Size, speed make him an unusual linebacker for Mids

As a freshman buried on the depth chart at fullback, Navy's Cody Peterson caught the eye of coaches in practice by tussling with starters. The rambunctious side of Peterson indicated he had the mentally to play linebacker. With speed and size at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, there was no doubt Peterson could handle the physical part.

So the Midshipmen shifted Peterson to defense. Two years later, Navy has returned the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to Annapolis with Peterson playing a key role as a havoc-seeking inside linebacker.

In a 17-13 victory over Army, Peterson had a game-high 14 tackles. It was his best work since he had 10 tackles in a 28-21 victory over Air Force, a performance so convincing that it won him a starting job over returning starter and senior co-captain Brye French.

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

"When he was a freshman, everyone would get mad at him because he would practice so hard as a scout team guy," Navy inside linebacker coach Steve Johns said. "He just brings a different level of intensity than we've had in a while."

Peterson might have emerged earlier were it not for knee surgery in his freshman year and shoulder surgery as a sophomore, which limited him to four games.

"Once he's been healthy, he's done a great job -- tough, runs really well, big, strong, wiry strength," Johns said. "I always knew he'd be good once he got his chance. I didn't necessarily know he would be as good as quickly as he's become."

In recent years, many of Navy's top linebackers have been undersized overachievers, including Clint Sovie (5-11, 201), Ram Vela (5-9, 197), Aaron McCauley (5-10, 194) and David Mahoney (5-9, 219). But Peterson is more of a prototype, reminding Johns of former standout Tyler Simmons, a 6-3, 237-pounder who had 131 tackles in 2010.

"It's rare at an academy to have guys that big and can run that well," Johns said.

In the bend-don't-break scheme of Navy, so much is required of the two inside linebackers that Johns and defensive coordinator Buddy Green prefer to rotate three. This season's trio, senior Matt Warrick (84 tackles), French (74 tackles) and Peterson (62 tackles), rank among the top six tacklers on the team. When French went down with a high ankle sprain early against Army, however, Peterson and Warrick (11 tackles) delivered full time.

But it was against Air Force that Peterson emerged and helped alter the course of the season. While the Navy offense found itself in Colorado Springs with freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds coming off the bench and leading a fourth-quarter rally, the defense found itself, too, with the help of a player Warrick has referred to as "mean and violent."

"It's been a journey," Peterson said of Navy's turnaround from 1-3 to 8-4. "We've really had to scratch and crawl our way back, especially after coming off a losing season. The hard work really does pay off. We're starting to reap the benefits now."