October 11, 2011

GBK: Commentary -The Growing Pains

The Army Black Knights have an entire bye week to rethink, refuel or re-whatever else they need to do that would embellish this team to reach a place called "consistency" and a mindset that suggest that it is actually okay to bring your home swagger on the road and win .... even against an 0-4 Miami (Ohio) football team.

But perhaps, just perhaps what Head Coach Rich Ellerson, his staff, the players and the fans, along with this writer have to re-evaluate is that what is needed may not completely be available for the 2011 season.

Don't get me wrong ... there will never be any quit in this ball club, especially not with this staff and veteran players like Steve Erzinger and Trent Steelman. But it is clear that there are few ingredients missing from the menu of success for this squad.

The Roller-coaster Season

When you look at how the season has unfolded, starting with the season opener against Northern Illinois on the road ... this was and remains a very young squad. That youthfulness was evident in the first game of 2011 and clearly a "shock" to the rookies on the squad, that were both freshmen and inexperienced sophomores. This game saw Army fall and fall hard, 49-26.

Ahhhh yes, the Black Knights arrived home to take on San Diego State and the team had a complete turnaround in their performance where they statistically outperformed SDSU. Unfortunately, they fumbled the ball an amazing 8 times in which 4 lead to turnovers. The net result was a 23-20 loss to SDSU, but was reason to truly believe that this team could make some noise this season.

Obviously playing at home does have its benefits for a young team such as the one the Black Knights were putting on the field week after week.

However, would the pros of playing at Michie Stadium truly manifest itself against Big Ten foe, Northwestern? The answer there was as resounding yes, as everything was clicking for Army on that day .... at home. The Black Knights pulled of a close 21-14 win over the Wildcats.

The Army brass is neither over confident or naive to assume that even after a healthy victory over Northwestern, that Ball State, who would be next on the schedule would be a cake walk. But surely the mindset going into the 2nd game on the road against a Mid-American Conference opponent, that this was not same Army squad that looked more like a deer caught in the headlines versus Northern Illinois. But more so, a team who had shown weekly progression against SDSU and Northwestern.

But the safe haven of West Point proved to be the team's Achilles Heal once again and they suffered a 48-21 trouncing from their midwest host, Cardinals of Ball State.

So what can be attributed to the drop off in performance? Some would say and even Ellerson alluded to the fact that it was a murderous week academically for many of the players. Some did not work as hard to get the proper level of sleep that is required for one's body to fully recover. But on top of that, Ball State is a pretty quality ball club and surely a squad that Army was in no position to overlook or underestimate.

Yet their still remain hope, because Tulane would be making their way East to Michie Stadium.

The Black Knights continued their unneighborly ways, as they performed their own version of poor hosts by taking apart the Green Wave of Tulane 45-6, in what was their best overall team performance, as the offense, defense and special teams played solid across the board.

So what happen on the road versus Miami (Ohio)?

Well, what some fans and observers don't realize about Saturday's contest is that it probably had less to do about playing on the road as much as the opponent itself.

Although 0-4, there was more to Miami than meets the eye. There were several opportunities in this ball game to put the RedHawks away, especially while leading 28-14, but it just did not happen or more so, the Black Knights just didn't seem to know how.

And in the end, Miami just made more quality plays than Army could muster. If the Black Knights are to be competitive, consistently, they must be able to hold onto a 14 point 2nd half lead, but do so with the level of intensity and swagger that puts the opponent on edge.

Against Miami, the Black Knights punted the ball to the RedHawks 2 yard line with 10:20 remaining in the contest. It is this type of moment that creme has to rise to the crop and it has little do at this stage of the season if the game is on the road or at Michie Stadium.

To see Miami march 98 yards in nine plays to take the lead for good, clearly has the Army coaching staff scratching their heads wondering what they must do to get this group moving in the right direction.

GoBlackKnights.com will attempt to provide an overview of what has unfolding this season, all the way up to Saturday's close loss to Miami (Ohio).

Changing of the Guard

Coming into this season, there was legitimate concern not only surrounding how young the defense would be, but also how inexperienced some of the sophomore and even juniors players were.

Losing both the experience and talent in names like Anderson, McNary, Gann, Travis, Dixon, Trimble and others would be a mountain that the staff would have to overcome.

Loss of 2011

Add to that fact, that three returning contributors who were to be counted on for 2011 would not make it to or pass the first game for various reasons.

