Mids' defensive backfield makes huge improvements

Signing to play football at Navy is one thing. Reaching the field and remaining in the program is quite another.

Over the last few years no position has been more prone to academy attrition than the defensive backfield. In each of the last two years, an established starter has been dismissed from school, while several other talented prospects have washed out either at the Naval Academy Prep School during rigorous freshman indoctrination (plebe summer) or in their first year in Annapolis.

The talent drain took its toll last year, when Navy was susceptible in the defensive backfield. Despite injuries this year, however, the secondary has rebounded behind several promising young players.

Fight Hunger Bowl
Navy vs. Arizona State
When » Dec. 29, 4 p.m.
Where » AT&T Park, San Francisco

"I'm proud of the way guys stepped up," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "And the best thing: We've now got a good foundation of guys coming back."

When Navy (8-4) faces Arizona State (7-5) in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29, the Midshipmen will count on their revitalized young secondary to contain the prolific spread offense of the Sun Devils, guided by sophomore Taylor Kelly, who ranks 23rd in the nation in passing efficiency (153.3).

No player could speak to the improvement more than safety Tra'ves Bush. In 2011, the secondary was so stressed that Bush -- one of the secondary's few reliable pieces -- bounced from outside linebacker to nickel to safety to cornerback as Green tried to find a workable combination.

"I didn't mind moving around that much, but it was a lot easier this year," Bush said. "It was great to see a lot of young guys step in, play well and get us ready for the future."

Returning starters Bush (82 tackles, five pass breakups) and sophomore cornerback Parrish Gaines (63 tackles, two interceptions) have been the constants, starting all 12 games. The other slots have been injury riddled but productive.

Junior Jonathan Wev opened the year at cornerback, but three concussions ended his career in September. Navy turned to freshman Quincy Adams (26 tackles, four pass breakups) who was impressive before he was slowed by a shoulder injury. That gave an opportunity to another freshman, Kwazel Bertrand (36 tackles, four pass breakups), who was a revelation.

"Kwazel stepped in, and the rest is history," Green said. "Kwazel's had an excellent year."

At safety, Navy got strong work from Chris Ferguson (34 tackles), but when the sophomore was out with injuries, junior Wave Ryder (51 tackles) played even better. The Mids went 5-0 in the games he started, including a 17-13 victory over Army in which he made a few touchdown-saving stops.

After ranking 67th in passing defense (227 yards per game) in 2011, Navy improved to 36th this year (211 ypg). What delighted Green the most about the secondary, however, was that the Mids were true to his mantra to limit the home run play.

It was never more apparent than in the Army game. The Black Knights churned out 418 yards but did it without the benefit of a play that gained more than 22 yards.

"Our philosophy is don't give up plays that can be momentum changers," Green said.