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Nevelle Has Cleared Himself a Space in the Great Northwest : Considered Short, He Shows Huskies He’s Long on Talent

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The seats are too narrow, the leg room too cramped, and the paltry meals woefully insufficient. Air travel can be brutal for senior Jim Nevelle, starting center on the Washington football team.

“When I’m on a commercial flight and I’m sitting next to somebody, I have to ask for the exit aisle or the bulkhead,” said Nevelle, no small cargo at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds. “They don’t understand when you tell them on the phone, but when you’re sitting in front of a travel agent, then they understand.”

Maybe some day Nevelle will make planes more muscle-friendly. A mechanical engineering major, he spent last summer as a Boeing Corp. intern doing structural analyses on aircraft. He has a math mind and is one of the best students on the football team.

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These days, he crunches more bodies than numbers. Nevelle, a Palmdale High graduate and one of four Husky captains, soon will squeeze his bulky body into one of those undersized seats for a trip south.

The 12th-ranked Huskies face No. 22 UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

The game marks Washington’s first return to Southern California since losing to Michigan in the Rose Bowl last January. Much has happened to the Husky program during the interim.

Longtime Coach Don James resigned immediately after the Pacific-10 Conference banned the Huskies from bowl games for two years. The sanctions were a result of a six-month conference investigation of the program, accused of misappropriation of recruiting funds and providing no-work summer jobs for players.

Throughout the turbulence, Nevelle has played a dual role of unofficial team spokesman and sage to younger teammates.

“Basically, you have the captains,” he said. “Four guys, four young men. All of a sudden, you get (the sanctions) thrown in your lap, and there’s 150 guys looking at us. They want to know not only if we’ll win games, but ‘Should we stay around?’ and ‘Who’s going to be coaching us?’ ”

Both questions have been answered. Jim Lambright, defensive coordinator under James, signed a four-year deal to coach the Huskies. There were no player defections, and the team (4-1) has posted victories over Stanford, East Carolina, San Jose State and California.

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Most memorable was the victory at Berkeley last Saturday, when Washington, trailing, 23-3, in the third quarter, scored 14 points in the final three minutes to win, 24-23. The victory was considered among the most stirring in Husky history.

To tune up for the Bruins, Nevelle said, Washington coaches have studied the first 57 minutes of the Cal game--when the Huskies committed seven turnovers--not the final three minutes.

“We made some errors,” Nevelle said. “Luckily, with the win, it makes the coaches a little bit more lenient with you this week.”

Showing leniency to UCLA is another matter. The last time the teams met, the Bruins upset Washington in Seattle, 25-22. That game cost Washington the 1990 national championship.

“I remember that game very distinctly,” said Nevelle, a second-string player at the time. “I have a teammate from high school, Travis Collier, that plays at UCLA. The worst part was having to go out there and shake his hand when he was jumping up and down.”

Nevelle aims to return the favor to Collier, the Bruins’ starting free safety, when the gun sounds after Saturday’s game. Between now and then, Nevelle has plenty of work to do.

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“He’s the catalyst,” said Steve Morton, Washington offensive line coach. “It all starts with him. Jim’s got to get things started from the inside out. He’s the first guy to touch the ball.”

He also will be the strongest guy to touch the ball. That’s because no player in the history of Washington football has lifted as much weight as Nevelle. He bench-presses 500 pounds, incline-presses 385, squats 800 and power cleans 367.

When Husky players speak of power cleaning and Nevelle, however, they’re not talking about pumping iron.

“I’m a neat freak,” he said. “I can’t stand having dirty dishes around. I vacuum all the time. I haven’t really gotten into the dusting mode, but when there’s stuff lying around, I pick it up. Whenever I go into somebody’s office and I see papers stacked up, I can’t stand it. I feel like reaching over the desk and doing it for them.”

His study schedule is as organized as his sock drawer.

“It was a Saturday night, and everyone would be partying or goofing off,” recalled tight end Ernie Conwell, who lived with Nevelle last summer. “Some of the guys would want to get a pizza or something. He’d say, ‘No, I gotta get this done.’ Then, he’d lock himself in his room for three hours and get it done.”

Nevelle, nicknamed Rocko, remembers those nights of sacrifice.

“Sometimes you get the classification as a nerd,” he said. “They tell me I’m locked away in my cave. I just sit at my desk and start playing around with numbers.”

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When it came to recruiting, college scouts played with some numbers too. Not all computed. Many were not interested because of his height, Nevelle said.

“They all wanted the tall linemen,” he said. “Washington was switching over to a faster offense, and they didn’t really care about your size, as long as you could move fast.”

He took recruiting trips to Stanford, which he found too disorganized; Air Force Academy, which he liked, but reasoned a military life wasn’t for him, and USC.

“I thought I was ‘SC bound through my junior year and halfway through my senior year,” he said. “It was close. They were a good team, good academic program. Then, I started realizing, ‘Do I want to spend another five years in downtown L.A.?’ ”

Apparently not. He opted for Washington after finding Seattle “the most serene place I had seen.”

He also sees opportunity here. Before a career in the aerospace industry, he wants to play pro ball. The Huskies have produced NFL centers Bern Brostek and Blair Bush of the Rams and Ed Cunningham of the Phoenix Cardinals.

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“In the Washington system, the center’s always in the spot to make the calls,” Nevelle said. “He always has to be in a position where he has to lead the offensive line. I don’t know if it’s brought out in people, or if they try to place a certain type person in that spot. I guess you’re either born or bred to be one.”

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