Nash adapts to new position, demanding life at Navy

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By Mike McGann, Editor, the Times

Unionville grad Elan Nash in action last week against the University of Central Florida. Kevin Nash photo.

If you’ve been following the collegiate career of Unionville grad Elan Nash, you might have had a double-take when you saw his position at the Naval Academy listed recently as linebacker.

But it’s true — the former Ches Mont American Division Defensive Player of the year at defensive back — really is a linebacker. And while it may take a moment of adjustment for friends, family and former Unionville teammates, who’ll get to see Nash play in person when Navy visits Temple at Lincoln Financial Field on Nov. 2, it’s good news for the sophomore, even if it requires a bit of explaining back home.

“When I tell them, it definitely sounds like a bit of a surprise,” Nash said, “since I pretty much only played corner in high school. But once I explain what the position actually is, it makes a lot more sense. On paper, it’s linebacker, but it’s really that hybrid position that a lot of defenses are adopting now, which is a mix of the safety/linebacker. We’re down in the box sometimes, but most of the time, we’re covering slots (receivers) and playing a lot of man-to-man coverage, which I like a lot.”

According to Napoleon Sykes, who coaches outside linebackers for the Midshipmen, Nash is a prototype for a new type of outside linebacker, what Navy calls a “striker.” At 5-11, 196 — and still blessed with the type of speed that made him a high school standout on both sides of the ball in football as well as in track and field — Nash is playing a position that is more a hybrid of safety and linebacker.

Nash, coaches say, has a strong chance to be a starter at Navy in 2018.

With today’s spread offenses, the old-school 6-3, 240-pound outside linebacker can’t cover speedy receivers and the new breed of quicker tight ends, Skyes explains.

Navy’s coaching staff opted to change up its defensive philosophy this past offseason to adapt. Nash, a player who coaches say made great strides in improving himself since arriving on the Annapolis campus, was an obvious choice to make the position change.

“He’s a kid I call ‘Steady Eddie’ because he has gotten better every step of the way,” Sykes said. “If you were to ask me about Nash last spring, when he first got here, or even last season when he was a freshman here, you would probably not think he would be in the mix.

“But, he works really hard, his body has changed a lot, he’s become a much bigger kid. Physically, he’s changed, he’s an extremely smart kid, so he understands football, but he’s worked really hard to be able to get to the point he’s reached right now. He’s a perfect fit for what we want that position to do.”

The striker has to be able to play as a slot defender, be able to match up with inside receivers, yet still have the strength to play up in the so-called “box” (the area typically just a few yards from the line of scrimmage key to run defense) and defend the run. Nash has that mix of talent, Sykes said.

“He’s a guy who can be physical in the box, he can be out on no. 2 (the slot receiver) and play some man-to-man coverage, you can blitz him and he can hold up against an offensive lineman,” Sykes said. “It’s been a great transition for him.”

The good news for Nash: because of his hard work and ability to adapt to the new position, he’s currently earning playing time on special teams — Sykes said he’s “excelled” there in the last couple of weeks — and may see time on defense in the coming weeks, too, as he’s shown steady improvement, week to week, as this season has unfolded.

“I’m really excited about Nash, for the remainder of the season, trying to get him involved (on defense) a little bit more,” Sykes said.

And because of the need and Nash’s adaptation to the position, he looks to be solidly in the mix to start as a junior in 2018.

“I tell Nash this all the time,” Sykes said, “you look up here in a couple of months — obviously we have a couple of more games, big games at that, ahead of us here this season — but if you wake up here in a couple of months, and we’re into spring ball, he’s the guy. Right now, he’s a projected starter in the spring. If he does all of the stuff that he’s supposed to do and continues on the path that he on right now, I don’t see it changing.”

The transition from star high school player to junior varsity at Navy, and now as a special teams contributor on varsity has been enormous, Nash said.

“It’s huge — there’s really no other way to describe it,” Nash said. “Especially now with my first time getting into an actual varsity game. It’s amazing to be out there, and just look around at the crowd and see so many people. And the speed of the game is definitely different — so is everyone’s speed, strength and toughness. I’ve been playing on special teams in almost every game this year, so after a few reps, you get hit a few times and it actually starts to feel normal again, which is actually at the point I’m at right now.

“Being on the field in front of all of those people is starting to feel comfortable — just like high school, like being at Unionville. The game is the game no matter who you’re playing in front of, so when you’re on the field after that initial shock, it really feels good.”

For Nash, both the game itself, and the demanding life of being a Midshipman was entirely different adjustment, but one he appears to be thriving at.

“It’s very difficult. I balance it with a lack of sleep,” the Ocean Engineering major said, only half jokingly.

“There’s a lot going on, but you learn to use your time wisely, which is something I’m still working on figuring out perfectly. This year, I started getting into classes for my major, so school got harder. Being with the varsity football team, that got way harder, there are more meetings, more lifts (weightlifting). So, it’s really been a crunch this year, but I’m just trying to grind through it.”

Nash said he is excited to be able to come back and play a game in the Delaware Valley — where many of his friends and teammates will be able to see him play in person.

“It’s awesome,” Nash said. “It’s going to be great to have — my family has been able to travel to a lot of games — but I’ll have even more family at this game, and a bunch of my friends are going to be able to come, especially all the guys who go to school in Philly. It’s also cool, because the first time I ever saw Navy play was my junior year (in high school) when I was at a Temple recruiting visit. So, the first time I ever saw Navy play, was at the Temple game, so it will be really cool to be back home, especially, for me, in front of a home crowd, with so many of my friends going to school in Philly.”

Although busy with very demanding studies and football, Nash said he still manages to keep track of his old teammates — noting with pride the seniors on the current team who were sophomores when he last played for the Indians and that he will be rooting hard for them this coming weekend as Unionville faces Great Valley for a winner-take-all contest to decide the Ches Mont American Division title.

Nash, as a senior, won the first of two straight league titles and said he hopes his former teammates can make it three straight.

“They’re really having an amazing season,” Nash said. “I keep up with all of their stuff on Hudl and make sure to keep up on all the games. I’ve just been amazed at the senior class — when we were seniors, they were sophomores, and I really love all of those guys and really liked taking them under my wing. It’s awesome to see them in their senior year doing so amazing.”

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