Navy's secret weapon? Its offensive line

Group leads way for Mids' devastating rushing attack

December 08, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

For an offensive lineman at the U.S. Naval Academy, it's as much a calling as it is a job.

Much like being in the military.

You must be strong, but also athletic. You need to be relatively tall and broad shouldered, yet nimble enough to chase after, and then block, safeties. You need to be an intellectual in the classroom, but also have a nasty streak on the football field. You need to be heavy, but not too heavy, because of the academy's intense fitness requirements. And you need to play in virtual anonymity despite having, arguably, the most crucial job in the Midshipman's rushing juggernaut.

Although they rarely receive credit when Navy's rushing attack overwhelms another opponent, most of Navy's success in recent years — including an 8-3 record this season — can be traced to what happens up front. The quarterback, fullback and slot backs typically gain all the praise, but their gaudy yardage totals and touchdown numbers wouldn't be possible without Navy's unique blocking schemes and its discipline up front.

The play of the line on Saturday could mean the difference between victory and defeat when Army and Navy meets for the 111th time Saturday in Philadelphia.

There isn't really a prototype that Navy looks for when recruiting offensive lineman. They don't typically have the luxury to be picky the way some college programs do. And so as a result, it takes all kinds of young men to make it work. Each season requires fitting them together a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.

This year, the results has been particularly impressive when you realize the starting five of Jeff Battipaglia, Josh Cabral, Brady DeMell, John Dowd and Ryan Basford have been the driving force behind three of top 30 single-game rushing totals in school history — 521 yards against East Carolina; 437 yards against Central Michigan; 412 yards against Maryland.

When you throw in the 327 yards that the Midshipmen ran for in a 35-17 victory over Notre Dame, it becomes apparent just how good, and how synchronized, this group has been.

Individualyl, however, they couldn't be more different. Each player is proof that there is no cookie-cutter mold to building one of the nation's strongest rushing attacks. There is instead five individuals working together, hoping to accomplish small tasks in the pursuit of larger glories. If you take a snapshot of each of them, you understand what makes their role so unique.

The leader

In such a thing were possible, Navy's coaching staff would prefer to have five linemen exactly like Jeff Battipaglia. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound senior from Newton, Pa., will start his 39th consecutive game this Saturday.

"Jeff is just our leader," said junior guard John Dowd. "He's played some games that are going to go down in the ages of football at Navy. You want to know how to play tackle in an option offense, you watch him. In the Wake Forest game, it was amazing. Of course of the game, you're going to slip up a few times, or break down occasionally. But if you watch the film, on every play, he was there dominating his guy."

Battipaglia, an economics major who will serve in the Marine Corps when he graduates, is not a screamer. He is, instead, a bit like the stoic professor of the group, calmly but sternly offering advice on technique and assignments. He comes from an athletic pedigree, with his father having played rugby at Boston College, while his brother played football at Dartmouth. When he speaks, his teammates tend to listen.

"He does everything textbook," said junior tackle Ryan Basford. "If you were doing a clinic on playing tackle, you'd want to show Jeff."

The brain

For the first half of his career at the academy, Dowd was known more for academics than athletic skills. A mechanical engineering major with a 3.91 GPA, he was named to the ESPN First Team Academic All-American Team prior to the season, and is considered one of the school's top students.

"He's definitely taken on some responsibilities as an unofficial tutor for some of us," Battipaglia said. "Especially some of the younger guys who are struggling with the transition."

"It really blows my mind how he can pull off a 3.9 here," Cabral said. "He'll have intellectual conversations in the locker room that just amazing."

But as a football player, no one knew what to expect when he was called upon to see significant action this year.

"I didn't have great knowledge of the offense and I didn't have a great knowledge of football coming here," Dowd said. "Freshman and sophomore year, I was lost. I started the Hawaii game last year and I was so lost."

Dowd, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior from Staten Island, N.Y. , surprised everyone with how dramatically he improved. Not quite quick enough to play tackle, he found a permanent home at guard next to Battipaglia.

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