December 5, 2012

Army LB Combs focused on Navy and beyond

PHILADELPHIA -- Some college football players feel the pressure this time of year as they prepare for their last game. They want to go out a winner, of course, but the star players also are beginning to think about the NFL draft.
Take USC quarterback Matt Barkley, for example. When he missed his regular-season finale against Notre Dame, he heard were about how his shoulder injury would impact the NFL draft.
Not so for the seniors among the Black Knights and Midshipmen preparing for the 113th Army-Navy Game Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. They've known all along their next step is a five-year military commitment.
And then there is Army senior linebacker Nate Combs, a team co-captain and fourth-leading tackler despite missing two games with a shoulder injury. He was in Philadelphia for the Army-Navy press conference and luncheon last week on Wednesday and then on Thursday he learned his branch assignment upon graduation. Combs applied for infantry, so he said he knew his assignment without waiting for the official word.
Now that's a different perspective on pressure for a college senior to consider.
"I'm going to go in there and get my branch," Combs said. "Then I'm going to put the envelope on the top shelf until I'm done with Army-Navy. That's the most important thing right now."
Not to mention the pressure of eventually letting his mother Pam Combs know his branch.
"Of course, my mom is going to kill me when she finds out," Combs said. "She had her recommendations, and it wasn't infantry."
Combs, a 6-foot-1, 216-pounder from New Albany, Ind., then broke down his plans for the Army-Navy Game and beyond as can only a Cadet.
"You have your 10-meter targets and then your 300-meter targets," he said. "The 300-meter target was when we put in our branches a couple of months ago. I'm walking in there knowing I'm going to get infantry."
If only he could be so sure about his 10-meter target -- his final college game.
A lot more is riding on the 113th Army-Navy Game than most Army seniors have faced. The Black Knights (2-9) feel the responsibility to end a 10-year losing streak to Navy (7-4) -- a record in the series for either side -- and they also are in position to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1996.
"We've had time to get our bodies right," Combs said of the two bye weeks both teams have so Army-Navy can maintain its rightful place as the only game of the day to end college football's regular season.
"We know we can change what our season has become. The people on the team understand how big the game is. We have so many people tell us their emotions and how much the game means to them. We know it's a big deal, but we have to focus on what happens on the turf."
As incongruous as it might sound, Combs said as a senior and team co-captain one of his roles to help the younger players understand the Army-Navy Game is won with more than emotion.
"There will be some more emotion in the locker room," Combs said. "But as soon as you step on the field, that's gone. You have to think about your details and assignments. I'll make sure our guys understand that."
Combs finishes his thought and cringes as he recalls Navy's 27-21 win last year at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Navy quarterback Kris Proctor broke off a 32-yard run to set up a touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
Army was driving into Navy territory for a game-tying touchdown when Jared Hassin fumbled and Navy linebacker Brye French, a Navy senior team captain this year, recovered at the Navy 45. On the next play, Proctor broke off his big run to the Army 23.
Prevent that big play and maybe Army wins 21-20. That's a haunting thought for the returning Black Knights.
"The big thing is stop the big plays against the Navy offense," Combs said. "That's what killed us last year. Their quarterback scrambled on us on a pass. We have to mitigate the big plays and keep our offense on the field. We have to have (quarterback) Trent (Steelman) make some big plays to give us a sense of momentum. I think that will be the difference in the game."
Ah, yes -- The Game. There will be another game for college football's NFL-bound players, but this is The Game for the Black Knights and Midshipmen.

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