Navy plebe Pritchard shows he can handle ball, pressure

October 17, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

ANNAPOLIS -- Wide receiver Tom Pritchard didn't discover he was a plebe of such distinction until a few hours before his first Navy football game.

During the players' customary morning walk near the team's hotel before the game against Ball State Sept. 7, receivers coach Sam Shaffer nonchalantly asked a question: Did Pritchard know he would be the first true freshman to start a Navy season opener since World War II?

He did not, and was surprised. Coach George Chaump had no reservations about starting Pritchard, and snorted at the XTC suggestion that plebes have enough adjustments to make at the academy without taking on the added pressure of being a focus of attention in a football game.

"No reservations," Chaump said. "He was the best we had at the position."

Chaump's opinion remains unchanged. Navy may be 0-5 going into Saturday's game at Temple, but Pritchard leads the Middies in catches (19) and receiving yards (337) and has the team's only touchdown catch.

"Pressure is what Navy is all about," Chaump said. "Down the line, our kids will handle more pressure than they'll get in a football game. They will be in positions where there will be adversity and they'll have to keep their cool. If we can contribute to the development of leadership in these young men through football, fine."

Some past Navy coaches have shielded plebes from the pressure. But at times during last week's loss to Air Force, Chaump had four freshmen on the field at once -- surprise quarterback starter Jim Kubiak, wide receivers Mike Jefferson and Pritchard and tight end Kevin Hickman.

"As a receiver, Tom is the whole package," Kubiak said. "He makes good cuts, gets in and out of his cuts fast, has great hands and good speed and form."

Pritchard is 19, with a year at the Naval Academy Prep School under his belt since leaving Hilton Head (S.C.) High. He caught the game-winning TD pass for NAPS against Army's prepsters last year.

"I'm not saying he's cocky," Kubiak said, "but he is sure of himself. He's got the right attitude."

Recruited also by Army, Duke and Virginia, Pritchard used unassailable logic in choosing Navy.

He got good vibes about the school from his brother Scott, now a Navy senior who was recruited for baseball. And during his campus visit, Chaump spoke the words that warm any receiver's heart: I believe in the forward pass.

Pritchard caught four passes in the first two games, but has 15 receptions in the last three. No one on the team is close to his 17.7 yards per catch.

"Before the opener, I was nervous, playing before all those people," Pritchard said. "But after the first play, it was just another game."

"Coach Shaffer helps. He gives compliments and emphasizes the positive. He doesn't make a big thing out of my being a freshman and treats me like just another player."

*

Chaump says he may not decide on his starting quarterback until 7 a.m. Saturday. The choice is between sophomore Jason Van Matre, who started the first four games, and Kubiak, the plebe from Buffalo. Van Matre's strength is running, while Kubiak's is passing.

Kubiak was promoted to the varsity after playing well in the first two plebe/JV games and was Chaump's surprise starter last week against Air Force. Kubiak, the first plebe to start at quarterback since Alton Grizzard in 1987 (also against Air Force), completed 10 of 15, with three interceptions.

"We're not giving up on Van Matre," Chaump said. "He's a quality player and person. Kubiak has the arm, but we can't expect a freshman to learn to handle the blitz and pick out secondary receivers in two or three weeks. We're going to try to use two quarterbacks."

*

Saturday's game will match two hungry teams. Temple is 1-5, having beaten only Howard while losing to muscular Alabama, Pitt, Clemson, Penn State and West Virginia.

In 10 years as a head coach, Chaump has never had such a wretched start as this current 0-5. How is it affecting him?

"I'm thankful I was born stubborn, determined and competitive. A loss has always motivated me more than a win."

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