In a snap

The Baltimore Sun

A light breeze blows in off the Chesapeake Bay and sailboats dot the landscape beside Navy's football practice field. But under the hazy sun on a humid day, senior Antron Harper doesn't notice the beauty as sweat pours from his body and he concentrates on his new position at center.

For the former right guard it is a major change in a career that goes back to middle school in Eastman, Ga., when someone said, "Get in there at guard!" and Harper responded, "Where's that?"

This time he didn't have to ask where center was. It's where everything that will happen to Navy's offense begins.

"The first couple of practices I was extremely nervous," said Harper, 22. "I'd snap the ball and hold my hand back there an extra second just to be sure."

Now, with the season opener against Temple three weeks away, Harper isn't nervous anymore. Neither, it seems, is anyone else.

"He's probably our best offensive lineman and the position is so important to our offense," coach Paul Johnson said. "I think he's a perfect fit. If [the center] gets knocked back into our quarterback, it makes it hard to operate. Antron is a smart guy and he's explosive. He comes off the ball really hard."

For the past two years Harper has been the team's right guard, being named to the All-Bowl Team both years. And last season, when quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada became the starter in the eighth game against Notre Dame, it was Harper who helped him read defenses.

Asked whether he has helped Harper understand his center position, Kaheaku-Enhada shook his head.

"Antron is our leader," he said. "He doesn't ask me what he should be doing. We get the OK from him, not the other way 'round. Last season he called audibles. I suspect he'll be doing it this year, too."

Harper smiles. He didn't really call audibles.

"Technically, I'm not allowed, but I'd turn my head, tell him to change the call if the defense wasn't good for that play," Harper said. "I don't think he'll need it this year."

With the defense rebuilding, Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo, assistant head coach-offensive line, want a strong offense. With that in mind they put Harper in the position left open by the graduation of James Rossi, who started at center the past 2 1/2 seasons.

"It's like the adage in baseball," Niumatalolo said. "You want your best athletes in the middle. In baseball, it's catcher, pitcher and center fielder. In football, center, quarterback and fullback."

Harper seems to have blossomed. He's watched film this summer to get better - and encouraged teammates to join him.

"Antron has done a tremendous job," Niumatalolo said. "He's a leader. He's gathered his linemen together and the kids have a lot of respect for him. They follow his example."

Last season, Harper was one of the smallest offensive linemen at 257 pounds in what was formerly known as Division I-A. But he has added 15 pounds, and Niumatalolo is most impressed by how well Harper has made the switch.

"Physically, I knew he could do it, but mentally, I have been surprised," Niumatalolo said. "He's picking up his calls, assignments and technique, more so technique. ... It's been seamless."

Harper lets a little smile play over his normally serious face at the thought of a seamless transition. On this day it was less so as a teammate had rolled into his right ankle, forcing him to the sideline for the rest of the day.

"It's nothing major," said Harper, his right ankle iced and wrapped. "If we had a game Saturday, I'd be playing."

Navy has a 9:30 a.m. scrimmage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium tomorrow. By the time the season opener arrives Aug. 31, Harper expects to be doing the center's quickstep - snap, step and second step - as fast as anyone.

"You've got to do it as quickly as possible to keep your balance and keep the opposing nose guard off your quarterback," he said. "My goals are no fumbled snaps and that every quarterback exchange goes smoothly.

" ... I know we can't get the play started if I get in the way."

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