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Subis' rib injury forces a new look to Baltimore's offensive line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN ANTONIO -- The Baltimore Stallions' offensive line went through some significant changes last night because of center Nick Subis' nagging rib injury.

Several hours before last night's kickoff at the Alamodome, the team decided to rest Subis, replace him with left guard Mike Withycombe, and give rookie John James -- just activated from the practice roster -- his first Canadian Football League start at left guard.

Subis, who missed much of last week's practices with his rib problem, worked out Wednesday, but still felt a lot of discomfort.

"It wasn't until about 5 o'clock today that we made a final decision on Nick," Baltimore offensive line coach Charlie Carpenter said. "He came back to practice a bit last week, but ribs are a tender place. We thought the tenderness would be gone by today, but it wasn't. We feel comfortable with Mike at center. John has worked hard and he deserves the opportunity. So we're going to give it to him and see what happens."

Withycombe worked out at center during much of training camp and played there in 1992 with the NFL Cincinnati Bengals.

"I feel comfortable with it," Withycombe said. "I've got to make sure John knows what's going on, make sure I get the line calls right and get the snap count right every time."

Subis started 18 of Baltimore's 21 games, when he was named to the All-Eastern Division team.

Fort: 2,059 to catch Cal

Offensive right tackle Neal Fort has yet to miss a game in a Baltimore uniform, and Fort had some extra appreciation for his playing streak when he took the field last night.

Early in last week's home opener against San Antonio, Fort injured his knee after an awkward fall. "I wasn't sure what it was, but it sent a shock wave through my body," he said.

Initially, he shook off the injury and played until the middle of the fourth quarter of Baltimore's 50-24 victory. By then, the knee had swelled to the point where Fort had to leave the game.

Tests on Sunday revealed only a deep bruise. Had the injury been more serious, Fort may have been forced to miss last night's rematch, which not only would have left a huge hole in the Stallions' line -- Fort stands 6 feet 7, 330 pounds -- but it also would have interrupted the routine of one of Baltimore's steadier players.

Fort started all 21 games for Baltimore last year, when he didn't miss an offensive snap.

"It's still tender, but nothing like it was last week," said Fort, who didn't even miss a practice last week. Did he wonder how he would have dealt with sitting out a game for his first time in the Canadian Football League?

"I try not to think too much," he said. "I'm not a deep thinker. I'm a no-brainer."

Happy in Baltimore

Cornerback Gary Wilkerson had just been released by the Shreveport Pirates and was sitting home two weeks ago in Petersburg, Va., when the phone rang. It was Baltimore calling, looking for a replacement for Karl Anthony, who had just suffered season-ending knee injury after the Stallions' season opener in British Columbia.

Last night, Wilkerson was savoring his first start for Baltimore.

"I didn't think anyone would call until maybe the third or fourth week of the season," Wilkerson said. "It was a good surprise."

And for Wilkerson, an opportunity unlike any he's experienced in his six CFL seasons. He spent his five previous years in Hamilton, which had four losing seasons sandwiched around one trip to the playoffs in 1992.

Last week, Wilkerson came off the bench to intercept a pass in the end zone and thwart a San Antonio drive.

"I want an opportunity to play in the Grey Cup, and I've got one here," Wilkerson said. "Hamilton didn't have an offense. Here, we have one. The defense at Hamilton always stayed on the field. Here, you can get a break."

Family matters

Last night's game marked a family reunion of sorts for Stallions' middle linebacker O. J. Brigance.

Brigance's wife, Chandra, is the cousin of San Antonio defensive back Grady Cavness. Brigance also hails from nearby Houston. More than 40 of his relatives chartered a bus from there to the game.

Now that's replay

The Stallions' back-to-back, home-and-home series with San Antonio marks the first of four such arrangements this year. Baltimore will play back-to-back against Memphis (Aug. 12 and 19), Shreveport (Sept. 15 and 23) and Saskatchewan (Oct. 1 and 7).

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