Runner and passer vie again for Navy starting quarterback slot

April 21, 1991|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- One candidate is an elusive runner, able t make the quick decisions out of the option. The other possesses a strong throwing arm that helped him to all-state honors in high school.

Jason Van Matre is the runner, and Brian Ellis is the passer, and together they should give Navy coach George Chaump another difficult decision during the summer and leading to the Sept. 7 opener against Ball State.

Chaump chose Alton Grizzard over Gary McIntosh -- both starters under previous coach Elliot Uzelac -- before the start of last season, but this time his selection will be of a player who has never taken a snap as a collegian.

"We have a couple of good men with contrasting styles," Chaump said. "They both need to improve in the areas they're not strong in."

Of the two, Van Matre has the most game experience, having played in six games as a punt returner and tailback after being called up from the plebe/JV team. He rushed 13 times for 63 yards, and caught three passes for seven yards in earning a varsity letter.

"I was surprised I got to play that much," said Van Matre, a flanker in high school who switched to quarterback while playing at the Naval Academy Prep School. "It was awesome. Just getting in was a good feeling."

Ellis, a junior next season, has yet to play a down at Navy. He was the third-string quarterback -- and worked his way to second string -- during his freshman season. Last year he competed for the starting job, but had difficulty throwing due to what was diagnosed after the season as tendinitis. He rested his arm during the winter, and feels fine now.

"Not playing for so long has been difficult," said Ellis, who was an all-state quarterback at Morrow High School when it won the 1987 Georgia state championship. "When Coach Chaump came I had high expectations. I thought I was capable of playing, but it never worked out. Now I'm hoping to do better."

At one point last season, Grizzard called Ellis the best passer on the team.

"I heard that he said that," Ellis said. "It made me feel good a starter would make a compliment like that."

Both players are good friends off the field, which makes the battle more difficult. Van Matre and Ellis are front-runners among eight players taking snaps during spring practice.

"It's definitely a tough battle -- one of the biggest challenges I've ever had," Van Matre said. "Brian is a great passer. I've worked on my throwing and it's an area hopefully I've improved in."

Overall, spring practice is going a lot smoother than Chaump's first year. The team has a better feel for Chaump's new system than last spring, when the team went through a difficult transition.

"Last year it seems like we were walking on eggshells learning the new system, but now it's a lot more comfortable," said split end B.J. Mason, who came to the academy as a quarterback. "It's smoother. No one's spending a lot of time going over insignificant details."

Speaking about the quarterbacks, Mason called both "super athletes," but doesn't really see it as a battle.

"I'm not so sure it'll be the battle of the quarterbacks as much as it will be the battle of what the offensive line allows us to do," Mason said. "We have the personnel for the option or the passing offense. The offensive line's performance will determine what we run."

Navy will conclude spring practice with the annual Blue-Gold game Saturday.

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