Midseason Report Card: Defense and Coaching
Defensive Line D
The signs were there this spring practice when it was obvious that after the graduation of three senior starters there wasn't much in the pipeline ready to play at the same level. The senior class Ellerson inherited offered no defensive line players to help unlike the last two seasons. The Army defensive line has struggled all season. The Black Knights lack size up front to deal with physical rushing attacks.
To make matters worse the only returning starter on the defensive line junior quick end Jarrett Mackey, who was expected to be a playmaker, suffered a season ending injury in the opener.
Zach Watts was moved from whip linebacker and has started at quick end the last five games. Watts (10 tackles, 2 1/2 for a loss, 1 sacks) has competed but at weighs just 207 pounds and is often engulfed attempting to stop the run. Junior A.J. Mackey (21 tackles, 3 1/2 for loss, a quarterback hurry) has been the most consistent performer. He was initially used as the traditional flex nose tackle but wasn't very effective trying to cover both A gaps. Mackey moved to more of a 4-3 defensive tackle. Fellow defensive tackle sophomore Holt Zalneraitis (10 tackles, 1 pass defensed, 1 quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery) has struggled at the point of attack. Zalneraitis is a good athlete, moves well but at 225 pounds is playing extended minutes a year too early. He really could use another off season in the weight room to add more muscle. He has good quickness which he showed when he nearly ran down Tulane running back Orleans Darkwa from behind when Darkwa burst free into the clear on a 67-yard run.
Andrew Rodriguez (28 tackles, 2 pass defensed, 2 fumble recoveries) moved from whip linebacker to defensive end two games ago in an effort to improve run defense. Rodriguez wasn't expected to play again but made a tremendous recovery from his back injury that caused him to miss all of last year. Rodriguez isn't as mobile as he was in 2009 but he is a sure tackler. Corey Watts (10 tackles, 1 sack) started the first four games and generated some pressure on the quarterback but wasn't holding up well against the run. That's the reason A-Rod was moved. In the Double Eagle flex the strong side end has controls the C gap against the run and it wasn't happening with Watts starting.
A number of other underclassmen have seen playing time. Direct admit Colin Linkul was hurt in the opener but returned against Tulane and posted two sacks. Linkul can really come off the edge. Clayton Keller (7 tackles, 1 sack), Jacob Drozd (1 sack) and plebe tackle Richard Glover have seen playing time and should help next year. For the season the Black Knights rank 70th in the nation in defense. It's a big step back from 2009 (16th in defense) and 2010 (29th in defense). This spring Rich Ellerson said, "We are a more athletic team, we're a faster team but we are going to be small even by our own standards." That's the truth. They are small and getting knocked off the ball every game.
At Rover senior co-captain Steve Erzinger is a three year starter and the defense's best player. Erzinger has been productive recording 64 tackles. On the season Erzinger has three sacks, 7.5 tackles for a loss and one quarterback hurry. He deserves an "A" grade for his play and leadership. Whip linebacker was manned by Zach Watts in the opener before Andrew Rodriguez took over in week two. After A-Rod moved to defensive end Nate Combs (14 tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defended) took over as the starter at whip linebacker. Combs suffered a serious knee injury last year and had a setback this summer. Combs lost some speed after his knee injury but still does a nice job of playing in space.
The Mike linebacking position has been unsettled all year. It's one of the reasons Army ranks 73rd in the nation in run defense. Reggie Nesbit (17 tackles) started the opener at Mike linebacker but was replaced after the defensive meltdown in the opener against Northern Illinois. Nesbit's athleticism and mobility intrigued the defensive staff but he's proven to be not physical enough for the role. Justin Trimble replaced Nesbit and Army played two very good defensive games in a row against quality opponents. Trimble's ability to get depth on his pass drops really helped the secondary which struggled in the opener. He knocked down Northwestern's final pass attempt to preserve the victory in a huge upset. Unfortunately, Trimble was injured in the first series against Ball State and has been out since. Plebe Geoffrey Bacon (13 tackle) has seen plenty of time the last few weeks. Bacon was the defensive MVP at USMAPS last year and has sideline to sideline range. He's a future starter at either Mike linebacker or Rover.
