September 24, 2010

The Black Knights continue to build depth

When middle linebacker Stephen Anderson went down in the 4th quarter against Air Force with a season ending knee injury last year, the staff was hard pressed to "find" someone who could effectively step in.

The solution? Well, it was really more of an experiment, as freshman wide receiver Kyler Martin was called upon to play the inside backer spot. Of course that was a short leave position change for Martin. But more revealing it was reflection of the lack of development of the Army players as Ellerson and his staff were still in phase one of putting their imprint on the Black Knights' football program.

Once the 2009 season concluded … the extensive winter strength & conditioning began, followed by the team's promising spring and summer practices. It was clear that the staff and team have endured the growing pains of their first year together and the base had been laid.

What has become apparent in 2010 are the dividends from this foundation, where player development, which includes the players understanding the schemes, a complete cycle of S&C, comprehending the coaches' expectations, coaches getting the right players in the right positions, etc., have lead to one of most important factors of any team's success and that is depth … quality depth.

Are the Black Knights there yet? Not completely, but evidence confirms that they have made positive strides in just one season.

The Depth Factor

If this were 2009 and the trainers were to tell Ellerson during the third game of this season that his number one and two "C" slotbacks were down for the game, the Army mentor would be pressed to find a solution, as he was with the Anderson-Martin experimentation.

Essentially that is what occurred when starting slotback Patrick Mealy went down in the first half of the North Texas on Saturday. The initial reaction from the Army fans was concern. Not only because Army's leading rusher was sidelined, but his understudy, plebe Raymond Maples was designated as unable to play prior to the game. But this isn't 2009, and "quality" depth is slowly becoming an ally to the Black Knights. And in this case, freshman Jonathan Crucitti made his Army debut as he subbed for Mealy and Maples.

Even on the defensive side of the ball. Army's leading tackler last season is Mr. Always In The Right Place, Andrew Rodriquez, who has been sidelined since the latter part of summer practice. Stepping into the A-Rod's Whip linebacker spot was sophomore Nate Combs. But before Combs could get started, his season was over … as he was injured during the opening game against Eastern Michigan and is out for the year.

There is no doubt that losing Rodriguez is a big hit, and then Combs … but Chad Littlejohn is no "Johnny come lately" and had a decent game in his first start as a Black Knight last weekend.

When free safety Donovan Travis was less than 100% on Saturday … not a problem, in stepped Jordan Trimble, who himself was a starter at corner as a freshman prior to suffering a knee injury. The senior showed off his skills with a magnificent interception end zone interception.

The Offense & Depth

Well you get the picture and as Army travels to Durham, NC for their showdown with Duke, there are a few bumps and bruises on the defense but they are relatively healthy.

Offensively, there are still some questions surrounding Mealy and Maples availability for Saturday's encounter. But then again, if neither can go, offensive coordinator Ian Shields will have to reach into his depth bag.

Then it could be Crucitti again. "He did a heck of job last Saturday … so we were pleased with what Jonathan did," declares Shields, who has other options beyond his young slotback.

"Malcolm Brown can play that position as well, and Brian (Cobbs) and CeDarius Williams has some position flexibility there.

The fortunate thing is that there is some depth at the running back position that we didn't have in the past and we feel pretty good about that."

Then there is fullback Jared Hassin, who suffered through most of last week with back spasms that limited his practice time and caused the staff to regulate his game reps against North Texas. So the staff started and used senior Jacob Bohn.

"He played well against Hawaii and saw extensive action against North Texas," says Shields, who likes what Bohn brings to the table as a player.
"He's a sturdy guy and he played well, like I thought he would play. He gets good yards after contact, but he could have played better as well when he was in there and there are some things he would like to do better."

Whether Hassin is injured or not, Bohn provides a change of pace, along with spelling Hassin and keeping him fresh. "But he got better as that game went on. He's a physical-physical kid who plays at only 215 pound at 5-foot-9 on a good day," says a chuckling Shields of Bohn, who was an accomplished high school wrestler where he was recruited by several Division I schools for wrestling.

"Toughness is not an issue and has really good football instincts.

He's kind of a throw-back guy and we don't have any problems with Jacob Bohn being in the game and took Hassin out because Bohnny was playing pretty and Hassin wasn't full speed. Hassin didn't practice enough to warrant a start, he wasn't full speed and we got him out of there … we are going to need him the rest of the year."

The Fist

One unit that has not been bitten by the injury bug is the offensive line, who continues progress as the year goes on.

They consist of center Zachary Peterson, guards Frank Allen and Seth Reed along with tackles Anees Merzi and Jason Johnson.

The offensive line staff of Coaches McKeehan and Tripp like the continuity of the their front five and are reluctant to shake up the flow of the "fist". So they have stayed with the core five up front, although Joe Bailey has been practicing well and may be able to come in and spell Allen or Reed at guard.

"We did well and some had some missed assignment, but overall it was a solid assignment," Shield declares as talks about the guys upfront. "Anytime you run for 300 yard there are some good things going on. We are playing hard, coming off the ball and establishing the line of scrimmage."

The Receivers

Not only is Shields getting quality blocking up front, but the effectiveness of running the triple option is the blocking on the edges and down field.

"The key to the last football game in my mind was our perimeter blocking. I thought our receivers, in particularly Davyd Brooks really played their best game as far blocking on the perimeter. And I'm including our slot backs, Crucitti namely. There were some phenomenal blocks going on out there. That was really the key to the game … we just blocked better on the edges."

The OC is quick to give credit where credit is due when it comes to this aspect of the offense's renaissance.

"Coach Waugh (Tucker) has done a super job with our running backs and we are some much better on the edges than we were a year ago. Andy (Guyader) is bringing those receivers along who really aren't that experienced. Davyd Brooks really really played well and even Justin Allen came in at the end the game in some clutch situations and made some nice blocks.

With Brooks locked down at one receiver and Austin Barr, along with George Jordan as co-starters at the other spot that in itself is a solid trio. But look for Allen to get some more reps. He continues to improve and although he isn't the natural pass catcher because of his running back background, he is a physical presence who has some speed and can catch the ball.

Although they haven't seen the field and it may not happen this season, there are young receivers like Anthony Stephens and J.R. Woodward who lay in the shadows. They are players who aren't ready for primetime just yet. But more revealing is that their nurturing is an indicator where the program is continuing to grow when it comes to not being rushed to get freshmen immediate reps and the building quality depth.

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