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Linebackers finally passing the eye test for Navy

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy
Group looks impressive during spring practices

One glance at the Navy defense is all it takes to realize where the Midshipmen will be different in 2012. With outside linebackers that look the part, the Mids will at least appear more physically intimidating.

After an uncharacteristic 5-7 season in which Navy ranked No. 86 in total defense (414 ypg), No. 101 in first downs allowed (22.4 pg) and No. 117 in tackles for a loss (4.2 pg), the Mids concluded they needed more physicality on the flanks.

"Too many games, we didn't win one-on-one battles," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said.

Last year's starters, Tra'ves Bush and Brye French have moved to safety and inside linebacker respectively. Now manning the outside are senior Keegan Wetzel (6-3, 218) and three sophomores who started their Navy careers at other positions. Jordan Drake (6-4, 220) is a former safety; Obi Uzoma (6-3, 231) shifted from fullback; and Jarvis Cummings (5-11, 220) made the switch from quarterback last week.

Bigger, stronger and faster is not necessarily better. But after five spring practices, Navy coaches are convinced their outside linebacker corps has a chance to be an area of strength.

"We're really excited about them," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "They're athletic, we've got some guys with some size. They're all young."

Wetzel and Drake are listed as the starters but have plenty of competition. Others in the mix are sophomores Paul Quessenberry (6-2, 230), Josh Tate (5-11, 203) and Chris Johnson (6-1, 212).

"We've got a lot of depth, a lot of interchangeable skills," Wetzel said. "We're excited. I don't know who's gonna play. Coaches don't know who's gonna play. I think we have more talent than we've ever had."

With one start on his resume, Wetzel is the most experienced outside linebacker, though he would have played more had it not been for a concussion suffered in his first start. Green doesn't sound disappointed to have traded experience for talent.

"So far they're the most impressive group we've got on the defense," said Green. "I think it's the most athletic group of linebackers as a whole that I've seen since I've been here."

Drake is typical of the upgrade. In high school in Douglasville, Ga., he was an undersized nose guard at 180 pounds before blossoming in prep school as a pass-rushing defense end. Navy envisioned Drake as a rangy safety, but realized he could create more havoc as an outside linebacker.

"It's where I fit," Drake said. "I love coming off the edge."

In recent years, several pint-sized Mids have thrived on the outside including David Mahoney (5-9, 219), Ram Vela (5-9, 193) and Aaron McCauley (5-10, 190). Last year, Bush (5-10, 190) began the season as the team's fifth defensive back, but injuries forced him to start nine games at linebacker. Bush finished second on the team in tackles.

The new-look group bears little resemblance to its predecessors.

"Will they be as productive as Ram and Mahoney and Aaron McCauley? That's to be seen," Niumatalolo said. "But they definitely have the physical tools."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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