for the season opener at Florida Atlantic, but is confident the first-time starter will be up to the task.
"Everybody in that room is hungry to play. We have a group of players who have been practicing and learning so they shouldn't even miss a step," the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder said. "Some of the names might be new to fans, but a lot of these guys have been in the room preparing for their opportunity to play."
There was once a time when strong safety and free safety were vastly different positions. As the name suggests, the free safety played deep and was sort of the last line of defense. Meantime, the strong safety played closer to the line of scrimmage and ran the alleys in run support.
Those days are long gone in the current era of spread passing attacks. Both safeties must be prepared to play in coverage, whether man-to-man or zone.
"There's not really a difference between those two positions anymore. They're interchangeable nowadays," O'Brien said. "With offenses going empty and four-wide, you have to be able to adapt on the fly, which is kind of where we are as a defense."
Navy ranked 100th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in passing yards allowed last season, giving up an average of 254 per game.
Pehrson and head coach Ken Niumatalolo discussed the issue during the off-season and agreed the Midshpmen must attack more. That involves putting pressure on the quarterback to help the secondary and doing things in coverage to prevent being picked apart.
"We played timid, almost scared, in a few games last season. That's because we had some young guys in the game that probably didn't want to give up the big play," O'Brien said. "Our mentality has changed this year. We're going to be much more aggressive in what we do. We're going to try to deny some throws and we're going to mix up different coverages to hopefully make things tough on the quarterback."