In 2011, with many freshman and sophomores in important roles, the Army defense struggled with a lack of size and experience in the front line.
This year, players joining the team and experience earned through adversity should pay dividends. Army calls its defense the "Double Eagle Flex," which has its origins going back to when Coach Rich Ellerson was the defensive coordinator at Arizona.
After the major preseason scrimmage held at Michie Stadium in mid-August, I had a chance to speak with the Black Knights co-defensive coordinator Payam Saadat, who came to West Point four years ago with head Coach Rich Ellerson. During games, he works with the players on the sidelines while his co-coordinator Chris Smeland calls signals from the press box.
Last year in the Army-Navy game, the Black Knights were able to stop two Navy drives deep in their territory for field goals. I asked Coach Saadat about the time Army spent working in the scrimmage on goal line and short yardage defense,
We tried to create a situation, being aware of when we take the field and the attitude we try to have—one of those was a goal line situation inside the six yard line, where we were going to see if can keep someone out of the end zone. Establishing our identity in that area is an important aspect leading into this season, it is a critical part of the game, it is a critical part of the field. In trying to make sure we are mentally right, how we perform down there is important.
In 2011 the defense gave up an average of 28 points and 359 yards per game. They will need to improve their run stopping and add pressure on the quarterback. Coach Saadat commented on the progress the defense showed in the scrimmage,
The "Ones" had a longer drive, where I think you are seeing more minus yard plays, which is great. That gets us into situations where we really like to use our uniqueness to defend our opponents that third and long, second and long, down and distances. I think we accomplished that. Guys were running around well, we had some good strong tackling. Like to see some more turnovers, we need to be more ball aware with regard to the turnover game.
Improving the Black Knights for 2012 began with the defensive line finding young players and also those returning from injury who could add size and run stopping ability. Holt Zalneraitis received praise from Coach Ellerson for his play at defensive end. The addition of several players allows the very athletic Zalneraitis to play the WHIP position in the second row. Coach Saadat described several of the players he is counting on.
We have high expectations for all five guys...Bobby Kough (Jr, 6'3", 250), Mike Ugheni (So. 6'3", 250), Joe Drummond (So. 6-3, 220), Richard Glover (So., 6-0, 270), and Clayton Keller (Jr, 6'1" 226). Though three of those five, Bobby, Mike, and Joe have not played college football yet, we feel they are going to be a dominating force. Now they have to get in the game and play, but they have definitely made the picture look different to the guys standing behind them.
Last season, Coach Ellerson said that too many plays were being stopped by Erzinger and the safeties because they were not being stopped in the front line. I asked Coach Saadat about the role of the linebackers or second row players as they are called at West Point.
For us it is important that the middle functions the way we want it, everything works out from the middle. So if the middle is right, it is a ripple effect to the edges, and to the back end.
In 2011, Geoffrey Bacon was among the leading play makers on the defense with 60 tackles made and will start at the Middle or MIKE linebacker spot for the opening game. Coach Saadat described that the bigger defensive front should give Bacon more opportunities to stop plays,
Primarily with Geoffrey Bacon (So, 6'1", 200). Playing the "Mike" linebacker, playing behind those tackles, he is going to find a lot more day light in order to run. He is a young man who can run well—He is a strong tackler, he is physical, and with what those guys are doing in front of him, is going to allow him more room to get down hill and start running.
At the outside linebackers starting the season will be Hayden Pierce (So, 6'3", 180) at the SAM or strong side position and Justin Trimble (Jr, 5-11, 200) at the ROVER. Last year Pierce had 32 tackles and Trimble had 12 for Army.
At the Quick position will be Sr. Zack Watts and and at the Bandit spot, Sr. Nate Combs. Last season Combs had 37 tackles Watts had 26.About his outside linebackers Coach Saadat said,
We like what we have on the edges, with Hayden Pierce and Justin Trimble. Those guys have played a lot of football between them. Those three guys across are going to be able to take advantage of what we are able to do up front and how much we are going to be able to make big plays because of what the front five are doing in front of them.
The leading tackler of returning players from 2011 who made 76 tackles, Thomas Holloway will start as the back-up to Justin Trimble.
The defensive backfield for the Black Knights will have a couple of seniors providing leadership in cornerback Josh Jackson and Ty Shrader at Free Safety. Tyler Dickson, who had 60 tackles last year, will play the other corner.
Jackson, who catches punts for the team, is so fearless that Coach Ellerson has said he would rather he took more fair catches.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX 1460 AM and WVOX.com in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Listen to his reports Mondays and Fridays during the season at 6:35 AM and on the Sons of the American Legion report at 2:30 PM Mondays.