WEST POINT, N.Y. — Senior Josh McNary has made a lasting mark at West Point. He desperately wants to leave one on Navy.
"It's immensely important," McNary said. "We haven't won against Navy since we've been here. We're not too happy about it."
The archrivals meet again Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, with Navy (8-3) riding an eight-game winning streak and holding a 54-49-7 edge in the series. And McNary is healthy again after a right hamstring injury limited him to barely a quarter of play in a disheartening 42-22 loss to Air Force last month in his final home game.
"That was my low point. That was my last opportunity to play against Air Force at Michie Stadium," McNary said. "My parents came up. It was the first home game they attended. I never had the opportunity to showcase what I could do."
Army (6-5) enters the service-academy showdown with Navy ranked 27th in the nation defensively, allowing 332.6 yards per game. McNary is the focal point of all of that. He's had a major impact in coach Rich Ellerson's double-eagle flex defense with his play at rush end, registering 9.5 quarterback sacks and 12 tackles for loss this season. His career totals in those statistics are 27.5 and 48.5, respectively, tops all-time at West Point.
"He's a heck of an athlete, and coach Ellerson knows how to use him," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "He knows how to get him in spots where he's got some advantages as far as pass rushing. Coach Ellerson does a great job as far as breaking down schemes in pass blocking."
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound McNary, who bench presses 350 pounds and runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds, was on the preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lott Trophy and Lombardi Award. That's a pretty impressive resume for somebody who played only one year of varsity football in high school.
"I've kind of transformed from the conventional end," said McNary, who played on the defensive line and also at safety and running back at Clear Lake High School in Houston. "That position really didn't have too much potential for myself based on size. This is a lot more versatile position, a lot more suitable for my body type. It's definitely been a blessing."
The soft-spoken Texan began playing football when he was 4 years old and knew he wanted to play college ball. But getting switched to different positions in high school and his lack of size (205 pounds) rendered him virtually invisible to recruiters, even though he led the team in sacks.
That's when West Point beckoned. McNary's family has a long military tradition — his father is a retired captain who served in the Marines and his grandfathers each saw action during wartime, one in World War II, the other in Korea.
"My dad encouraged me to go and I had personal knowledge of the academy and the football team," McNary said. "That's what influenced me the most."
So he enrolled at the academy's prep school, earned a spot as a walk-on, and registered 11 sacks in his one-year stint. He began his freshman season at West Point as a pass-rushing specialist and registered his first sack in a loss at Wake Forest.
"I was just thrown in late in the game, kind of like coach's experiment, a freshman going into the game, " McNary said. "I pretty much had nothing to lose. I rushed off the end as hard and fast as I could and dragged the quarterback down before he could release. I was really excited about that."
So, too, were his coaches.
"I think that's when we knew we had something," said longtime Army assistant John Mumford, who coaches the defensive ends. "It was a matter of him growing into the game a little bit."
That happened after Ellerson replaced Stan Brock prior to last season.
"When I got here, we were talking about who should play this key position in our defense," said Ellerson, who coached former New England Patriots star Tedy Bruschi at the same position when Bruschi was in college at Arizona. "I was trying to paint a word picture about what this position looks like and what this player looks like. John (Mumford) didn't blink. He said, 'You have to watch this guy.' He pulled out some game tape, and it was obvious that was where Josh belonged."
In 2009, McNary tied for second nationally with 1.88 tackles for loss per game (22.5 overall) and tied for fourth nationally with 1.04 sacks per game (12.5 overall). His tackles behind the line of scrimmage resulted in 132 yards in losses and he established a single-game Army sack record with four against Temple. He also registered a season-high 10 tackles at Iowa State.
"He's built like granite," Mumford said. "But I think the thing that's helped him be successful is he's extremely explosive. That explosive speed and agility has turned him into a fairly good threat as a pass rusher."
Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs will keep an eye peeled for No. 44 on every play, even though the Middies, like the Black Knights, run the ball most of the time in their tricky triple-option attacks.
"Fortunately, we don't throw the ball a thousand times," Niumatalolo said. "If we threw the ball a thousand times, I'd be worried about it. We're an option team, but you've still got to be worried about him."
McNary was limited to reserve status for the Navy game two years ago due to a shoulder injury and made six tackles in last year's 17-3 loss. He's ready for this one.
"I know what I have to do," said McNary, who aspires to give the NFL a shot after his military commitment. "I've been over it time and time again. I have to stay disciplined, not try to overcompensate. This defense against this team definitely requires individual accountability. You can't worry about somebody else's task when you have your own to worry about.
"Every time you leave your own assignment, that opens up a big hole that can be easily exploited."
Navy's been exploiting those vs. Army for awhile now. Maybe McNary and Co. turn the tables this time.