- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

They come from the far corners of the country, none growing up within 1,100 miles of another. They come from huge schools in big cities like San Diego and Houston and tiny schools in Indiana and Florida towns.

Each of the four members of Navy’s starting secondary has taken a unique path, but the unit has fit together perfectly. Two years ago, Navy’s pass defense was among the nation’s worst. This fall the Midshipmen rank 10th, yielding slightly more than 164 yards a game.

“We just kind of blended together,” senior safety Josh Smith said. “It’s what a group of DBs has to do. You have to be able to work together, and we understand each other. Nobody’s personality clashes, and we all get along. Everybody is always on the same page.”

Last Saturday, Delaware quarterback Sonny Riccio threw 50 times against the Navy (7-1) secondary, but averaged only slightly more than five yards an attempt in Navy’s 34-20 victory. The group will face its toughest test of the season tonight against pass-happy Tulane (2-5) at the Louisiana Superdome.

The Green Wave, led by quarterback Lester Ricard and dynamic wide receiver Roydell Williams, average more than 32 passes a game. Delaware threw almost exclusively short passes, but Ricard will go downfield more often.

One of the biggest factors in the secondary’s success is defensive coordinator Buddy Green’s basic philosophy: don’t get beat deep. Navy plays a lot of zone coverage and will leave underneath receivers open at times.

“Our philosophy is make them snap the ball again,” sophomore cornerback Hunter Reddick said. “Nothing over our heads. We’ve been doing a good job against the deep ball. … Keep them on the field and have them make the mistake instead of us.”

Green, who doubles as secondary coach, preaches technique, technique and more technique instead of relying on athleticism. A big part of why these four defensive backs have bought into Green’s teaching is that it’s all they know. Three-fourths of this secondary didn’t play safety or cornerback in high school. But Green has molded them into a cohesive, technically sound unit.

“We want them to do it our way, and these guys work hard at doing it that way,” Green said. “We think our way gives them a chance to be successful, and they believe in it.”

The leader of the group is Smith. At Attica (Ind.) High School, he became a legend — on offense. He led the tiny school to the Class A state championship game and scored 63 touchdowns his senior year. Despite being named the state’s player of the year, the best Division I-A offer he received was a preferred walk-on spot at Purdue.

Smith didn’t play his freshman season at Navy on either the varsity team or the JV squad. But he caught the eye of incoming coach Paul Johnson’s staff and has been starting at safety ever since.

“I came from high school where I played every play except on kickoffs,” Smith said. “It was a drastic change for me [here]. I just kept my head up, and the new coaches gave me a clean slate.”

Smith likely won’t become the second player in academy history to lead the team in tackles three times, but that’s only because the front seven is playing much better and fewer running plays are reaching the secondary.

The other safety is sophomore Jeremy McGown, who grew up in Houston. Recruited as a quarterback and then moved to wide receiver, McGown has thrived on defense. The coaching staff asked him about making the move only during fall camp, but his lack of experience hasn’t shown.

Johnson singled him out as a top performer last week against the Blue Hens. One of the team’s best athletes, McGown doubles as a kick returner.

Reddick, from San Diego, mans one corner. The 191-pounder played mostly linebacker and defensive end in high school, but when injury struck, he was forced into duty at offensive tackle.

“We were an option team, so they threw me in there,” Reddick said. “It was [a case of] just pull around and hit somebody. I played about three games before I got hurt. I kind of liked it. I was a little bigger then, but our team wasn’t very big, so I kind of fit in.”

Other I-A schools were recruiting Reddick before he got hurt masquerading as a tackle. His father is a 1978 graduate of the academy, and a couple of former players from Reddick’s high school are academy grads.

The other corner is Vaughn Kelley, a senior from Coconut Creek, Fla., who is in his third year as a starter. Kelley is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He once stood up in front of a class during his freshman year and introduced himself as a football player, proclaiming the team would play in a bowl game before he graduated. With the team then mired in a winless season, his classmates laughed.

Kelley probably is going to be wrong.

He likely will play in two.

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