April 4, 2012

Coach Thompson brings special (teams) qualities to Army

West Point's prestige as an institution and Army's tradition as a football program attracted Luke Thompson as it would many football coaches with enough depth to their lives to see more than the next game plan.

He knew Army's history before the football tradition. That came from trips to campus with his father, a history buff, as a kid from traveling their Massachusetts home.

Luke Thompson V, a name that validates an appreciation for tradition, never let go of his special affection for West Point from those father-son trips before he set on his path of becoming a football coach.

But even Thompson was taken aback a bit when Army head coach Rich Ellerson introduced him at a team meeting. Ellerson casually told his players to stop by and introduce themselves when they had a chance.

"Right then the whole team lined up," Thompson said. "A hundred guys came by with a firm handshake, looked me in the eye and introduced themselves with a full name. I said, 'Woah, 'I hope I'm not accountable for knowing everybody's name now.'

"That was the moment when I realized this was a different place -- a special place. I was impressed with the cadets." 

That was the moment when I realized this was a different place -- a special place. I was impressed with the cadets.

- Fullback & Special Teams Coach, Luke Thompson

With the Thompson the new guy on a stable coaching staff, his first task has been studying game film and observing players in the offseason conditioning program. He's trying to get up to speed before fall camp opens in August.

He appears to be a good fit on the staff since his specialty throughout his career has been special teams, including the last six seasons at Georgetown. He's been plugged in to succeed Joe Ross as the fullback and special teams coach.

The fullback role is new to him -- he's previously coached linebackers and offensive linemen -- but Thompson believes it won't be hard to adapt. In Army's system, the fullbacks and quarterbacks work closely. Thus, Thompson and Ian Shields, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, have been huddled up.

"With myself coming from the other side of the ball, coach Shields has been bouncing things off of me about how we can give the defense problems," Thompson said. "Hopefully I'm bringing something to the table from a schematic standpoint. I'm excited about working on offense."

He inherits a fullback group with talent, experience and depth that is led by Larry Dixon, a 6-0, 220-pound returning starter. He carried 87 times for 542 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman last season.

Dixon shared the position with Jared Hassin, who is ticketed to play a slotback role in 2012 as a senior. But as a tandem, Dixon and Hassin (6-3, 230) were nearly a 1,000-yard rusher with 185 carries for 992 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. In addition to slotback, Hassin could still play a backup fullback role, although it appears that Hayden Tippett (5-11, 234), No. 3 on last year's depth chart, will step into the No. 2 spot behind Dixon going into fall camp.

"I  like the group, and I know from talking to coach Shields that Larry Dixon is a heck of a player," Thompson said. "There are a few guys that can do things and the guys that arrive in the fall can bring things to the table, too."

The area where Thompson is being asked to make changes is on special teams. The Black Knights needs to improve on all phases from kicking, to kick coverage to kick return. Upon Ellerson announcing Thompson's hiring, he pointed out he and Thompson had similar special teams philosophies.

"It's a big part of the game," Thompson said. "Some people overlook it, and we want to take advantage of it. We want to win games on special teams rather than play not to lose games. We want to do a good job of controlling that aspect of the game."

Thompson is still evaluating his talent, but he said having a young roster with developing depth can be ideal for improving special teams.

"What you look for on special teams are guys that can play in space," Thompson said. "I'm watching game film to see which guys can operate in space. Making a block in space is different from blocking a guy across the line from you. Can they tackle in space? Some guys are more explosive with the ball in their hands on returns."

With depth on the roster, experienced backups know their role and their opportunity to impact a game is on special teams. At the same time, some talented athletes are in backup role for now due to inexperience. As they learn the offensive and defensive systems, special teams is their chance to impact the game with their raw talent.

"We have some good young players in this program, and special teams is a good way for them to cut their teeth," Thompson said. "I'm excited to be working with these guys."

Thompson has started his job holed up studying video for the past month, but he will soon hit the recruiting trail with the NCAA window opening up for coaches to visit high school campuses from mid-April through May.

His recruiting turf will be an area he's familiar with from his Massachusetts roots and past six years at Georgetown. He'll be responsible for the Northeast from New England to Pennsylvania.

From his Georgetown days, Thompson has experience finding the athletes with the academic record to be admitted to West Point. But Georgetown is a Football Championship Subdivision school, so his pool will now include Division I athletes interested in a Football Bowl Subdivision school.

"I'm really excited to be here," Thompson said. "It's a privilege to be able coach the kinds of players we have here. To be able to work with these kinds of young men is something I've always wanted in my career. When the opportunity arose, I was all over it."

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