As Army has progressed over the past few years, fans have seen coaches come and go, have seen offensive scheme changes, and have garnered levels of hope at the onset of each season in terms of victories, points on the board, and overall production. When the offense has struggled, the defense has always had its share of talent and has been one of the brighter spots on the team.
This season, fans will see a different defensive look. When recently hired head coach Rich Ellerson was hired, he brought with him his own defensive staff and Double Eagle Flex defensive scheme. That staff has been hard at work putting the pieces in place that will make their unit work.
Ellerson has brought in Co-Defensive coordinators in Payat Sadaat and Chris Smeland. Covering the coverage side of the ball is Smeland, who worked with Ellerson at the University of Hawaii and who has successfully implemented the flex scheme at Utah State, Michigan State, and the University of Louisville.
Though only having three days of practice with his new team under his belt, Smeland is happy with what he has seen. "I know we're excited as a staff," begins the new Army coordinator. "We've got some guys that we've moved around a little bit. The first three days of practice were a couple days of shorts, one day of pads, and I know that's early to make finite impressions. But there are some guys that we moved from the offensive side to the defensive side, and vice versa, from one position to another. When we get back here on Monday, the picture is going to have changed a little already. I think as a defensive staff, and particularly Coach Ellerson's perspective, I think we're excited about some of these moves that we've made."
One of the things Army fans have been excited about are the potential changes in personnel at key positions. Smeland shared some of the initial changes that the staff will be implementing when the Black Knights return from Spring Break. "Desmond Lamb will be moving back to defense," explains Smeland. " The first three days he was on the other side of the ball at the quarterback position. He is going to come over and we are going to pencil him in at our SAM position, which is basically like a strong safety. We have taken Chase Prasnicki from the quarterback position and we are going to pencil him in at the free safety spot behind Donovan Travis. We've bounced around Steve Anderson, who initially lined up for us as a Whip, one of those flex guys that plays closer to the line of scrimmage. We've backed him up and we're going to put him in the middle of the formation, where he can be a playmaker at a number of different spots on the field, not just at the line of scrimmage or off the edge. Some of those moves, we think, are going to be very productive for us. We're anxious as a defensive staff to get these guys back here next Monday and to start to move forward with those types of things."
As the staff evaluates the talent they have inherited, they are anxious to understand the capabilities of their team and are constantly evaluating the talent on the field. However, after only three practices, there is still a lot of work to be done. In terms of areas of strength, it is still a work in progress. "I think it's a little early to tell," starts the defensive backfield mentor. "I think we all feel better about the moves that we've made, particularly the guys that are in those first (starting) slots. You look at Mario Hill at the Field Corner position, you've got a couple of guys competing at the Boundary Corner position in Richard King and Antuan Aaron, a couple of guys who look like they may be able to fill those roles and do a pretty good job of it. Donovan Travis at the Free Safety, and now we've had a chance to move Prasnicki in behind him. We're looking to make every position competitive, and we're excited about that. Behind Desmond Lamb at that SAM position, Joe Putum and Donald Dixon are guys that we think are going to compete. What that allows us to do is just tweak our scheme a little bit in terms of how we adjust to certain motions and formationing. I think that's going to make us more productive and put us in a better position on the field."
Most football fans are used to seeing a single coordinator managing the defensive side of the ball. Ellerson has employed co-coordinators, and the setup seems to be working well for the staff. "Basically, Payam (Sadaat) is going to coach the Mike and Rover linebacker positions, and oversee those guys and the guys up front. I will be coaching the SAM and Free Safety positions and look at what we are doing from a coverage perspective," explains Smeland. "The guy that will be working with me in coaching the corners is Tony Coaxum. The guys that will be working with Payam and the guys up front are Robert Lyles who will handle the Whips, John Mumford going to handle the Quick and the End, which are the two defensive end positions, and Clarence Holmes is going to handle the two tackle positions. Then John Brock is going to assist Payam with the Mike and the Rover."
Army's secondary went through some growing pains in 2008, battling through injuries and putting a lot of youth on the field. The hope is that the game experience gained by the young guys puts Army in a better position this fall. "I think Mario Hill brings experience and confidence with him when he steps on the field," observes Smeland. "I think the experience that Donovan Travis has gives him some confidence because he did get that playing time a year ago. There are some young guys there, Richard King and Antuan Aaron, that are going to need to work through that, and I think that's what's going to come as we progress through spring football with those guys. This might be a little bit of a new position for Desmond Lamb, so it's going to take him a little time to work into his role. But with his athleticism, I think that's what allows us to push him into that first role. I'm looking forward to getting him back here on Monday and seeing if that is going to be the best move for him and for us as a defense."
Starting cornerback Jordan Trimble was lost early in the season last year but showed great potential. Though he is still rehabbing, Smeland hopes to see him back on the field. "I think we will get him back. He has been rehabbing some offseason surgery, and we are anxious to get him on the field as well. I have not had a chance to evaluate him because we have not had a lot of time with him in offseason workouts or spring ball, but everything I have heard about him indicates that he's a guy that we are going to be able to count on."
The moves from one unit to the other seem to have focused on the defense. As of right now, there are no players from the 2008 defensive depth chart that have moved to the offensive side of the ball. "Initially we tired Desmond Lamb at quarterback because he had run some option in high school, but we made the decision that he's going to be more effective for us on defense."
Key to the success of the defense is the players ability to adapt to the new scheme, learn it, and execute. Smeland is happy with what he has seen in terms of the defense taking on the new challenge. "I think they have embraced what we are doing. We have kept it very simple at this point. We've really only run one front and one coverage. We're going to introduce a couple more fronts and another coverage when they come back on Monday and start to expand the package a little bit. But really the premise to the defense is to keep it simple, the front is independent of what we do in the back so it allows us to be a little more multiple in that regard. It boils down to being right with your eyes and your footwork, and playing at an effort level that is better than your opponent, and I think that fits the profile of the young man West Point attracts."
While getting the defense up to speed is the main focus, Smeland does not forget where he is coaching, and his experience thus far at West Point has been extremely positive. "This is a place that I think every coach in the country would like to say at some point in their career had an opportunity to experience," explains the Army coach. "I couldn't have picked a better fit for me than West Point. This has been a great environment and situation for me to this point. I am looking forward to football Saturdays. I've been here previously on football Saturdays when I was at the University of Louisville and Army was a part of Conference USA. It was a special Saturday afternoon. Just the traditions of West Point. When you step out on post, the hair on the back of your neck stands up every day. I'm very excited about being here, and very excited to be working with Coach Ellerson again. He and I were assistants together at the University of Hawaii and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a football coach, not only in the X's and O's, but as a leader. He really has a grasp of the whole picture here at West Point, which I feel is a real positive for the cadets here, the alumni, and everyone associated with the Academy."
As Army continues its preparation for the fall, Smeland's base expectations for the spring are to get the players moving in the right direction and to have them stay healthy. "We want to continue to develop the defense in terms of the knowledge of what we are trying to accomplish. We want to get our basic concepts in and to keep the kids healthy at the end of these 15 days."
For Army fans, the new defensive scheme hopefully translates to continued success and improvement on the defensive side of the ball, gets the ball in the offense's hands, and translates to more wins this fall.
GoBlackKnights.com will continue to follow Army's spring progress through the Spring Game.
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