From Special Teams to the A-Team Defense
Senior Mason Graham looks to go from special teams standout to starting linebacker.
Aug. 18, 2011
By Bob Socci/A View From The Booth
Ken Niumatalolo has seen it before. How often is hard to say. It invariably happens every fall. Some years more than once.
A senior who spent his first three seasons as an understudy, refusing to give in to circumstance or give up on himself, will finally ascend the depth chart, saving his best for last.
"That definitely has been a trademark of our team," says Niumatalolo, now in his 14th year overall at the Naval Academy and his fourth as its head football coach. "Another coach here, a while back, said the guys who get on the field for Navy are the guys who persevere."
Two years ago he watched as Craig Schaefer, who previously toiled mostly in the near anonymity of special teams, made a name for himself at outside linebacker. Last fall was Jerry Hauburger's time for transformation, ironically enough as Schaefer's successor.
No one on the 2009 Midshipmen had more tackles for loss (8.5) than Schaefer. His team-high six sacks included the game-deciding safety in a 23-21 win at Notre Dame. From beginning to end of 2010, Hauburger was Navy's most improved defender. In addition to 5.5 tackles for loss, he forced three fumbles.
Their career arcs were nearly identical. Each slowly rose from junior varsity as a plebe to part-time duty the next two years -- mainly specializing in covering kickoffs -- to a full-time impact in his final go-around.
Now it's Mason Graham's turn. That same path, from obscurity to the outside linebacker also known as the Mids' Raider, is about to be completed again. It's something Niumatalolo never tires of seeing.
"Schaefer and Hauburger were primarily special teams guys," Niumatalolo said. "Schaefer came in and had a great year, and then Hauburger did basically the same thing, came in and had a great year. Mason has been one of our best special teams players, and I'm hoping it holds true for him."
"That's kind of been the mold at outside linebacker for a long time, especially at the Raider side," says the senior Graham; he of 18 varsity appearances as a collegian. "When I was a young gun, I remember watching (Schaefer and Hauburger) on film, always looking at their hands on pass rush and the effort that they gave.
"Whenever I got out there (in practice), whether it was with the B's or C's when I was younger, I would always try to model (myself) after their effort and performance. Hopefully, it will serve me well this year."
Graham has become an A-teamer by separating himself in a wide-open competition, stretching from April's spring practice to August's preseason camp.
"I looked at it like, I'm going to do everything I can," Graham said of his offseason attitude. "I'm going to watch film of guys in the past, whether it's Craig or Jerry, and I'm going to do all I can in the weight room during the spring and summer. I'm going to go a hundred miles an hour on the field, and I'm going to let the chips fall where they will. I can't worry about the rest, I just have to play the best I can."
At Raider, Schaefer and Hauburger essentially enabled the Mids to vary their defensive front. Both set up at times in a three-point stance, but also were positioned upright on the line of scrimmage. On pass plays, they were flexible enough to rush the quarterback or drop back in coverage.
"Raider's a position where you have to be versatile," says Graham, a high school teammate of defensive captain Jubaree Tuani at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy. "You've got to be able to run, but at the same time you've got to be able to hold your own against a 300-pound offensive lineman."
That's exactly the rational Graham used to craft his offseason regimen.
"I was trying to gain a little bit of weight, but not too much because I wanted to keep my speed," he says, after adding roughly 10 pounds to what was a 6-foot, 205-pound frame. "I've gotten stronger than I was in the spring. I've (also) got to work on my footwork, and being physical at the point of attack."
Though Graham's special teams experience fostered the mindset of a linebacker, he must now physically adjust to the difference between appearing occasionally and playing down after down after down.
"Especially kickoffs, it's the same mentality as linebacker," Graham explains, metaphorically. "You've got to get hyped up and go out there with an attitude that you're going to take somebody's head off every time you step on the field. At linebacker, the only difference is that you've got to do it play after play after play.
"I'm trying to work on my stamina and stay tough, so I can take a beating at linebacker and come back to the line of scrimmage and have that same mentality that I had on special teams last year, play after play."
Of course, it's been done before. And Graham, like Niumatalolo, has seen it with his own two eyes.
"This has been a recipe that has been (working) at inside and outside backer for a long time," says Graham, a couple of weeks away from Navy's Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware. "Craig Schaefer had a great senior year, and he didn't play very much until his senior year, except special teams. Jerry Hauburger, same thing. So, we're pretty confident. I guess we'll find out here pretty soon."
(Editor's Note: Coming up in the next post of A View From The Booth, a look at several other Midshipmen who've persevered to the point of breaking through as upperclassmen in 2011.)
MORE NEW RULES
Of all the individuals associated with the NCAA, it's hard to determine who had a busier summer: investigators probing into allegations of off-field improprieties or panel members empowered to amend on-field playing rules.
The gumshoes hit the ground in Atlanta, Auburn, Columbus and Eugene, before heading for Coral Gables. Meanwhile, rules makers did more rewrites than a room full of lawyers and politicians editing each other's perception of reality.
As addressed in this space the last two weeks, what is officially known as the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel stiffened the penalty for taunting and redefined when blocking below the waist is permissible. Included among other measures regarding the definition and/or enforcement of infractions:
- The defensive team will be penalized five yards if three or more players try to overwhelm a single blocker on field goals and extra points. Essentially, it prevents `ganging up' to knock kicks down.
- When an offense is flagged during the final minute of a half, it can lose yardage and an additional 10 seconds off the game clock. However, the opponent has the option of moving the offense back but declining the time runoff. If, for example, the trailing team is on defense, it could elect to preserve those precious seconds.
- Quarterbacks are afforded more leeway to avoid intentional grounding. In the past, a receiver needed to have a "reasonable opportunity" to catch a pass that fell incomplete to avoid penalty. Now, a receiver must simply be "in the area" of a throw that lands untouched.
Another new rule enables coaches to make more informed choices on whether or not to seek replay reviews of on-field calls. Press box coaches booths can now be equipped with television monitors airing the live game broadcast. Additional editing or recording devices are not allowed.
Access to the same replays seen by viewers at home should make a big difference, particularly for road teams. Whereas stadium video boards have long replayed controversial calls against home teams, visitors were previously at a disadvantage.
For them, there was no further review before asking the officials for one. But this season, they'll enjoy equal-opportunity viewing. At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where every game is televised, TV's will be installed in both coaches booths.
That doesn't necessarily make the choice to challenge easy. For starters, the head coach on the sideline has to first decide which assistants in the booth will advise him. Will he, like some in the NFL, assign one person to be his eyes in the sky? Or seek consensus from everyone in the booth?
"We might have to find a guy, but I'm not sure right now," Niumatalolo said. "I don't know if we'll truly have the luxury of just having one guy look at it. I know in the NFL, you can hire somebody to look at it. It's definitely something we'll address as a staff."
Either way, there's very little time for deliberation, especially if the Mids are on defense. Almost always, when an offense benefits from a questionable call, it will hurry to run the next play before a review can be requested by either the replay official or opposing coach.
"We have a fast procedure," Niumatalolo says. "We practice it all the time."