Cornerbacks Antuan Aaron and Richard King would never see a snap this season and perhaps the biggest loss was that of Jarrett Mackey, who moved from defensive tackle to quick defensive end in Army's Double-Eagle Flex "D". The junior from Snellville (GA) was the Black Knights most talented player up front and the only one that had quality game reps on his resume.

The Youth Movement

Just through the first two games alone, the Black Knights had 26 players make their college football debut, including 11 "freshmen". Twenty-three (23) of those stepped on the field for the very first time in the season opener on the road against Northern Illinois.

Add to that, fifteen (15) players have made their first career starts this season, including three freshmen. There were 11 first time starters on the field at NIU, five on offense and six on defense.

"For many of the players, it's almost a state of mind relative to their performance on the field, because technically speaking, this is a young ball club that truly is looking to establish their identity," shared defensive tackle coach Clarence Holmes.

At home this team appears to have a certain level of comfort and confidence, which is not unusual for a young squad, especially the Black Knights' defense that has been both cold and hot .... but more cold on the road.

For many of the frosh and even the inexperienced sophomores, taking the show on the road is almost a distraction in itself. Many have grown accustomed to the routines of West Point and when they get their "kick out of jail card", it changes interesting change of pace for many of the rookies. Yes, their are seasoned vets on the team who have a responsibility to lead, but what is very noticeable in this group of leaders versus 2011 is almost night & day.

Last years leaders were not necessarily designated with the title captain. So beyond the Captain Steve Anderson, you had McNary, Gann, Travis and others who not only were quality mentors, they were extremely animated and vocal. The 2010 team was a squad that truly propelled itself on the road, where they finished the season 4-2.

Not to suggest that one style supersede another, but this team is still learning and has a more reserved approach. There is even a sense of uncertainty relative to various game situations, but even more so, who they are ... their identity.

And like teams in the past, establishing one's identity comes with time and true game experience.

The Weight Theory

Is there a direct correlation between asking a very smallish interior defensive line to have an impact weekly against much bigger opponents and the outcome of the games?

Every offensive line that Army plays, significantly outweighs the Black Knights and it will be that way for the balance of this season and even in 2012. Perhaps the only exception being Fordham University and the jury is still out there.

So when you look inside the trenches for Army, every week there's a battle there with the nose/defensive tackles and one may ask, is too difficult of a physical recovery for Army interior "D" lineman to effective weekly without a some sort of drop-off.

Hence, one theory is that the weekly inconsistency has less to do with playing on the road as much as it has to do with undersized defensive tackles who are unable to maintain continuity from one week to the next. Again, perhaps more theory than fact, but here are the players who are leveraging up front right now for Army.

In the middle you have A.J. Mackey (6-foot-1, 240 pounds), Brian Zalneraitis (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), who is still growing into the position and brings a lot of athleticism. lateral threat and quickness to the role, but he's really a defensive end.

When it comes to the sophomore defensive tackle, but don't expect him to blow up and hit anyone in the mouth, that's just not what he offers inside.

In when you look at the depth at this position, they are all pretty much clones of one another relative to size and experience, perhaps with the exception of Jacob Drozds/db], who is probably the most athletic and explosive inside. But like Zalneraitis, he only tips the scales at 225 pounds.

However, there is some possible size and talent that is starting to materialize within the ranks. That belongs to "sleeper" [db]Richard Glover, who is a product of the USMAPS. The 6-foot-0, 270 pound defensive tackle has shown promise.

Although Glover did not receive any reps against Miami (OH), he was able to see some time against Tulane. Presently, the freshman's on field presence is determine by which scheme the defense is running, but he does offer up some level of interior size and talent to the Army d-line.

Another player with potential is 6-foot-3, 255 pound freshman Mike Ugenyi, who needs to pick up the pace in order to see the field.


Of course, there is limited time to come up with answers to some questions that may not answerable within the allotted time frame, which is the final six games of the season.

These final six game now become the second season if you will and the Black Knights are facing some very difficult opponents ... and three (Rutgers, Air Force and Navy) have owned Army over recent years.

Hopefully the youthful mindset and performance that resulted in inconsistent play during the first half of the schedule, will now see this team shake the "rookie" status and put on the armor of experience to close out the final six games of the 2011 campaign.

Yes, there is plenty of optimism surrounding this program, along with its future and rightfully so.

However, some of that excitement will be predicated on how strong this team finishes out this season.

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