Photo: Jacob Springer
#AFAN (Air Force/Army/Navy) stories: My series is about more than academy football players. These stories are about future officers selflessly committed to serving their country during a seemingly endless war on terrorism. There are only 0.5 percent Americans making up the military. Throughout our history Cadets and Midshipmen have answered the call to serve in times of war, but this is a generation of volunteers.
--- “I get to work daily with heroes that joined the military AFTER we were attacked on 9/11, AFTER the war started in Afghanistan and AFTER the war started in Iraq. I would like to think I’m that brave, but I’m not so sure."
-- Phil McConkey, 1979 Navy grad and New York Giants Super Bowl champion
By TOM SHANAHAN
Jacob Springer, like his Navy teammates, looked forward to putting a 3-10 record in the rear view mirror. Playing as a sophomore safety behind two seniors, he also welcomed 2019 as an opportunity to take on more responsibility as a starter.
Losing is no fun, but after an injury-plagued 2017 season, he played in 12 games and started four. He finished 2018 with 36 tackles, eighth on the team. One of his two interceptions was off Notre Dame’s Ian Book, who was picked off only seven times for the year. Springer’s 24-yard return set up a Navy touchdown two plays later.
Those are good benchmarks for a starter, let alone a backup. But there was a detour ahead.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s choice of Brian Newberry to succeed retired defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson meant changes were afoot. Although Newberry brought a 3-4-4 formation with him from Kennesaw State that is similar to Pehrson’s alignment, Newberry uses his safeties and linebackers in different roles.
So, Newberry envisioned Springer as a good fit at outside linebacker – striker in his vernacular. In the off-season, he told the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder from Park Hill South in Riverside, Mo., near Kansas City of the pending move from safety to outside linebacker.
“I was hesitant at first,” Springer said this week. “Initially, I thought I’d be coming into the season leading the defensive backfield with the graduation of Sean (Williams) and Juan (Hailey). I like safety a lot. That’s my natural position.
“My preconception had been, ‘Oh, it’s a linebacker position; they don’t do a lot of coverage.' That’s something I enjoy. I pride myself on being a defensive back. That’s the hardest position to play at any given time.”
Fast forward to mid-October: Stringer is thriving as Navy (4-1, 2-1 AAC West) returns home to face South Florida (3-3, 1-1 AAC East) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.
He is third among the Midshipmen in tackles with 22. He leads the team with two sacks along with two quarterback hurries. He also has two pass breakups. In other words, he’s been all over the field -- coverage, blitzes and stopping the run.
“Once we got into spring ball, I saw there were a lot of plays to be made,” he said. “That’s what he had been telling me. He runs a lot of stuff through the striker. He likes the striker to be versatile. It’s a lot of fun and gives me options to make plays and do different things throughout the game.”
But it’s been more than his position change that has accounted for his strong start.
“I’ve always felt Jake was one of our best players,” Niumatalolo said. “We wanted to get him in a position to make plays. Jake has done a lot of good things and has continued to learn the defense. He’s a good kid. If he continues to stay humble and work hard, the sky is the limit. He’s got the potential to be a great player for us.”
Navy’s fourth win over Tulsa (45-17) last week has the Midshipmen already topping last year’s victory total with seven games remaining. The Tulsa game also followed a 34-25 victory over Air Force, the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy round-robin series. The Midshipmen are now playing to reclaim the CiC in the Army-Navy Game on Dec. 14 at Philadelphia.
Navy, picked fifth in the six-team AAC West division preseason poll, is in a three-year drought. Air Force claimed the CiC in 2016 and Army the past two seasons.
“I’m sure we surprised people, but this is what we expected,” he said. “It feels good to have everything falling into place. Coach Newberry has done a good job; this defense is fun to play in. The offense and special teams also have done their jobs. There is a good mood in the (football) building.”
Another key to Newberry’s defense, Springer said, is the lack of a a focal point. There has been a different leading tackler in all five games: Holy Cross, sophomore mike linebacker Diego Fagot, nine; East Carolina, senior bandit safety Elan Nash, nine; Memphis, freshman will linebacker Tama Tuitele, five; Air Force, senior linebacker Paul Carothers sharing the lead with Fagot, 12; and Tulsa, sophomore cornerback Michael Morris, eight.
“We’re coming from all different places and angles,” he said. “It’s not like we’re switching up a couple of guys where they’re coming from and changing their look. We’re changing everyone and every place. I feel like the load of the defense is shared this year. Everyone is making plays. That’s something we haven’t seen. Anyone can have themselves a game in this defense. I like that.”
A fresh look for 2019 has sprung for Springer into new position but still a starting role with the responsibility he coveted.
* * *
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”