Towson linemen push selves, team to better performance

Gunning, Yelverton sharp with 4-1 Lehigh looming

College Football

October 10, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In practice, they always line up head-to-head, Towson University's two best linemen, one at offensive guard, the other at defensive tackle.

Of almost identical size -- 6 feet 2 and 295 to 300 pounds -- both have difficulty getting a clear-cut advantage over the long term.

But one fact is certain about these two former roommates who still hang out together off the field. Jason Gunning and Juston Yelverton have been beneficial for each other's careers.

"The reason I'm good is because of him," Gunning said. "He's the best D [defensive] lineman in the league, and I've seen them all. No one else is even close."

Said Yelverton: "Well, he's the best I've played, too. I really have to struggle to look good against him."

The Tigers (3-2 overall, 1-1 Patriot League) will require the skills of both and everybody else on the roster Saturday, when they launch a three-game meat grinder of a homestand against the league's elite, Lehigh (4-1, 1-0). Bucknell and Colgate follow.

Gunning's return after missing most of last season with a knee injury has been a primary factor in reviving a Towson offense that managed just 149 points in 10 games in 2001.

Although stability at quarterback and the recovery from injury of several others --notably, receiver Jamal White -- are also partially responsible, Gunning's status as the offensive line's clear-cut leader is a big reason the Tigers, averaging 37 points this season, already have exceeded 2001's scoring.

"Last year was one of the worst experiences I ever felt," Gunning said. "I pour my heart into this team, and it was really rough watching what we were going through [3-7 record]."

In 2000, with Gunning in the lineup, the Tigers had amassed 4,174 yards in total offense and allowed just six sacks.

"You could see right away he was going to be a very good lineman," Towson coach Gordy Combs said of the Pennsauken, N.J., native. "Just his presence makes us better. What sets him apart is that he is equally good as a run and pass blocker. He can be one of our best, ever.

"I'll tell you, when we practice defense against offense, Gunning and Yelverton is some battle. They both win their share."

Yelverton is a co-captain, a second-team All-Patriot League selection as a junior and a young man so powerful that he had a 20-5 career record as a high school heavyweight wrestler, although he admitted: "I didn't have any skill. I was just stronger than everybody."

Said Combs: "You build your defense around players like him. He's very instinctive, runs extremely well and never stops."

Yelverton, from Dover, Del., tops the team's down linemen with 32 tackles, including a team-high nine for losses, and has three sacks. He is always among the team leaders in all those categories.

Unfortunately, Towson's defensive play has been spotty. The talent is there, but inexperience has been a problem, particularly at linebacker.

Both all-state high school players, Gunning and Yelverton have their career goals set, Gunning as an accountant, Yelverton as a small-business owner, like his father Wilford, proprietor of a motorcycle shop.

"We just have an attitude about us this year," Gunning said. "Once all of us started getting healthy, we decided we were not going through what we did last year again."

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