Sophomore Rick Williamson will make his first start as a Navy quarterback Saturday in the game that means more to the service than all others combined, the annual showdown against Army.
In another key decision by Navy Coach Gary Tranquill, sophomore tailback Rich Clouse will make his first appearance at fullback, fulfilling Tranquill's long desire to put Clouse on the field at the same time as his other outstanding tailback, Napoleon McCallum.
Williamson had guided the Midshipmen on only eight offensive plays before an injury to Tom Tarquinio forced him into the spotlight at the start of the second half at South Carolina Nov. 13, Navy's most recent game. Williamson led the Midshipmen on a 73-yard touchdown drive, scoring himself on a one-yard sneak after running for a key 14-yard gain earlier.
It is Williamson's arm, not his legs, that has earned him the starting role, even though he has thrown only eight passes for Navy, completing four.
"I picked him because he can do what I like to do best; I like to pass," Tranquill said. "He's inexperienced, he hasn't played much and I don't know if he'll be ready. But I think so or I wouldn't do it. Ricky has run the team very well in practice the last couple of weeks."
Tarquinio will be available if needed, with his bruised shoulder rated at about 85 percent efficiency. Tarquinio is a better runner than Williamson, but he has thrown eight interceptions in 89 attempts as a replacement for Marco Pagnanelli, who suffered a broken leg in Navy's seventh game.
Asked about his reaction to the difficult starting assignment, Williamson said, "I was kind of nervous at first, but I'm getting used to it and I feel more comfortable every day. The three-week break since the last game has helped me a lot. I just come to practice and do a lot of repetition. That's how you get better."
As for the rivalry, Williamson said, "I really didn't know much about the Naval Academy until I came here. I was recruited by some other schools, but I picked Navy because of the academics. It wasn't long before I learned the importance of Army, though, because every day you hear 'Go Navy, beat Army.' "
A related announcement from the enemy camp indicates that this game could be decided by two young quarterbacks. Freshman Billy Turner, from Fort Hunt High School in Alexandria, has been elevated to No. 2 behind injury-plagued Rich Laughlin. Turner was a fourth stringer until he came in and hit four of five passes in leading the Cadets to their only touchdown against Pittsburgh Nov. 13.
If Williamson was delighted to learn of his assignment, Clouse was somewhat more restrained.
"When I told him, he said he didn't think he was a fullback," Tranquill said. "I said, 'Yes, you are, Rich.' The fullback blocks 90 percent of the time in our I and that concerned him. But I know he can't knock down the tight end time after time, and we've added a few plays for him similar to what he had at tailback.
"I've wanted to use both Clouse and McCallum together, but I can't convince my coaches. We do have problems and a move like that leaves us thin at tailback. But I'm really forced to do it, since we don't have (Andy) Skehan."
Skehan, nominally the No. 1 fullback, is one of nine Navy players lost for the season because of injuries. The three-week break has enabled several other wounded to return to duty -- rover Brian Cianella, cornerback Eric Wallace, cornerback Jon Ross, linebacker Carl Wagner, tight end Mark Stevens and linebacker Shawn Coulter.