When cornerback Kwazel Bertrand went down with an injury a week before Navy's season opened, the coaches turned to freshman Brendon Clements to step in. Clements has not only taken advantage of the opportunity, but he has also grabbed two interceptions for the Midshipmen, who improved to 5-4 with a 42-28 win against Hawaii Nov. 9.
"I knew that I would have to work," Clements said. "It's one of those things where I had that mindset that I'm going to go in and I'm going to start, but at the same time, I knew the reality of the situation was I might not be starting. If it weren't for Kwazel going down early in the season, then I wouldn't be starting. But my aspirations were to be starting."
Clements did not wait long to make an impact. During Navy's second game, he picked up his first interception to help the Midshipmen go on to a 51-7 romp against Delaware Sept. 14. Clements said the interception was a sign that he had arrived as a Division I football player.
"That felt really great," Clements said. "Growing up as a kid, my whole dream was to play college football -- and to go out there and have that first real accomplishment. I had made tackles and everything and broke up a pass, but having that accomplishment of having the interception -- I'm making progress. It's a nice feeling to know that I was doing things right, and I'm heading in the right direction and the right path. It just felt good that I could help my team in that way, and to help us to get that win."
Clements' next pick was a memorable one. With Navy giving Notre Dame all it could handle Nov. 2 in South Bend, Ind., he came up big again, making a second-quarter interception, which helped Navy go into halftime with a 20-17 lead. Although Navy came up on the short end of a hard-fought, 38-34 loss, Clements said he had been excited to be able to contribute during such a big game, on such a big stage.
"I definitely knew what stage we were on," Clements said. "It's one of those things where you got the older guys on the team before the game saying: 'This is it. This is it. This is the big stage, and this is the time to shine.'
"When I made the play, I wasn't really thinking about that. I was more into the game. But I definitely knew what kind of stage it was, and it felt really good. Once again, I was just trying to get the W. We didn't win that game, but I was trying to do my part for the team."
Clements, who competed in basketball and track as well as football at Coral Reef Senior High School in Florida, said he had used his basketball skills to help with the interception.
"We were in cover two," Clements said, "and we knew they were trying to go deep. When he went up and out, I played the out softly, expecting that he was turning up. He turned it into a wheel, and I just stacked my hips on top of his to prevent him from getting to the ball, and it made it easier for me to get there. It was kind of like a basketball move. I made sure I had position on him."
You would think that having two big interceptions so far during his freshman season would top the list of Clements' sports accomplishments, but he pointed to another highlight.
Illustrating the importance of the Army-Navy rivalry, Clements talked about a game last year when he played for the Navy prep team, which was locked in a battle with the Army prep team.
"The last play of the game -- with three seconds left -- I get a kick return and returned it halfway until I got swamped and I pitched it back to my teammate," Clements said, "and he ran it in for a touchdown with no time on the clock. It's up there. That's probably tied for first."
Clements' year on the prep team helped him make the adjustment from high school star to freshman starter for Navy, but he said there was still plenty to learn.
"I think the biggest adjustment would have to be that one mistake or one small detail of the game -- one step in the wrong direction, one time looking at the wrong thing -- it could be a touchdown," Clements said. "I learned that my first game, against Indiana. I let up a touchdown on the post, and it was because I didn't have my eyes in the right spot. I was covering the guy, and I was close, but he beat me.
"In high school, you might not be doing exactly what you're supposed to do, but if you're there, you can kind of make something happen. But here, you have to do exactly what you're supposed to do, and then you have a chance to make something happen."
Clements credited his coaches when talking about his success, and also said he had learned from another defensive back who had started as a freshman, Navy junior Parrish Gaines.
"Parrish Gaines has helped me a lot with the playing style and the things on the field that the coaches can't necessarily help you with," Clements said. "The coaches give you the big scheme, but as far as the little things I should do here and there, Parrish Gaines has been a big help for me in that aspect."
The hype around Clements' play so far this season, coupled with Navy's success, could go to the head of some young players, but Clements said he felt like the same kid who had been focused on football for most of his life.
"I don't feel like Brendon Clements, freshman cornerback at Navy," Clements said. "Honestly, I just feel like Brendon Clements. My roommate is one of my biggest supporters. He watches me all the time, and he always asked me at the end of the night how it feels to be on TV and to play football.
"I tell him the same thing. I don't feel like something great. I've been playing football my whole life, and I feel like I'm enjoying everything I've been enjoying my whole life. So it's normal in a sense. I don't feel like I'm anybody special."
But having a special career at Navy has entered Clements' mind -- he said he had already begun to think about how he might leave his mark as a four-year starter on the Midshipmen's program.
"I'm playing as a freshman," Clements said, "and if I continue to do what I'm supposed to do on and off the field, then I think I have an opportunity to become a name in the program, like a Ricky Dobbs. That would be nice. I think if I continue to work hard and continue to progress as a player -- and as a person and as a leader on the team -- I think that's a definite possibility."