Defensive Backs D
Army's defensive backs were the one area of the team was expected to return some experience. However Antuan Aaron suffered a career ending neck injury and Richard King was attacked in a bizarre off season confrontation with Patti LaBelle's bodyguards. Junior Josh Jackson ended up being the only returning starter. Jackson is Army's best cornerback but is a little bit of a long strider and lacks the ideal hips and footwork of a top cornerback. Josh plays with confidence and is a willing hitter. This year he has posted 25 tackles, two passes defensed and an interception. Freshman Lamar Johnson- Harris has struggled since being named field cornerback in week two. Johnson-Harris is a small, undersized cornerback with average feet who lacks deep recovery speed. So far LJ has struggled in man coverage. He was a good tackler at USMAPS last year but at this level he has missed tackles and taken poor angles on a number of occasions. Army's defensive coordinators change the coverage scheme to help him.
Plebe strong safety Hayden Pierce (23 tackles, 1 pass defensed) has had a few tough moments, like when he was matched up against Miami (Ohio) wide receiver Nick Harwell, but he has been impressive for a freshman. Pierce is very alert and is a sure open field tackler. Sophomores Tyler Dickson (35 tackles, 1 pass defensed, 1 interception) after a rough opening game, has improved his play as the season has progressed. Dickson started at free safety the first four games before being moved to Mike linebacker after Trimble was injured. Thomas Holloway (34 tackles) has seen increased playing time when Army started playing the Cover 4 scheme. Holloway isn't the best athlete but understands the game and his assignments.
Waverly Washington started the opener at cornerback against Northern Illinois and was totally over matched. When he replaced Lamar Johnson- Harris against Ball State he gave up a quick touchdown and was benched again. Brian Cobbs was moved from slotback back to cornerback where he played as a plebe. Cobbs struggled in his only extensive playing time he saw against Ball State.
Rich Ellerson and his staff have had their hands full trying to coach up this young inexperienced team. The Black Knights play has been wildly inconsistent and full of challenges. On the offensive side, coordinator Ian Shields for the third year in a row has changed his base look to the wishbone revamped the offense with a full wishbone backfield and a no huddle offense. The results have been impressive as Army is the third in the nation in rushing despite replacing three offensive line starters since the opener. There have been more turnovers than last year which is frustrating but not unexpected with so many plebes carrying the ball. He's done an excellent job of getting the passing game going the last two weeks after a hideous start.
Defensive coordinators Chris Smeland and Payam Saadat have been playing with a tough hand all year. The Black Knights returned no size upfront and have struggled to stop anyone who runs right at them. They've been resilient in getting the team back on track after some blowout losses. They made myriad changes to the scheme; moving Mackey from a two gap nose tackle to defensive tackle; using Cover 4 to protect Johnson-Harris who can't handle field cornerback cover one responsibilities; extensive use of the run blitz. The problem is when their changes are countered, like blitzing the A gap was offset by Miami (Ohio) use of tighter offensive line splits, the Black Knights lack the individual playmakers to win the one on one battles consistently. The good news is many of these young players will benefit from the playing time they've seen this year.
Rich Ellerson deserves credit for this never ending efforts to find the best players to put on the field. He's not afraid to make changes, bench players or play plebes. It sounds like common sense but in the past many Army football coaches didn't give the underclassmen a fair chance even though they were the best at their position. For reference, think of Stephen Anderson under Brock. Ellerson at times didn't have his team ready to play. The Black Knights are a young team and have been dreadful on the road. His staff has shown the ability to adapt and overcome challenges. Right now his success in the future depends on his ability to recruit quality size. They've upgraded team speed but this defensive front four is smaller than his Cal Poly teams on the front line. There is only so much you can do with smoke and mirrors. This was a hard grade to make. The staff has adapted and made changes that usually have given the team a chance to compete but there have been the two losses against Northern Illinois and Ball State when the team looked lost and unprepared. They have done a very solid job coaching but the record is 2-4 and in the end you are judged by your record. I'll say it's a C+.
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