Line grows in stature

Undersized offensive line carries Navy to top of rushing rankings

College football

December 02, 2005|By KENT BAKER | KENT BAKER,SUN REPORTER

They are undersized and often the target of the coaches' wrath. They lost four starters from 2004 and came into the season relatively inexperienced and a question mark in the overall team picture.

But Navy's offensive line must be doing something right. The team is at the head of the class in the national rushing statistics again.

And it is this unit that might hold the key to the outcome when the Midshipmen face off for the 106th time against rival Army tomorrow at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.

How Navy runs the ball out of its intricate, triple-option attack against a vastly improved Army defense will be critical, especially early in the game. If the Black Knights have some quick success at stuffing Navy's offense, the confidence they have gained from four straight victories could mushroom.

"Army flies to the ball and plays hard," said Navy coach Paul Johnson. "They're playing smart and with confidence. We've got to see how we can take that away from them."

Navy tackle Matt Pritchett said all of Army's defenders "have great motors. We're expecting a real battle."

Center James Rossi, the only regular returning starter from last season (guard Zach Gallion started four games), said the line is preparing for a difficult assignment.

"People are getting ready for a tough one," said Rossi, the quiet leader of the unit. "You know they [Black Knights] want it a lot."

With the offensive line providing the impetus, the Midshipmen pounded Temple for 375 yards on the ground in their latest outing to soar to No. 1 nationally in running at 286.7 yards a game. A strong hint of how well the interior blockers were performing was the career-high 167 yards amassed by fullback Adam Ballard, who was making his first start.

The lone senior, tackle Marshall Green, said Navy's coaches are never satisfied with the line for a reason.

"The coaches are full speed ahead because once you quit improving, you stagnate," Green said. "The bar never goes down. But these guys have played their rear ends off. Obviously, we have the smallest line in the nation, so we know we're going to have to outwork everybody."

The personification of that work ethic is sophomore guard Antron Harper, listed at 249 pounds, but scaling less than that weight after 10 games. As the smallest interior lineman in the country, he must compensate with technique and tenacity, a common theme at Navy.

"Antron is just amazing," Green said. "He's one of those guys who just doesn't stop even if the guy across from him is as big as a horse."

Johnson, who has criticized his blockers off and on after games, believes the line has grown with experience. "I think Antron and Matt Pricthett have had good seasons, but they've all done well at times," he said of the unit.

Offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo reasons that this line is more athletic than its predecessors - the ability to run and pull to block are important elements for linemen in the triple option - and that it is dedicated.

"The one thing they do is play and practice hard," he said. "And we continue to push them. Since we're not the biggest line in the world, we try to play fast. And when the smoke settles, see what happens."

A lot is asked of Rossi, who said the line "always looks forward to the challenge. Coaches don't try to make us outmuscle people. We have to get into their [opponents'] heads and outplay them."

"I think we've come together as a group really well," Pritchett said.

kent.baker@baltsun.com

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