George Chaump was right in his preseason analysis when he predicted the reconstruction of the offensive line would be critical to the fortunes of his Naval Academy football team.
His fears were well-founded. The vulnerability of the offensive line has been the prime reason for the Midshipmen's 1-5 start this year -- their sole victory coming last Saturday by a shaky 7-0 margin over Division I-AA Lafayette.
With all five of last year's starters -- including tackle Max Lane -- lost to graduation, Chaump and offensive line coach Charlie Donnor were forced to build a forward wall from scratch. The new unit's inexperience has resulted in repeated cracks and leaks, putting senior quarterback Jim Kubiak in constant jeopardy.
Kubiak has been sacked 24 times in six games. After the 'D academy's career leader in passing yardage was battered repeatedly by Lafayette, Chaump said, "I'm not getting my quarterback hurt by poor protection, and I don't like to see him running for his life.
"I'm sick of seeing all these sacks. I know we have five new guys on our line, but they've played six games, and they should start taking more pride in their pass blocking."
In preparing for Louisville's visit today, Chaump and Donnor acknowledge that tackles Dean Wakeham and Erasto Jackson, center Garrett Smith and guards Alex Domino and Bryce Minamyer will have to continue their on-the-job training.
"They're the best we have," said Chaump. "I'm not going to turn this team into a circus. These guys get all the work in practice."
Donnor empathizes with his line.
"They feel a great weight and burden in trying to protect Kubiak," he said. "It's been a terrific mental strain, but they're trying to fight their way through tough times."
Donnor has tried to patch the line as best he can, switching players' positions and moving Jackson, who played defensive tackle as a plebe, to the offensive side of the ball.
"Erasto is very talented and powerful," said Donnor. "But he didn't make the switch until the season had already started. For an offensive lineman to feel comfortable in what he's doing, it doesn't take a couple of games; it takes a couple of years."
Wakeham, the lone senior on the line, missed the first three games with a knee injury. When he returned, he was moved from right to left tackle to ease Jackson's transition. And Domino, who began the season at left tackle, now is playing left guard.
"Wakeham is playing very hard, but he's still hurting," said Donnor. "If this were any place but a service academy, all these kids probably would have been redshirted. But we don't have that luxury. We've got to make do, and if these guys stay injury-free, in time, this line will be a pretty good one.
Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger's primary concerns have been with the defensive line. Last week, the Cardinals were shredded for 427 yards in a 30-28 upset by Army.
"We just didn't have enough time to prepare properly for Army's wishbone," Schnellenberger said. "We played very tentatively and allowed them to score on six of their first eight possessions."
It could have been a critical loss for Louisville, an independent team that is limited in its bowl possibilities. Last year, the Cardinals finished 9-3 -- including a 28-0 victory over Navy -- and beat Michigan State in the Liberty Bowl.
"Losing to Army will put great pressure on our team the rest of the season," Schnellenberger said. "This game with Navy will give us a directional signal as to where we are heading."