Senior linebacker Josiah Powell personifies the "Navy Football Brotherhood" -- a motto that described the permanent bond among players past and present.
Many of the Midshipmen were devastated when senior co-captain Daniel Gonzales suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his right foot against rival Air Force Oct. 1. Powell, a fellow linebacker, decided to honor his teammate by changing his number from 48 to Gonzales' 58 for the remainder of the season.
And with this show of support came a game-changing performance on the field. In his first game wearing No. 58, Powell intercepted the first two passes of his career against then-No. 6 Houston Oct. 8.
"I chose to switch to No. 58 as a tribute to my brother," Powell said. "It really hurt me and the rest of the team to see him out for the season."
The 6-foot-3, 224-pound Powell has evolved into one of the team's top playmakers. This year, Powell's football acumen prompted coaches to play him more at "striker," a term used for an outside linebacker who is asked to perform several roles.
Powell has the athleticism to thrive in a position that requires versatility. He was a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, and track and field) at Madisonville North Hopkins High School in Kentucky. Both of his parents also ran track at Murray State. For Powell, it was a seamless transition adjusting to his role with Navy.
"We just have to do a little bit of everything," Powell said about playing striker. "You have to understand how to hold your edge on the line, so we do a lot of D-line stuff. Sometimes, you will be crossing gaps like the inside linebackers, and sometimes you drop into coverage like the [defensive backs]. So, it's a little bit of everything."
Powell's willingness to help the team is not surprising to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who frequently preaches about the importance of the "Brotherhood." Niumatalolo is often overcome with emotion when talking about his players and their selflessness toward one another.
"It's just who our team is," Niumatalolo said. "The players on this team love each other. If someone goes down, I can see our whole team deflate. It's like losing a family member."
Navy is having another solid season. In addition to the victory against Houston, the Midshipmen snapped a five-year losing streak against Notre Dame with a 28-27 victory in Jacksonville, Fla., Nov. 6. Powell had three tackles during that game and helped contain Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer.
The Navy has a prominent presence in the Jacksonville area, and the win set off a jubilant celebration at EverBank Field, which is also home to the NFL's Jaguars.
"We are just trying to do our job as we've always been doing," said Powell, who is a general science major. "The only thing I will say is different is we have been focusing a lot more on helping each other out rather than individual performance. I'm doing my job, so it makes everyone else's job easier."
Linebacker is one of the most competitive positions for Navy this year. Powell has been pushed in practice by backup Brandon Jones and said the competition for playing time only makes the Navy players better. He embraces the challenge and works hard every snap, despite the bumps and bruises that come with the season.
"I feel like you need that in every position," Powell said about the competition. "That way you don't have anyone getting lazy and saying they don't have to work hard. With people who are up there at your level, you can compete and have the best possible production."
Powell played himself into the starting lineup last season. He saw action in all 13 games and started six of the final nine matchups. He finished with 29 tackles, including four for a loss, and a sack. Powell also got better dropping into coverage, broke up three passes and recorded two quarterback hurries.
During last year's 21-17 victory against archrival Army, Powell had a pair of tackles, including one for a loss. He said the experience he gained in 2015 has carried over to this season and helped make him a more confident player.
"It was definitely a big help getting all of that experience that I got with playing last year," Powell said. "This year, going against teams like Houston, I would not have been able to perform if I had not already had those reps from last year."
Powell's biggest game this season came against favored Houston and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Oct. 8. Powell's first interception set up a field goal that tied the game at 20. He then got his second pick-off in the third quarter and ran 34 yards for a touchdown that gave Navy a 34-20 lead.
The Midshipmen went on to win, 46-40, and the Navy students stormed the field in celebration. The victory also propelled Navy into the top 25.
"On both of the picks, I was dropping into coverage," Powell said. "I didn't really rush the whole game. So, it was mostly just coverage for me."
Following the Houston game, Powell was named the Football Writers Association of America Defensive Player of the Week as well as the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week and the Naval Academy Athletic Association Athlete of the Week.
"I was just trying to do what I was coached to do," Powell said.
The following week, during a 42-28 victory against Memphis Oct. 22, Powell continued to make game-impacting plays, leading the team with a career-high nine tackles.
Powell didn't slow down and registered five tackles and forced a fumble during a disappointing, 52-45, loss to South Florida Oct. 28 that knocked Navy from the top-25 rankings. Nonetheless, the Midshipmen still have several goals in front of them.
At the forefront is beating Army West Point at M&T Bank Stadium Dec. 10. Powell will continue to play a significant role in that late-season surge.
"He's understanding everything so much better now, and that is showing out on the field," Navy outside linebackers coach Justin Davis said. "Josiah is kind of coming into his own this season. He's showing great instincts and making a lot of plays as a result."
Issue 227: November 2016