Brian Newberry wants to establish a new era of Navy football.
The new defensive coordinator promised the Midshipmen are going to play fast and more aggressively after a disappointing 3-10 season in 2018.
Newberry wasted little time putting his stamp on the program in the regular-season opener against Holy Cross Aug. 31. Navy finished with seven tackles for loss, three sacks and one fumble recovery in the 45-7 victory. It was a good start for the revamped unit.
A common motto among Navy coaches and players is “room for improvement.” That’s another good sign as the Midshipmen take on a difficult schedule, which includes Memphis (Sept. 26), Notre Dame (Nov. 16), Houston (Nov. 30) and Army (Dec. 14).
“We’re going to be dynamic,” Newberry said. “We’re going to do a lot of things pre-snap and post-snap. We’re going to mix up coverages and design. We want it to look chaotic to the offense, but be simple to the players on defense.”
The Midshipmen allowed an average of 36.5 points per game in their 10 losses last season. Navy allowed 426.4 yards per game overall. The Midshipmen were challenged when they were forced to play from behind, especially with an offense that is built around the run and controlling the clock.
The 2018 season marked only the second time the program finished below .500 under Ken Niumatalolo, who took over as the head coach in December 2007. The 3-10 season ended a streak of six straight years with a bowl game appearance.
After the season, Niumatalolo did some soul-searching and knew he needed to make some drastic changes. Niumatalolo hired seven new coaches, including Newberry to replace retiring defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson. One of Niumatalolo’s key focuses was getting better on the defensive side of the ball.
“There was a philosophy I knew that I wanted,” Niumatalolo said. “I wanted to attack. I wanted to come after people. I wanted to be chaotic. But I also wanted to be somewhat safe and sound. Give the illusion of coming after people. There’s chaos, but there’s organization and simplicity to your system.”
Newberry previously served as the defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State and oversaw a unit that ranked second in the FCS in total defense in 2018, allowing just 263.7 yards per game. Newberry brought a new swagger and innovative approach to the defensive schemes.
Under Newberry, the Midshipmen adopted a 4-2-5 scheme — four “down” linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs — to help control some of the spread offenses typical of the American Athletic Conference. The players are constantly changing fronts and have a wide assortment of blitzes to help stymie opponents and some of the strong-armed quarterbacks Navy faces throughout the season.
Newberry was confident he had enough talent on the roster to make the system work.
“We’re not deficient here. We’ve got good players; we just need a little bit of a change,” Newberry said. “We’re going to be a lot different on defense, we’re going to be more multiple, and we’re going to be a lot more aggressive than we have been.”
Sophomore Diego Fagot was moved to the MIKE linebacker spot in the middle of the defense after a stellar freshman year during which he played in every game. Fagot responded with a career-high nine tackles against Holy Cross.
“We were aggressive, but we know there is a lot of room for improvement,” Fagot said. “I made a ton of mistakes personally.”
Senior Nizaire Cromartie is the raider, meaning he has the athleticism to play a mix of defensive end and outside linebacker. In 13 starts last year, Cromartie led the team in sacks (3.5) and was second in tackles for loss (5.5) and fifth in total tackles (58). Cromartie finished with a sack and a fumble recovery against the Crusaders.
“I think we did set a tone for our own personal performance,” Cromartie said, “but there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Junior Jacob Springer moved from safety to the striker position, an outside linebacker who is effective in pass coverage. He has the size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) to thrive in that position. Last season, Springer was a key contributor on defense and special teams, and he’ll have a greater role in 2019.
The early results look good. Overall, the Midshipmen held Holy Cross to 4.1 yards per play. The players, however, weren’t patting themselves on the back. Tougher games are still ahead, especially in the AAC. Newberry wants to see incremental improvement.
“Our players really put a lot into their offseason preparation,” Newberry said. “They watched film, did seven-on-seven sessions, did individual fundamental periods together. They improved over the summer without the coaches, which was really encouraging.”
Niumatalolo was not surprised by the quick start to the defense. There are still some issues that need to be cleaned up, especially with communication, but so far, Newberry has lived up to expectations.
“He is very creative and does some exotic stuff,” Niumatalolo said. “Coach Newberry just has that ‘it’ factor. He has great leadership qualities, a presence that people gravitate toward.”
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics
Issue 257: September 2019