Chaump, Navy set to spring ahead

April 03, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

The start of spring football practice gets players and coaches looking ahead -- and that's fine with Navy coach George Chaump. The 1994 season can't come soon enough for him.

"This is the best overall talent and freshman class I believe I've had here," said Chaump, starting his sixth season at the Naval Academy. "We're especially deep at the skill positions -- quarterback, receivers and running backs."

But for Chaump, the three weeks of football drills starting tomorrow and ending with the annual Blue-Gold game April 23, is also a way of purging the memory of the 1993 season that began so full of promise and ended in a devastating 16-14 loss to Army, when plebe place-kicker Ryan Bucchianeri's 18-yard kick, with six seconds left, sailed wide to the right.

"This was a long, hard winter," said Chaump, who watched his Midshipmen lose their last five games, including blowouts by Vanderbilt, 41-7, and Southern Methodist, 42-13, after having started the season 4-2.

"I thought we played competitively in nine of our 11 games. But we lost two of our defensive linemen, Stacey Yopp and Tom Neville, before playing Notre Dame [Oct. 30], and our other two starters, Chris Reachard and David Shaw, by the end of the game.

"That was the big reason we had so much trouble stopping the run at the end of the season. But I'm still confused about why we had so many turnovers against Vanderbilt and SMU."

The season-ending swoon was just a part of the trauma overshadowing the football team.

A yearlong investigation into a cheating scandal on a junior engineering exam, which involved a number of football players, and the December murder of former Navy quarterback Alton Grizzard by an academy graduate the week of the Army-Navy game cast a mood of melancholy over the campus.

"The [cheating] investigation was always there as a distraction," said Chaump. "But that was something entirely out of my hands. I had no control of that situation."

Of the estimated 17 players implicated, most were exonerated or received punishment short of expulsion. One player recommended for expulsion was co-captain Javier Zuluaga, a linebacker who led the team in tackles last season. He resigned from the academy last week.

"It hurt real bad knowing some of your players were involved," Chaump said. "Keeping busy with football was the best way to handle it."

Grizzard's death was deeply felt by Chaump. "He was a special person, not just an exceptional athlete," the coach said. "It affected everyone emotionally and personally. In a few short years, we had grown very close."

Chaump said he believes all the hardships of last season led to a stronger bond and commitment from the returning players.

"The Grizzard tragedy has a way of bringing people together," he said. "But the players were also bitter and upset over the way the Army game ended. I could see it in their off-season work in the weight room, but also in the classrooms.

"You can sense a real commitment to turning things around."

Chaump said he enjoyed his best recruiting results in six years, and shared the credit with new high-profile assistant coach Doug Williams, the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXII, when he led the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos.

"Doug gives us instant credibility," he said. "Obviously, he has a superior football mind after playing quarterback in the pros for 12 years. But more important is the way he handles people and relates to the players."

Williams will work with the running backs, a major problem last season with the Mids. They averaged only 89 yards rushing per game.

"We lost an exceptional all-purpose back in Jason Van Matre, and I don't think we can replace him," said Chaump. "But I believe we'll have more speed this year."

Little-used junior Monty Williams and promising plebes Willie Smith and Omar Nelson should change the Mids' plodding style of last year.

But the strength of the Mids remains their passing game, led by senior Jim Kubiak. He set 11 passing records last season when he completed 248 passes for 2,628 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also threw 17 interceptions.

"Kubiak went through a lot of growing pains last season," said Chaump. "He'd missed a whole year because of a shoulder injury and that hurt him in a lot of areas. But I see him doing a much better job with reads and cutting down on his mistakes."

Kubiak is also well-acquainted with his receivers, seniors Damon Dixon, who had 51 receptions, and Mike Jefferson (26), and reliable senior tight end Kevin Hickman, who caught 39 passes last year.

The major questions are the offensive and defensive lines. Graduation wiped out all five starters on the offensive line, most notably tackle Max Lane. Junior end Andy Person is the only returning starter from the defensive line.

"Building solid lines will be our biggest challenge," said Chaump who hired Richard Bell, a five-year assistant at Georgia, to retool the defensive line. Bell replaced Dennis Murphy, who is now an assistant with the San Diego Chargers.

Chaump (11-33) has experienced five straight losing seasons but received a vote of confidence last December with a contract extension.

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