I suppose this is a fairly subjective point, but I really don't see this year's defense as that "young." After all, there are only two sophomores in starting roles on the current depth chart, while the rest of the defensive starters figure to be upperclassman, including five senior starters. And don't forget that one of those sophomore starters, Nate Frazier, spent two years in prep school and is more or less a man-child, so even he isn't exactly "young." To me a "young" player is an 18 or 19 year old kid who in some cases has yet to physically mature while at the same time hasn't had the time or practice reps to be a consistent and reliable player at the FCS level. Of course there are always exceptions to this rule, but in general a junior or senior knows his job on the field much better than a freshmen. That's exactly why I'm not overtly worried about the new players Navy is breaking in on key spots on the defensive side of the ball. Let's use an example, one that I'm sure is very near and dear to all of our hearts. Navy's 2006 linebacker corps was one of the best in recent memory and maybe even in the entire modern era. This season, Navy must replace three of last year's starters, including four year starter David Mahoney, who if not for his service commitment, may very well be playing special teams in the NFL this coming year. With these losses, it's no surprise pundits have gone from saying this is clearly a strong point to clearly a week point on the team. I'm not going to argue this unit will be better in 2007, but I think fans are going to be surprised by the performance of the unit. Remember, it was not but a few years ago, after the graduation of the class of 2004, that Navy returned only three defensive starters on defense, including only one linebacker (David Mahoney.) The unit clearly figured to be down that year, but Rob Caldwell, Jacob Biles, and Tyler Tidwell all stepped up as first year starters to make the unit the strength of the defense. This year, I believe we have a similar situation. MLB Clint Sofie returns as the lone starter, and a good one at that. It's tough to accurately judge Sovie's 2006 season because A) He suffered some lagging injuries B) He played alongside a great group and C) By his own admission he was just "running around." He's as good as an athlete as Mahoney was, and he has that unexplainable nose for the football which, in my opinion, makes a great linebacker. Joining him in the middle, as we all know, will be Irv Spencer. Spencer was one of the most highly touted players out of high school to commit to Navy under Johnson, but was "stuck" behind a great player in Rob Caldwell for two years on the depth chart. Spencer has all the physical tools to thrive in this 3-4 system, and while he may not have the experience or leadership of Caldwell, it's not like he's just some freshmen stepping in. The same goes for the outside backers, who at this point figure to be seniors Matt Humiston and Matt Wimsatt. Wimsatt saw some time in 2006 while Tidwell was nursing a shoulder injury, while Humiston has looked impressive in spring ball. The point I'm trying to make is that, in respect to the linebacker corps, this is a well coached unit from the recruiting process (identification of talent) to the practice field. This year's group, in my opinion, could easily be the strength of the defense, despite not having ideal "experience."
The same could be said for the defensive secondary, which returns only one "true" starter in Rashawn King, who just happens to be the closest thing to a shutdown cover corner Navy will probably ever have. Yet, aside from the much hyped sophomore Blake Carter, Navy's secondary is a seasoned group with a similar amount of talent as last year's group. Jeff Deliz proved to be a solid tackler last year, and like Irv Spencer, has spent the last two year's behind a great player on the depth chart. Ketric Buffin, while only a junior, actually started a few games in 2005 and was set to be the starting rover last year before injuries sidelines him for much of the year. And how could we forget Greg Thrasher, who started several games at cornerback in 2005 before sitting out 2006 to concentrate on academics. Again, this unit looks "inexperienced" on paper, but aside from Carter, is far from "young."
Another point that's worthy of mention in this conversation is the general increase in talent the team has experienced the last few years. A perusal of the depth chart confirms that, as more and more sophomores are appearing on the three deep and in position to compete for starting jobs. Four or five years ago Navy almost needed starters to be seniors because guys needed time to develop. Now, as the balance of service academy recruiting has shifted into Navy's favor, we're starting to see guys come in a compete at an earlier time. While there is a valid concern over playing too many sophomores (remember Sovie's admission of not understanding the defense) one can't look past the availability of just pure talent.
In a ironic and slightly humorous way, I think Phil Steel said it best in his 207 preview when he wrote something along the lines of "the defense is clearly less experienced but could surprise." (It is ironic and slightly humorous because Phil writes that about every team he's not sure of.) I really think you have to put this defense in perspective, and take a look at the similar transition from the 2004 defense to the 2005 defense. Remember, Navy's defense is never going to be "lights out," and when all is said and done, the offense is still going to be the essential element to winning games. If Navy's 2005 offense (which returned two starters) could make up for the similar inexperience of the defense, I really don't see why this year's offense can't do the same. So to answer the initial question, no, "inexperienced" and "young" are not interchangeable, and Navy's 2007 defense is far from the latter.
(Picture from NavySports.com)