Navy line is up for rush hour

Mids' offensive linemen take all necessary steps to ensure triple option runs smoothly

October 14, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Teammates call them "the trailer park," a nickname senior quarterback Brian Hampton said is a nod to the blue-collar image they project and the occasional mess they make in the Navy locker room.

And that is pretty much all of the irreverence one will hear regarding the Midshipmen's offensive line, which once again is performing with exacting proficiency as the backbone of the program.

Navy's signature is its run-heavy, spread option offense. Through their 5-1 start, the Mids are leading the nation in rushing offense and have produced a variety of playmakers, starting with Hampton and fullback Adam Ballard inside, and slotbacks Reggie Campbell and Shun White outside.

Then, there are the grunts, the undersized, well-conditioned, cut-blocking gang that creates enough space to make it all happen.

To get an idea of how the line - center James Rossi, guards Zach Gallion and Antron Harper and tackles Matt Pritchett and Josh Meek - is viewed from the inside, listen to Ballard, who was named Most Valuable Player of last week's 24-17 victory at Air Force after rushing for 134 yards. As soon as he receives the MVP trophy, Ballard plans to deliver it to his main men.

"They're getting dirty, they're getting hurt," Ballard said. "I do a lot of blocking, but I really respect what they do. They do it on every play, and they don't get their names in the paper."

"I wouldn't mind being one of them," added Hampton, who leads the Mids with 645 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. "They're just hard-nosed, hard-hitting guys. They're my guys."

The heart of the Navy offense reveals differing personalities.

Pritchett and Gallion are the cut-ups, always ready with a needle or a snappy comeback. Rossi is the quiet, reserved co-captain who leads by his consistent play.

Harper, the right guard who might be the most talented of the group, has a hot temper that occasionally ignites in the huddle, in the locker room or in the ear of an opponent. Meek is the laid-back Texan who earned a starting job at right tackle with a superb August camp.

Not that backups such as tackles Joe Person and Andrew McGinn and guards Anthony Gaskins and Ben Gabbard and center Cole Smith are bystanders; Navy often uses eight or nine linemen in a game.

For two of the previous three seasons, Navy has led the country in rushing. The plaques from the NCAA commemorating that achievement rest in the offensive line's classroom. But that does not fully represent the unit's mission.

"We're coming off the ball hard on every snap, going after people on every play, hitting them in the mouth, trying to knock their face off," Pritchett said. "We pride ourselves on that."

To watch the group work under assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive line coach Todd Spencer - who have spent a combined 19 seasons in Annapolis - is to watch a group obsessing over the details that make the violence look good.

For at least 20 minutes early in each practice, the linemen work by themselves on the basics, such as the precise first steps involved in making the right blocks given the option call, or getting into the perfect stance or maintaining proper spacing.

The Mids line up with a narrow base (feet closer together than typical linemen). That helps them begin the play in a straight-ahead sprint. Instead of the normal 1 foot of space between linemen, Navy's splits are about a yard. That creates gaps that come in handy, as they sometimes entice defenders to get caught out of position.

"They're looking at every step, every bend of your knee, every angle, where you put your hands [when you block], everything," Harper said. "[Blocking] is all about pad level, hand placement, helmet placement, whatever you can do to throw your body between [the defender] and the ball to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team."

"It's like a mule mentality," Niumatatolo said. "We do the same things over and over so we can get better at it and do it fast."

Since they are almost always out-weighed, the Mids use speed and technique as counters up front. Navy routinely turns cut-blocking - taking a defender down by chopping the front of the upper thigh - into a specialty.

"We want guys ideally that have good feet, are flexible and can run. We don't want big, gawky guys who can't redirect and move," Spencer said. "Bigger is not better. Better is better. If we step wrong, some [defender] is going to blow up the [line]. Our equalizers are speed, quickness and leverage. We know the importance of detail."

And Navy's linemen absorb Spencer's animated instruction every day, beginning with the way they break the huddle with a loud clap, then hustle to the line of scrimmage. Spencer's voice rings loud on the practice field, as he constantly challenges the line with orders such as "Move your feet!" "Play fast!" and "Drive those knees!"

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