For Navy’s Keegan Wetzel, rugged play is the only way
ANNAPOLIS — Keegan Wetzel slowly unspooled tape from around his left arm and hand Wednesday evening. The Navy linebacker would get to his other arm soon after.
It seemed to take forever. Nonetheless, it was business as usual, however preventative, for the senior linebacker.
“He has bandages on every part of his body,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “He looks like a mummy, and he just keeps playing.”
Not just playing — playing well.
From Navy’s rough September to a perfect October, Wetzel is one of his team’s few season-long constants. He leads the Midshipmen (5-3) with 11 tackles for loss and six sacks entering Saturday’s meeting with Florida Atlantic (2-6) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
After barely playing on defense his first three years, Wetzel is playing as large a part as anyone on the Mids’ defense. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t mentioned much in the weeks leading into his last season.
“I knew people were talking about Obi [Uzoma] and A.K. [Akpunku] behind me because I was 185 pounds as a freshman, and they’re 230 pounds as plebes,” Wetzel said. “People talk about that because they look good, but you still have to learn the defense, you still have to go out there and consistently produce. I just know I have a different tempo when I get in game situations.”
The 220-pounder understood games would be different thanks to his lone career start before this season, a six-tackle effort last year against Western Kentucky. A concussion cut short that appearance and cost him the next game. Wetzel wouldn’t make another tackle the rest of the season.
So it wasn’t difficult for Wetzel to become something of a forgotten man at a forgotten position. Outside linebackers come and go at Navy, with the Mids plugging in one after another as needed.
They’ll be hard pressed next year to replace Wetzel’s production.
“My gut feeling? He’s probably [ticked] at me and the coaches,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re talking about all these other guys who have come in, Jordan Drake, Obi, Chris Johnson, A.K., and all these other guys and we failed to mention to him. Here’s a guy who waited his turn as a senior and I think he was like ‘OK, I’m going to show you guys that I’m the best.’ To this point, he is definitely the MVP of our team.”
His sacks in three straight games to open the season drew some attention, but it wasn’t until the Mids’ winning streak when he truly emerged as a force. He has seven tackles for loss in the last three games, a run that began Oct. 12 against Central Michigan.
It was a short week, and Wetzel was concerned how his body would hold up with one less day between games. He should not have worried, collecting a sack and assisting on another tackle for loss as Navy held the Chippewas to just 221 yards on 44 snaps.
“You don’t know how your body is going to feel when you’re beat up,” Wetzel said. “But I got out there and felt great. It’s kind of like that Friday night lights feeling, the high school feeling again. I didn’t feel winded, didn’t get winded, felt explosive.”
It’s meant plenty of headaches for opponents as Navy has won four consecutive games, and it’s amplified the one given with Wetzel throughout his career: He’s usually the smartest guy in the room.
Wetzel has a 3.89 grade-point average in systems engineering and is believed to be the only active major-college player to score 1600 on the SAT. But such wisdom doesn’t always translate to the field; for Wetzel, though, it does.
“He’s just so cerebral and understands the game and understands the flow and where things are going to be,” slotback Bo Snelson said. “I feel like he looks in the quarterbacks’ eyes and reads their minds because he knows what they’re going through with their progressions. He just knows where to be and does it so well.”
It’s made him invaluable for Navy, which has found its bandaged ‘backer an impressive example all season.
“He’s wrapped up everywhere, but he just continues to battle,” Niumatalolo said. “I think our guys have seen that. It would be easy for him to get in a red or green [noncontact] jersey, but he comes out in a normal practice jersey.”
Not to mention more than his share of medical tape. It isn’t a belated Halloween costume, but it sure helps make Navy’s defense a lot scarier.
NOTES: Niumatalolo said slotback Darius Staten (shoulder) is doubtful for Saturday after not participating in Wednesday’s practice. Kickoff returner/slotback Marcus Thomas (concussion) is probable. Safety Chris Ferguson, who missed the past three games with a dislocated elbow, is expected to play.
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