Fullback trio fills out Navy backfield Cannada, Dingle, Harden do well sharing position

September 19, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy has developed a new offensive weapon: a three-headed fullback.

Senior Tim Cannada and juniors Irv Dingle and Matt Harden demonstrated how productive they can be sharing the position the first two games this season. They have combined for 289 yards, joining quarterback Chris McCoy in lifting the Midshipmen to the seventh-best rushing average (293.5) in the nation.

In Saturday's 36-7 rout of Rutgers, Dingle capitalized on his first significant playing time to gain a career-high 113 yards on 15 carries. Cannada was almost as effective with 87 yards on 14 carries.

Durable Omar Nelson did the bulk of the ball-carrying at fullback last year, rushing for 857 yards and nine touchdowns. But Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie says this season's threesome is more of a necessity.

"The way our spread offense operates," said Weatherbie, preparing Navy (1-1) for a road test against Southern Methodist on Saturday night, "a fullback has to be the hammer, not the nail. He has to be able to handle a lot of pain."

Cannada, a native of Pennsylvania, and Dingle and Harden, both northern Californians, offer different assets at the position.

"Cannada is a deceptive runner," McCoy said. "He's lighter than the other two guys, but he has busy feet and runs hard.

"We call Dingle 'Swerving Irving,' " McCoy said with a laugh. "He has a lot of moves and shiftiness. Harden? He's like a battering ram. He loves contact and looks to run over people."

Cannada is the most experienced. A part-time starter, he rushed for 409 yards his sophomore year. As Nelson's backup last season, he gained 379 yards, averaging 4.9 yards a carry.

But Weatherbie is the first to admit that Cannada, 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, has exceeded his expectations.

"Tim looks more like a choir boy than a Division I football player," the coach said. "But he consistently finds ways to make the play. It just shows you that looks can be deceiving."

It is a familiar theme to Cannada.

"Everyone says I'm not the stereotype running back, but that never bothered me," he said. "My friends say I look more like a laid-back fraternity brother. It's made me push myself and prove to everyone I can compete at this level."

After his family moved to Alabama, Cannada won letters for football, baseball and wrestling at Trussville High.

"My first two years, I played wide receiver and safety before I was shifted to fullback," he said. "Auburn and Navy both recruited me as a wide receiver."

Cannada was switched back to fullback at Navy Prep School, but did not see varsity action his freshman year when George Chaump was coaching.

"Chaump said we couldn't play unless we bench-pressed 350 pounds, and I didn't do that until late spring my first year.

"I saw all these big fullbacks on the roster and didn't think I'd ever get to play. But with Weatherbie and the new offense, I finally got my chance and just kept plugging away."

Dingle, 5-11 and 213 pounds, is another late bloomer in football. At Fairfield (Calif.) High, he was best known as a power-hitting outfielder. His .500 batting average as a senior produced a $30,000 bonus offer from Los Angeles Dodgers scout Dick Hanlon.

"My father was a career Navy man, and my mother didn't see me having a professional career in baseball," Dingle said. "They always preached education first. I always wanted to be an aviator, and the Naval Academy appealed to me."

Dingle, an all-league football pick in high school, was restricted to working with special teams his first two years at Navy. He was listed No. 2 behind Cannada this summer, but initially lost that spot to Harden after suffering a bad ankle sprain in a scrimmage.

"It was real frustrating," he said. "Like most Plebes who endure all the harassment, I thought about leaving my first year. But I persevered, and I've kept an esprit de corps with Cannada and Harden. We pull for each other and we're good friends off the field."

Off his strong performance against Rutgers, Dingle will now likely be Cannada's principal rival.

"I finally got the chance last week, and I felt I had to do things quickly to impress the coaches. We get graded after each performance, and I should have got high marks this time."

Harden, 5-11 and 220 pounds, getting his first varsity experience, figures in Weatherbie's fullback mix with his strength and competitiveness.

"Don't worry," Weatherbie said. "They'll all get to play. We'll need all of them to keep winning."

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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