September 23, 2009

Black Knights' secondary emerging

After three games, senior cornerback Mario Hill and his fellow defensive backs are excited with their development on the field, especially their performance this past Saturday against Ball State. Their aggressive style of play is something that this group will not back away from, as a matter of fact; it is the method in which they have been taught to play. For Hill, his approach has netted three pass interference calls in the last two games, but as far as the coaching staff is concern, that is the cost of doing business in the Ellerson style of defense.

"They really embraced the way we want the secondary to play in this defense," shares cornerback coach Tony Coaxum, who himself is a former Army corner and West Point graduate. "The defense is an aggressive attacking defense, even more so for us being in the backend, when the ball is the air, we feel it's ours. Those are calls we don't really get to up in arms about … he's making a play on the football, its' one of those things where it's a bang-bang play. We tell them to keep playing aggressive and those will pay off.

For Hill, the dividends manifested in 2nd quarter against Ball State as he registered his first career interception with 4:26 remaining. This resulted in Army getting the ball on the 41 yard line and an eventual Black Knights' score that came from a Trent Steelman to Ali Villanueva 24 yard touchdown toss and catch.

"Mario has done a great job in amping up his aggressiveness, along with the other guys," Coaxum shares. "We don't want to have them (penalties), but if are going to have them, it's because he's trying to get the ball."

On an Island

When it comes to Hill, who plays the field corner, it often appears as though the opposition is targeting him, but in essence it is a result of how the Black Knights play the field and boundary corners. When you look out at the field corner, there's a lot of grass out there and that is always inviting to an offense; wide open space and less bodies out there.

Contrary to what poet John Dunne has written, ("no man is an island, entire of himself, but every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."), Hill constantly finds himself on an island by himself. "Our field corners have the mentality that I'm out there by myself, I don't have help and that's how you play that position," confirms Coaxum.

"You really don't have a whole lot of help out there and you know that," states Hill. "You are going to be put into man to man competition against the best athletes that the other team has to offer and it going to be difficult. I never shy away from a challenge … I enjoy, its fun, but it's frustrating at times knowing the you can have good coverage and it's still a catch or that a wrong step could lead to a touchdown. You know he quarterback is going to take a shot out there, but as Coach Coaxum says, take it personally because they are basically saying they think their man is open and that they can make the play."

Not only is this a tightly knitted group, but just being around players like Hill, Antuan Aaron, Donovan Travis, freshman Josh Jackson and others, you can also pick-up on the friendly competition within the group.

"He (Donovan) got his first interception against Eastern Michigan and we have like an intersquad competition going on … he's up by two and a touchdown," says a laughing Hill, when speaking of Travis' Ball State heroics. "Antuan … his talking trash too, so he has to put himself on the board, but he will pretty soon."

DEFENSIVE QUARTERBACK

Speaking of Travis, the budding star safety has really stepped up his game and taken on a leadership role not only within the secondary, but on the defense as a whole.
"Donovan is our quarterback back there," declares Coaxum. "He's super smart … he knows where everyone on the defense. He's back there orchestrating everything … getting guys lined up, that's one of his greatest traits. He knows the defense and he's an extension of the coordinator on the field.

Even in practice and in warm ups, he knows not only where the secondary is suppose to be, where the Sam & Rover are suppose to be, where the Mike is suppose to be, he knows where everyone is suppose to be on that field. With him back there, we are always are going to be in the right call … the right defense. He's obviously a playmaker, always in the right position and obviously he had a great game. Reading the quarterback, getting us lined and making the plays when we need them.

He's what you want as a free safety, someone who is a factor in the run and the pass. He kind of our Cadillac back there … he's not a Ferrari, where he's a blazer, but he's an reliable Cadillac and that's what the guys call him. He's going to be in the right spot and he'll come up and make sure tackles when you need them … and be in the back end getting everyone lined up and like he did Saturday, make two great interceptions.

It also leans to getting guys like JJ (freshman Josh Jackson) in there. Young guys who are only playing their 3rd game, but he's the guy from the first game when JJ played extensively helped get him lined up, get settled down and in the right spot.

Freshmen Josh Jackson & Brian Cobbs

Although only a freshman, when Jackson takes the field, he looks the part of a young, but seasoned player. He is now the first corner off the bench and when the Black Knights go nickel or if Hill or Aaron goes down, he is the guy to go in for them at either field or boundary … he's getting reps at both positions.

"He's coming along … he's a freshman, but a smart football player," Coaxum states about his young corner. "He has some guys with a lot of talent in front of him. He's making strides … and we have guys that have played before, but JJ is doing a good job of staying in there and competing. He's a guy that we need for him to come in, I'm very confident in his ability to go out there and get the job done.

"Cobbs (Brian) is getting better… they both are freshmen and they make freshmen mistakes," Coaxum shares after three games to assess their development. "But they are both competitors and developing well. He's (Cobbs) on a lot of special teams and that's where he is focusing right now. He's a guy that before the year's out, I can see him getting some plays on the field and he's making strides like the other guys and getting more confident."

Versatility

As a result of Jackson's development, 2008 starting cornerback Jordan Trimble is now playing a lot more at the Sam postion and he's been able to provide more depth at the safety deal. The junior defender can play boundary corner if called upon, but is currently out of the corner mix. "Which shows his versatility because he can play two different positions for us and the last two games he played all Sam and nickel," notes Coaxum.

For Trimble, there is still the learning curve, as he experience against Ball State when he was beat for touchdown, but it took a great catch to do so. Although Donnie Dixon started the game at the Sam, Trimble played extensively and because they mirror one another so much, there's not a drop off in having either one on the field.

In the mix

Also in the mix and backing up Travis is Chase Prasinki and at the Sam spot, Desmond Lamb, who can also get back there and play the free safety position if called upon.

Coming together

"We talk about it all the time," says Hill. "One of our captains Stephen Anderson … he talks to us all the time how we can be one of the top defenses in the nation and we really feel that way. We have all the talent there, we have the game plan for it and all the positions can do it … and if we are doing it right, we can be one of the defenses in the nation.

Iowa State

Although Coach Coaxum and Hill have seen improvement, they know that there is more work ahead, especially this weekend as the Black Knights travel to play the Cyclones of Iowa State.

"There are a Big 12 team with a big strong quarterback back there who can really throw the football and he's athletic," says Coaxum. "We have to keep him contained and when he does start scrambling around back there, we have to make sure our guys stay in coverage. They are big across the board and it's going to be a test for us and we have to buckle down and attack them."

The Cyclones run what may view as a spread offense, with a lot of zone reads and they will throw the ball around and they surely have the athletes to make things happen. This will be real test for the Army secondary, but the defense as a whole, which is currently ranked 25th in the nation.


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