West Point co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Smeland helped guide the Black Knight defense, which was a big part of helping the team win seven games, including a bowl victory.
The graduate of Cal Poly has 26 years of experience as a Division I defensive coordinator, previously coaching at Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State before joining head coach Rich Ellerson at West Point in 2009.
Last year the Black Knights were ranked 29th in the country in total defense and third in the country in turnover percentage. The native of San Luis Obispo, Calif. first coached with Ellerson at Hawaii in the early 1990s.
We talked with Coach Smeland as the Black Knights started practice for the 2011 season:
Q: You are coming off a tremendous game at the end of last season, the bowl victory over SMU; tell us about your memory?
Smeland: Well, you always want to win your last one, that was great when that is a bowl. It was exciting for us to be in Dallas-Ft. Worth before the bowl. And when you finish up with a bowl victory, it makes the whole week worthwhile.
Q: You held spring practice very early, finishing in early March; how did the players react?
Smeland: We lost quite a few seniors off last year's team. We just felt that with the young guys we are going to play, the sooner we could get them going the more they would retain. Also it gave them more time for physical conditioning from the end of spring ball before they come back this time of year.
Q: A number of great names in West Point football graduated from last year's team. What is the legacy those players leave this defense?
Smeland: We carry around a sign whenever we travel on the road and everywhere we go, a "Swarm" sign. Those young men that graduated this past year really bought into what we are trying to do defensively as a staff and as team, in terms of getting all 11 guys to run the football, to swarm the football as much as we can. Yes, we lost some outstanding young men—Mike Gann, Steve Anderson, Donovan Travis and Josh McNary. We had quite a few guys who made huge contributions.
Q: What is it like as you try to find new players to fill those roles?
Smeland: We are excited about it. We think we have some very athletic young men in the program right now. We are going to be new at some spots, some new faces, guys who don't have as much experience, but very athletic. And because we have at some positions—we have more than one player, it creates a competitive environment. Anytime you are in a competitive environment you have a chance to make improvement, that is what we excited about.
Q: Who are some of the young players who stand out on the defense?
Smeland: At the SAM-saftey position we have [sophomore] Lyle Beloney and [sophomore] Reggie Nesbit. At the free safety position we have [sophomore] Thomas Holloway and [sophomore] Tyler Dickson competing . We have some young guys out on the edge, [freshman] Marques Avery competing with Josh Jackson. On [senior] Antuan Aaron's side, Antuan is competing with [freshman] Kendal Frederick and LJ over there. So we are excited about that.
Q: What are some of your objectives as you start summer practice?
Smeland: One thing you want to start to do every year with every football season, we want to bond them as a team. It doesn't just happen because you are a team, the guys have to work at it. So one of our main objectives coming out of fall practice is to bond as a team.
All these new faces, offensively, defensively and special teams-wise so that we all understand we all have a role in having successful outcomes we are looking forward to having on Saturdays. So bonding the team is one priority coming out of summer camp.
Q: What are the keys to victory that you talk to the players about?
Smeland: Coach takes us to a meeting room and points to a sign with a star surrounded by five goals for Army football:
1. Perfect Effort
2. Win the Turnover Battle
3. Win the Kicking Game
4. Win the Mental Game
5. Win the Critical Situations
By "perfect effort," an example is a young man maybe his only snap might only be on the kickoff team, but he needs to control his lane, and if the ball attacks his alley, he got to leverage the ball just as he is supposed to do it, and make the tackle. If he has done that and if he has only has that one opportunity but does it at full speed, then he has done his job.
We need to get all 100 or 67 players you travel with to take that same attitude: "Hey, if I am on the field for 20 plays or 40 plays, it does not matter, I am going to give it my best effort, a Perfect Effort, 100 percent, every single snap." Then we have a great opportunity.
Q: What are the "Critical Situations" and how do you define the "Mental Game?
Smeland: Sometimes coming out of a timeout, or maybe it is a third-down-and-seven and we need to execute on offense, to make a perfect throw and catch. Let's execute on that critical situation. Same thing on the defensive side of the ball. Maybe it is a fourth-down situation, maybe it is third and long and we need to get them off the field, we need to get them to punt the football before they can get that first down and they have a chance to get into a field goal area. So there are critical situations which take place.
By the mental game, no stupid penalties—let's don't hit the quarterback after he has released the ball, so we practice that during the week. If we are attacking the quarterback, and we see the ball is thrown away, boom, we make a conscious effort to get our head out of the way of making contact with the quarterback so the official can see that. We do little things like that. No stupid penalties on third down. Let's not jump offside on third-and-four—that is the mental part of the game.
Q: What about the "Turnover Battle" and the "Kicking game"?
Smeland: Obviously the turnover battle is huge. What were we last year, third in the country in turnover margin? It made a big role in our success. When the offense is not turning over the ball and the defense is generating lots of turnovers, it creates more ball possessions for the offense. It gives us the opportunity to change field position in big chunks.
On the kicking game, when we are kicking field goals and we are not letting up big returns against us. The kicking game plays a big role.
Q: You are of often playing teams with offensive lines much bigger in size than your defense; how do you work with that?
Smeland: It is the nature of what we do defensively. We get the defensive lineman to attack in the seams, we are looking for penetration, we don't step and read and try to take a big guy on, we want to play on our opponents side of the line of scrimmage. We don't mind living on the edge as a defensive staff, in terms of making some little line movements or extra pressure. It is just the nature of what we do defensive. We have those guys upfront who "light their hair on fire" and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. It seems to be effective for our guys; we don't need big guys to do that.
Q: You said you look for players who show speed and explosion; what do you mean by explosion?
Smeland: You look at a guy who can throw a shot 50' or maybe a disc 150—that takes some explosion in to the shoulders, or hips, or legs, to make those weights do that. Maybe a guy is a 6'6" high jumper, or a sprinter that can run under 11 flat for the 100, those are indicators of explosion by a young man so those are the big numbers we are looking for in our recruiting.
Q: Over the offseason do you study the offenses of the teams you are going to face?
Smeland: Yes, some of the first couple of opponents are new staffs, so we have to discover some film of where some previous coordinators have come from and see what kind of thoughts they have and anticipate a little bit. We don't know exactly what they are going to do because this is their first season there and they are introducing themselves to their football players, and they are trying to discover what these guys can do. So we are playing a bit of a guessing game.
Q: Our best wishes as you start the 2011 season of Army football.
Smeland: Thanks, Ken.
Ken Kraetzer hosts the "West Point Football Report" every Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. EST starting Aug. 30 on New Rochelle, NY-based WVOX 1460 AM in the NY area.