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Towson's Gunning blocks out own niche

During a recent Towson University football scrimmage, running back Mikal Lundy was pushed into the leg of blocker Jason Gunning, who hit the ground with a thud, apparently injured.

A hushed silence fell over the practice.

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"Everything just stopped on the whole field," said Tigers coach Gordy Combs. "Any time you have that happen, you know there is concern about that player. It's not often that an offensive guard is one of the focal points of your team."

A fifth-year senior who received a medical redshirt after two games of the 2001 season with a knee injury, Gunning is one of the exceptions to the obscurity in which most offensive linemen labor.

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After a year in which the Tigers' contention in the Patriot League was undermined by an outbreak of injuries to the primary blockers, Gunning's teammates know just how important it is to keep the 6-foot-2, 300-pound co-captain healthy.

"I think we've got a little more depth up front this time," Gunning said, "and we should be better able to handle the injuries that you know are going to come."

Gunning is talented enough to have caught the attention of professional scouts, who like his size, ability with his feet and versatility (he moved to left tackle after the injury siege).

"If the coaches need me to play quarterback, I'll do that," Gunning said with a smile. "But I'm going to tuck the ball if I do."

Gunning was named a pre-season Division I-AA All-America second-team choice, an honor he is accepting graciously.

"I thank whoever did it wholeheartedly. I didn't believe some people when they told me I was selected. I waited until I sat down and looked at it myself," Gunning said. "It was a nice gesture, but I'm not real big on that. I just want to play and win."

The new-old offensive coordinator, Phil Albert, has brought to the Tigers' offense "an enthusiasm I've never seen in a coach," Gunning said of the former Towson head coach.

"I don't even know how to describe it. I believe the offense will be better than ever."

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Combs noted that in his 34 years of association with Towson football, he has seen better pass blockers and better run blockers but never a player who can do both as well as Gunning.

"He's very strong, and once he gets his hands on you, it's over," said the coach. "Jason has such a passion for the game and is very athletic. A lot of his development came from John Donatelli [offensive line coach]. He's brought him along to be the kind of player he is."

As a sophomore, Gunning recovered two fumbles, one for a touchdown, the other for a first down after his 15-yard run. Last year, he was named to the All-Patriot League first team.

From Pennsauken, N.J., Gunning is an accounting major who hopes to earn a master's in business administration. Meanwhile, there is unfinished business on the field in Towson's football farewell to the league before joining the Atlantic 10 in 2004.

"I came here to try to help this team win the [Patriot] league," he said. "We haven't done that and I want to finish on top. We've got to show every team we're for real. No more letups or not coming out for 60 minutes."

Gunning said he is happy about an additional game - the Tigers are playing 12 for the first time - but has more in mind.

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"I welcome any new competition, but I don't want to stop at a 12-game schedule," he said. "I want to go on into the playoffs and have 15."


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