Roberts has a tight grip on academy life, new role

Troubles in past, slotback vital to Navy's resurgence

November 07, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Eric Roberts needed to change his ways.

On the football field, Navy's standout slotback had to harness his talent and hold on to the ball. Off the field, more fumbles loomed. There were academic struggles, problems with the disciplinary setting, questions about how well he could handle being a midshipman.

During a season that has been an about-face for the Navy program, Roberts has dramatically altered his course.

The 5-foot-10 junior, who showed promise during a mistake-prone sophomore year in which Navy went 2-10, has been the team's big play waiting to happen - minus the fumbles.

Roberts has touched the ball only 56 times as a rusher and pass receiver, yet has produced 760 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 10 yards a run and 24.4 a catch.

Roberts also has regained control in other areas. Once an academic liability, he has reversed his path, evidenced by the "A" he is on pace to earn in electrical engineering. And the problems he had with authority at Bancroft Hall - the 1,873-room dormitory that is home for the whole brigade of midshipmen - are in the past.

"It's been rough, a lot of ups and downs, but more ups right now. It was hard for me to adjust here," said Roberts, who considered withdrawing last spring.

"You've got students in the hall, maybe your age or a year or two older, busting you around, getting in your face, acting tough. You want to retaliate, and I did let them know what they were trying to do wasn't working. That was the wrong way to go about it."

"Eric's attitude has changed tremendously," said Patricia Roberts, his mother, who is an elementary school librarian in Miami, where Eric grew up. "Initially, he needed a lot of encouragement just to keep going. But once he focuses on doing something, he works hard at it."

"[Roberts] was having issues with the school and the military part, but all of [the midshipmen] question it at some point," said Navy slotbacks coach Jeff Monken. "There's other things to deal with here besides going to class, X's and O's and taking your girlfriend out on Saturday after the game. This is the hard road."

Roberts - with 4.56-second, 40-yard dash speed and a shifty running style - had been an excellent running back, receiver and kick returner at Hollywood Christian High, where he never had a problem with fumbling. That changed in 2002, starting in Week 2 when he dropped a kickoff. A North Carolina State player scooped up the ball and walked into the end zone.

That sparked a 65-19 loss, which lit the fuse for Navy's slide and set a trend for Roberts, who lost several more kickoffs. He also fumbled a pitch against Air Force, which was returned for a score in a 48-7 rout of the Mids.

This preseason, Roberts had more trouble with kickoffs and was scratched from the unit.

"When I first saw the way [Roberts] could run against us in practice last year, I knew the only guy that could stop him was him," Navy senior linebacker Eddie Carthan said.

Roberts has fumbled just once this year. The rest of his season has been a highlight reel showcasing his explosiveness in a spread, triple-option attack.

"I understood why I was getting heat," said Roberts, who still averaged 8.1 yards on 58 carries and 25.2 yards on 17 receptions and scored six times last year. "I learned to calm myself down and try not to do too much, too fast. It was disappointing being taken off kick return, but I never lost confidence in my ability."

Roberts has made too many plays during this 6-3 season of revival to lose faith. Like the 69-yard touchdown run in a 38-6 rout at Rice, where Roberts faked out five defenders with two dazzling cutback moves. Or the 29-yard touchdown run at Rutgers, where he left preseason All-America cornerback Nate Jones grasping at air.

The only thing that has slowed Roberts this year is a sprained right ankle. He played sparingly last week but expects to be at full speed tomorrow at Notre Dame.

"I probably got on Eric more than others last year, because I thought he had a ton of ability," Navy coach Paul Johnson said. "He didn't sulk or whine or take it personally. He busted his butt and worked through it all. I was worried about whether Eric was going to make it here, but he has grown up right in front of our eyes."

Next for Navy

Matchup: Navy (6-3) vs. Notre Dame (2-6)

Site: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

When: Tomorrow, 2:30 p.m

TV/Radio: Chs. 11, 4/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Notre Dame by 8

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