Navy looks to block out offensive woes with all-senior line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's four days before Navy's season opener and the sound of grunting and pounding pads can be heard clear across the practice field. The men's basketball team has dropped by, and the action stops the players in their tracks.

"Who is that?" said one of the players excitedly, his comments directed at the massive No. 68 who is manhandling members of the second-team defense. "He's huge! I tell you, they must bring some of these big boys here just for practice and the games."

Hardly.

No. 68 is Blair Sokol, a 6-foot-6, 287-pound left tackle. And if you think he's big, striking an even more imposing figure is Max Lane, the 6-6, 301-pound right tackle. Filling in the middle of the offensive line are guards Dan Pidgeon (6-1, 282) and Zach McMechan (6-2, 286) and center Chuck Puglia (6-0, 250). Combined, the five make up one of the biggest offensive lines ever to play at the Naval Academy.

While a lot of the preseason talk about Navy has focused on the strength of quarterback Jim Kubiak's arm, the versatility of tailback Jason Van Matre and the depth the team has at fullback, the important aspect of the offense is clear: If Navy is going to shake its streak of 10 losing seasons, the performance of the offensive line is going to be crucial.

And the word in Annapolis is that this year's offensive front five -- all seniors, four of whom with starting experience -- is good enough to get the job done.

"These guys were all down on the [depth] charts when they were young, and now they've arrived at a good size and they're all big and strong," coach George Chaump said. "We've finally developed an offensive line that is worthy of I-A football."

Lane is the standout among the group, a general science major from Norborne, Mo., who was named second-team All-Independent sqaud by The Sporting News. A starter at tackle since his sophomore season, Lane has attracted scouts from the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs.

"Max is strong, physical and a great technician," said Charlie Donnor, Navy's offensive line coach. "He's as good as any football player out there."

When the scouts come to see Lane, they often wind up also inquiring about Sokol, another two-time letterman who has come a long way from the 210 pounds he weighed during his plebe year, when he missed the entire season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.

"I wanted to come back that year, but I was so light that I could have gotten killed out there," said Sokol, who was a defensive player then. "Coach Chaump told me to give football a break and hit the weights."

It's made a big difference.

"Sokol's a year younger than Max, and he was a little bit more slenderly built," Donnor said. "But he's an athletic kid who's getting better by leaps and bounds."

Pidgeon, the right guard, was one of just five plebes to letter in 1990. A middle guard and defensive tackle his first two seasons, he switched to offense last season and tied with Lane for most playing time. Puglia, who at 250 pounds is the smallest member of the line, started five games at center last season. The least experienced member of the line is McMechan, a backup offensive tackle last season who has improved enough to earn his first starting spot.

"It helps playing with an experienced group because they've been helping me out with my technique and helping me see things that are going on with the defense," McMe- chan said. "We have a good sense of family -- a good bond."

It will be put to the test immediately against a Virginia team that knocked Kubiak out with a separated shoulder in last year's opener. Navy's fortunes are riding on Kubiak's strong arm, which places a lot of the pressure on the line. Without him, the Midshipmen averaged only 11.9 points last season.

"I wasn't out there, but what I understand is that Kubiak's injury wasn't the offensive line's fault," Puglia said. "Still, even if it's not your fault, you wonder was there something you could have done differently to avoid that. You never want to see your quarterback get hit."

Kubiak has been impressed with the line play thus far in practice.

"I'm a lot more comfortable with these guys than I have been with any offensive line," Kubiak said. "We're solid in our top five and we have [second-team] guys who can step in and do the job.

"Everything that an offense does is based on how you block -- I can't get the ball off if no one's blocking, and we can't run if no one's blocking," Kubiak added. "They don't get a lot of credit from fans, but people who know football know what's going on."

Those on the line have learned to live with the lack of recognition.

"We don't play for headlines," said Lane, spitting out the words in disdain.

Added Puglia: "I'm used to it. I've played offensive line since I was 7, so I don't even think about getting any attention."

They won't get the attention, but they will be focused on. And if Navy someone gets out of this season with a winning -- or competitive -- record, the offensive will deserve much of the credit.

"I've stayed here through three years of this, through two straight 1-10 seasons," Pidgeon said. "Some guys said, 'Later for this; let's go to another school.' But we've stuck this out.

"Now, we just want to go out and win," he added. "A lot of us on the line played a lot of games last year. Our experience can only help us."

It's experience that the coaches are looking forward to.

"We have five senior starters, and that's the first time that's every happened to me," said Donnor, who has coached with Chaump for 11 seasons. "They take football very seriously and their attitude, intensity and toughness will be a big factor."

NAVY AT A GLANCE

Coach: George Chaump, 12th year (64-58-2); fourth year at Navy (7-26)

Last year's record: 1-10

Affiliation: Independent, Division I-A

Radio: WERQ (1010 AM); WNAV (1430 AM)

Top returning players: Jim Kubiak, Jr., QB; Jason Van Matre, Sr., TB; Cleavon Smith, Sr., FB; Max Lane, Sr., RT; Blair Sokol, Sr., LT; Javier Zuluaga, Sr., LB; Chris Hart, Jr., DB; Grover Favors, Jr., DB; David Shaw, Sr., DE; Steve Lipsey, Sr., DB.

Top newcomers: Erasto Jackson, Fr., RT; Chris Reaghard, Jr., LT; Fernando Harris, So., LB; Dean Wakeman, Jr., LT; Alex Domino, So., LG; Garrett Smith, So., C; David Petko, So., OT; Neal Plaskonos, So., WR

Strengths: Navy's offensive front has experience with five seniors, which should allow QB Jim Kubiak to demonstrate his passing ability. The backfield also is strong, with Jason Van Matre and Cleavon Smith the likely starters and Brad Stramanak and Billy James coming off the bench. Defensively, Javier Zuluaga was ranked 15th in tackles and Chris Hart and Steve Lipsey cover a lot of ground.

Weaknesses: The defense gave up a lot of big plays last season, and the defensive line is not that experienced.

Key game: Saturday against Virginia. Navy's quarterback woes began when Kubiak was injured in last year's opener against Virginia. If the Midshipmen can get through Saturday injury-free, there's a good chance of being competitive against a schedule that's not as difficult as past seasons.

NAVY SCHEDULE

Date .. .. .. .. ..Opponent .. .. .. .. ..Time

Sept. 11 .. .. ...at Virginia .. .. .. .. ..1

Sept. 18 .. .. ..Eastern Illinois .. .. .. .7

Sept. 25 .. .. .. .Bowling Green* .. .. .1:30

Oct. 2 .. .. .. .. .at Tulane .. .. .. .. ..7

Oct. 9 .. .. .. .. .Air Force .. .. .. ..1:30

Oct. 16 .. .. .. .. .Colgate .. .. .. ...1:30

Oct. 23 .. .. .. ..at Louisville .. .. .. ..4

Oct. 30 .. .. ...vs. Notre Dame .. .. ...noon

.. .. .. .. .. .. at Philadelphia

Nov. 13 .. .. .. .at Vanderbilt .. .. .. ...1

Nov. 20 .. .. .. .. ..SMU .. .. .. .. ...1:30

Dec. 4 .. .. .. ...vs. Army .. .. .. .. .noon

.. .. .. .. .. .at E. Rutherford, N.J.

*-Homecoming

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