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Kwesi Mitchell anchored Navy’s secondary when seas were turbulent

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ANNAPOLIS — Every week, it seemed, there was some play gnawing at Kwesi Mitchell.

The Navy safety could look back at almost every close loss his team suffered earlier this season and find a moment he wished he could have back.

Then he brought himself into the present and helped the Midshipmen make a late charge at a bowl bid.

"You hate going into the next week thinking of those things, but it's all a part of the game," Mitchell said. "The thing that's been good is [two weeks ago], I let Notre Dame go. Then we got a win. Anything that's bad, they say it all the time with defensive backs — short term memory."

The recent ones, though, are pretty good.

With the many moving pieces in the Navy secondary finally settling, so, too, has Mitchell. The senior, who is tied for second on the roster in career starts, has produced back-to-back strong games as the Mids (4-6) have inched closer to earning their ninth straight bowl berth.

Their push continues Saturday with a visit to San Jose State (3-7). Win, and Navy will need only a defeat of Army to clinch a berth in the Dec. 28 Military Bowl at RFK Stadium.

That didn't seem to be a likely outcome a few weeks ago. Navy had thrust two freshmen - cornerback Parrish Gaines and safety Chris Ferguson - into starting roles. And Mitchell, who wore a noncontact jersey during practice for more than a month after suffering a shoulder injury Sept. 17 at South Carolina, still was shaking off the effects of the injury.

Gaines and Ferguson have improved, enough that it appears Navy will start the same defensive backfield for the fourth straight game.

"I'd like to say I had some influence on those guys besides giving them my knowledge and my tips and everything, but the game has more influence and the game has made these guys grow up faster and mature," Mitchell said. "You can tell it by Chris and Parrish, they mature every game."

Those tips, though, mean something on a defense with only a handful of deeply experienced players.

Mitchell figured to be the mainstay of the secondary coming into the season, though he probably didn't expect to see so much flux around him. He and cornerback David Sperry have started every game. Six players have combined for the other 20 starts in the defensive backfield.

So when change came and the toughest stretch the Mids have faced in nearly a decade struck, Mitchell was a source of stability.

"He's such a bubbly person," safety Tra'ves Bush said. "He never gets down on anyone. He's always there to help if you need it. If you mess up, he'll correct you. If you're doing something good, he'll give congratulations. He's just a helpful guy."

Still, the season hasn't been perfect. Mitchell describes it as "subpar" and can't help but think of a few moments, even if he'd like to forget them. Coach Ken Niumatalolo said he believed Mitchell became "hesitant" in the middle of the season before his recent rebound.

There was a third-and-15 pass he wishes he'd broken on at South Carolina. Instead, the Gamecocks completed it for 39 yards to set up a touchdown in what became a 24-21 loss. There was a third-and-6 when Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu eluded him to extend a drive that later led to a score in Navy's 21-20 loss.

The miscues still bother Mitchell, even a month later. On the field, though, those thoughts fade.

After all, there are still games to win, a season to extend and a lot of young guys to guide - things that provide far more lasting memories and a greater legacy than a few miscues ever could have.

"Kwesi's Kwesi," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "He's going to fight and compete and try to get better and he's in control of our guys back there. He gets us lined up. He's worked hard and he's been a leader for us in some tough times."

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