George Welsh, the magician who has conjured up three straight winning seasons at Annapolis, will find his powers tested to the limit as he bids for a fourth.

Only seven Navy lettermen return on offense and the only two interior linemen with experience are returning from disabling injuries. Once again, the defense will be asked to neutralize the enemy until the Midshipmen are ready to attack.

"We have to make great strides to be a good offensive team," Welsh said. "It will be hard to be good early. We have a few too many holes there, but against Virginia in last year's opener, we were a terrible offensive team and we turned it around.

"The difference last year was depth. We had wholesale injuries the last two years and somehow overcame them. This year we have to stay healthy. If we have seven or eight injuries this year, I don't know what we'll do."

Compounding the depth problem is Michigan, No. 3 on the schedule. During Welsh's eight-year tenure, not only has Navy lost all four contests against the Wolverines, it also has been beaten badly by lesser opponents the following week.

"The only big difference in our schedule this year is Michigan," Welsh said. "We've had problems with Michigan in other years physically. That's a great football team, certainly among the top two or three in the country."

In a positive vein, Navy can enjoy the return of Eddie Meyers, the tailback who has gained 422 yards in the last two Army games; place-kicker Steve Fehr, whose 50-yard field goal against Army set an academy record, and middle guard Tim Jordan -- "as good or better," said Welsh, "than any nose guard we've ever had."

Despite their presence, it could be a long season.

"The offensive line is the real key," Welsh said. "Meyers is no good without an offensive line. We have a lot of new faces up front and we have new receivers. We have to have some kind of a passing game. We can't expect to knock them back and run through on every play."

Tom Tarquinio, the only quarterback with experience, has the edge at that position, but ex-quarterback Welsh promises in-depth testing for junior Jeff Korn, sophomores Marco Pagnanelli and Richard Dohoda and plebe Rick Williamson.

It is not unusual for Navy to uncover a solid quarterback at midseason. Welsh turned to Bob Leszczynski in 1976 and he turned around a team that was so bad Welsh candidly stated -- and never recanted -- after a loss to William and Mary: "We couldn't beat Severna Park High School."

"We have more question marks than we've had for four years, but we're not back where we were five years ago," Welsh said. "We were really a bad team then." -