Army Captain Nate Combs will be back from a shoulder injury and in the defensive lineup this week as the Black Knights will battle arch-rival Air Force at Michie Stadium on Saturday.
The matchup will be the second of the three round robin Commander In Chief games between Air Force, Navy and West Point. On October 6 in Colorado Springs, Navy defeated Air Force 28-21 in overtime.
Air Force, as the CIC winner in 2011, can retain the trophy only if the Falcons win Saturday and Army defeats Navy in Philadelphia on December 8.
The addition of Nate Combs to the Army lineup will be a big boost as he is the best player on the team at rushing the passer and stopping plays short of the line of scrimmage.
The New Albany, Indiana native leads Army with nine tackles for a loss on the season, six of which were solo quarterback sacks.
Combs plays the "Quick" defensive position, which is basically a stand-up lineman responsible for diving into holes to catch ball-carriers in the backfield.
As head coach Rich Ellerson's weekly press call shifted to Wednesday because of Hurricane Sandy, I asked the coach about the roles of primary linebackers Geoffrey Bacon in the middle, Zack Watts on the outside, and Jarrett Mackey (normally a down lineman, who has been filling in at the "Quick" position):
Geoffery (Bacon) has to be a superb tackler and see the alley. He's had a lot of opportunities to make tackles and his percentage is not where it needs to be. But it's growing. What you see from Zach (Watts) and Jarrett (Mackey), you want those guys to be weapons on the edge, to make plays and control the space that Geoff has to tackle. They all work in concert that way.
Army will again field a starting lineup that includes eight sophomores and a freshman. Coach Ellerson talked about his defense compared to Air Force:
Defensively, we're quite a bit different in terms of our orientations, but we're playing with similar looking guys. I'd like to think that the biggest difference is they have a bunch of juniors and seniors and we're a little bit younger than that.
About the return of Nate Combs to his key spot in the defense, the Black Knight coach said:
We also get Nate (Combs) back this week, so you'll have him join that trio, which will thicken us up a bit. Nate has been the most dynamic player on defense this year in terms of making plays and creating opportunities.
One of the different aspects of this game is that after facing teams with 300-pound offensive linemen at all five positions, the Falcons' offensive team plays with linemen similar in size to Army players.
The Falcons front five on offense range from center Jordan Eason at 6'3" and 260 pounds to guard David Lore who weighs in at 235 pounds. Regarding the Air Force offense, Coach Ellerson said,
Offensively, obviously we're both running the football. They're running triple option with (quarterback Connor) Dietz, who has a great background running the option. When he played over the last few years as a back-up, they became a bit more of an option outfit. They are really leveraging that part of their offense. He's grown as a passer as well.
One of the reporters asked about the performance of junior running back Raymond Maples, who ran for over 100 yards in four of the first five games but has been held under the century mark in the three last outings against Mid-America Conference opponents.
Coach Ellerson's response reflected the Army coaching staff's view on Maples as a terrific blocker:
Ray (Maples) has been beat up pretty good. We've been playing some pretty sporty guys on defense. The thing you don't see is what Ray does without the ball. It's his burden that not only is he arguably as good or better than anyone else we have with the ball, he is without a doubt the best guy without the ball. You want Ray blocking for you.
Last week, sophomore running back Trenton Turrentine had a big game blocking for quarterback Trent Steelman (one block in the second quarter against Ball State sprang Steelman for a big gain).
Turrentine also gained 43 yards on four carries. The head coach was quite animated about the Keller, Texas native:
Every week he gets a little bit better. He got hurt last season and missed the spring. He came raring to go during training camp and on the first day in pads, he broke his thumb. He missed the next six weeks. He's a capable guy both with and without the ball. At times, he's been a devastating blocker.
Army freshman quarterback A.J. Schurr mentioned in an interview that he originally planned to enroll at Air Force, but his visit to West Point convinced him to join the Black Knights.
I asked Coach Ellerson about the recruiting competition between the service academies:
We don't spend a lot of time talking about the other service academies or civilian institutions. We spend our time in recruiting talking about West Point and articulating what's unique about this institution and this path that a young man is considering. The contrast takes care of itself. If we do a good job of explaining and presenting West Point, it doesn't matter who else is talking to you, you'll know if it fits or not.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY, Sons of the American Legion Radio and the American Legion On-line Update.