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Injuries take toll on Navy’s linebackers

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Navy opened the season with three physical games, meaning a late-September bye week was a welcome respite for much of the roster.

It's especially true of the Midshipmen's outside linebackers.

Navy (2-1) was down three players - including both opening-week starters - at the position in Saturday's 24-21 loss at South Carolina, but there is optimism the Mids could be back to full strength at the position when Air Force visits Annapolis on Oct. 1.

Jarred Shannon missed the past two games with a lingering shoulder injury. Mason Graham, the other opening week starter, sat out the South Carolina game with a knee injury after starting the first two contests. And junior Keegan Wetzel, who started in place of Shannon at Western Kentucky, was sidelined with a concussion last week.

"We should hopefully have the three guys back for Air Force," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Probably Mason is the furthest away of those three, but we're hoping to have them all back."

That means Shannon, whose career is littered with shoulder injuries, could be back in the lineup when the Mids play the first of their two service academy rivals.

His latest shoulder pain was triggered in Navy's season opener against Delaware, and outside linebackers coach Tony Grantham decided to hold Shannon out after watching the senior during warmups Sept. 10 at Western Kentucky.

"I don't think he liked the decision, but we're trying to get him healthy so he can be more productive," Grantham said. "He was the first guy on the sideline helping Keegan, and he was the happiest guy in the locker room after we won. He's a team guy and he understands that because he's had some shoulder issues, we want to get him healthy so he has the opportunity to finish his season in a strong way."

While the Mids moved safety Tra'ves Bush down to play in place of Shannon and Wetzel last week, they turned to junior Brye French to handle the other outside linebacker spot in Graham's absence. It was French's first career start and came less than two months after starting camp near the bottom of the depth chart.

The Alabama native also is a midfielder on Navy's lacrosse team and misses spring practice each year to concentrate on his other sport. After a 13-tackle performance against South Carolina, he earned praise from Niumatalolo.

"I've been very impressed with him," Niumatalolo said. "If he had played in the spring, we feel he'd be even further along. To miss spring ball and work his way back in, he did some good things. He hasn't been perfect and had some errors, but I thought he did some good things."

The same could be said for any of the five players the Mids already have started at outside linebacker slots, the program's most for a full season since five were used in 2007. While the injuries were unwanted, they did allow Navy to demonstrate the flexibility it possesses at a position that turns over on a seemingly annual basis.

"We knew going in they would all have to play in order for us to be successful just because of the schedule we're playing," Grantham said. "We didn't expect it to be the third game of the year. It's been a good experience. They've all got an opportunity to showcase what they're capable of. ... It's created good competition. We're going to play the best guys. There's no set starters. It's going to be week to week."

NOTES: Niumatalolo said right guard John Dowd has a thumb injury that "will be in a cast a little bit, but he's going to be fine." Dowd has started 16 consecutive games.

c Linebacker Matt Brewer has four forced fumbles, tying the school's single-season record. He is the ninth Mid to force four fumbles in a season.

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