Army's defense gets ready for Navy

ArmySports.com spoke with co-defensive coordinator Chris Smeland recently as his defense prepared for the annual rivalry game against the Navy Midshipmen. Army hopes to snap its ten game losing streak to Navy and win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996.

The Black Knights defense enters the game following a brutal performance against Temple in which they allowed 531 rushing yards and 63 points. Despite losing all three contests against Navy since Rich Ellerson became head coach, the Black Knights have held Navy to less than their season rushing average in all three games Navy has won all three games despite rushing for an average of just 214 yards per game against the Black Knights.

Coach Smeland is glad to see his defense use the layoff to get healthier. Team captain and bandit linebacker Nate Combs, who has been playing with a sore shoulder, is feeling much better following the time off. Sophomore SAM safety Hayden Pierce will play for the first time since injuring his collarbone against Boston College. With Pierce's return senior Josh Jackson , who has been playing safety, will move back to field cornerback. Cornerback Marques Avery is the only defensive player who is will definitely miss the game. Avery injured his shoulder when he fell in the end zone against Rutgers and had surgery on his shoulder. It was the third time Avery had to have surgery on his shoulders during the last three years.

Smeland talked about Army defense against Navy over the past few season.

"Army has defended the option well because of the Black Knights familiarity with it and Rich Ellerson background both running it and defending against it," said Smeland. "There is a comfort zone we feel there with our [defensive] scheme. However, we can't give them the same look down after down."

Smeland gives Navy credit saying they've run the option a long time and know how to counter Army's changing defensive front.

"We need to keep changing things up and make sure their young quarterback [Keenan Reynolds] is spot on with his reads," said Smeland. "If we keep giving him different looks, he thinks he see ones thing when we're giving him another. We're going to try to take advantage of that and see if we can't be productive like we've been the last few years against these guys in slowing their running game down."

In discussing the failures against Temple and other big, physical zone blocking offensive lines the last two years Smeland is honest.

"When you go up against those 300, 320 pounders [opposing offensive linemen] and we're playing with 238, 245 pound guys and they start getting foot-to-foot splits and just wall off the ball carrier," said Smeland. "They can limit what we do [penetrate] and it's tough to get by those big old hogs."

Smeland also has been disappointed by the tackling and how the Black Knight's young defense misses too many assignments saying, "when we don't tackle well and it accentuates our lack of size."

Considering Smeland's previous success, running the double eagle flex, the last two years have been frustrating. Since his days at Hawaii, after taking over for Rich Ellerson as defensive coordinator, and later as defensive coordinator at Louisville, Michigan State and his first two years at West Point when the Black Knights were ranked No.16 (2009) and No. 29 (2010) in the nation in total defense. Smeland had only previously had solid to excellent defensive teams.

"We've played well in spurts at times but not well enough for sixty minutes," said Smeland. "We've been young up front the last two years on defense. We're still trying to find that right formula or fit for those young guys. We've still got a ways to go."

Smeland hinted that this coming spring some players may be moved around up front. He believes some of the young players should progress as they improve their footwork and understanding of the scheme and their responsibilities. The good news is that Smeland believes more of the young players starting now as opposed to last year is the start of the longer term solution to turning the defense around.

Part of the issue has been recruiting. Army lost all Stan Brock's defensive line recruits except Jarrett Mackey who has been hobbled the last two years with a serious knee injury. After Bobby Ross recruits Josh McNary, Mike Gann and others graduated there was no upperclassmen in the program the last two years on the defensive line to fill the void. Ellerson's best defensive recruits from 2009-2010 either left the prep program, the academy or in the case of Jacob Drozd, the team. Smeland believes this has changed the last two years with the Black Knights recruiting bigger more talented defensive line players but it is hard for players to make an impact as a freshman on the defensive line. An example he used was freshman T.J. Altimala who started out of position at defensive end due to injuries but they like his future and plan to move him back inside at nose tackle or as a three-technique tackle.

ArmySports.com Top Stories