February 17, 2011

The Black Knights Kickoff Spring Practice

With melting snow and stubborn ice surrounding the Foley Athletic Center Wednesday afternoon, the Black Knights of Army began their spring football workouts.

Spring in February?

That makes about as much sense as Bing Crosby's 1934 tune, "It's June in January.''

Until, that is, you listen to Army head coach Rich Ellerson.

"The truth is we've had a full six-week cycle in the weight room in the off-season,'' he said after the team's two-hour workout in the spacious indoor facility. "It's given our guys a chance to get a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and certainly we've healed. And by getting spring done now we will have given ourselves a great stretch of time when guys can, again, recover and develop.

"What slows you down, what sets you back, is the physical contact, and that way we get that done early and we can answer some of the questions we have about the young personnel, because obviously we're gonna' have some new names and faces to get used to on this football team.

"We have suspicions about who those guys might be,'' he noted, "but we need to step back and believe what we see when we start running into each other on Saturday.''

More than 120 players took part in drills, dressed in shorts, numbered jerseys and game-day helmets.

By the time their spring game takes place - March 9 - most colleges around the country will be just starting spring workouts.

The goals of spring practice are of course essentially the same wherever you are, even if the majority of spring games will be in April. "Obviously spring football is about fundamental development,'' said Ellerson, who both observed drills as well as directed some. "It's a chance to go back and sharpen all that detailing, all that precision and prepare guys to start to compete for some vacancies in the depth chart - that can't happen on a day like this.

"As I told the guys, 'This isn't a day you go out and win a job. This is a day you prepare yourself to win a job; you find out what you do with your eyes and feet; you hone some of those reactions and details, and when we get into full pads we'll start to keep score.'

"It seems like just yesterday we were practicing for the bowl game,'' he added, "and son of a gun here we are.''

Wednesday they officially began a quest of replacing four of their offensive linemen, their leading rusher at slot back, three guys up front on defense, their spiritual leader at linebacker and two standout defensive backs.

Not to mention the punter and kickoff specialist.

But then, that's part of the joy of coaching. And the approach this spring will be decidedly different than a year ago. "We've taken another step forward,'' Ellerson said about what will be his third team on the hill. "There's a familiarity with our team's culture.

So it's going to be a little bit more of an aggressive spring from a contact standpoint.

- Head Coach, Rich Ellerson

There's a comfort level with our offensive and defensive systems. "The football (part), we don't have as much experience between the lines as we have in the past. There won't be as many guys who have gone out there on Saturday afternoons and done that. But in terms of guys who have been around our offense, been around our defense, been around our practice environment, they are used to hearing things that permeate the practice environment. "So from that standpoint we continue to grow. We will necessarily take a step back in terms of our presence in a competitive environment,'' he added. "So it's going to be a little bit more of an aggressive spring from a contact standpoint.''

Ellerson plans on creating more game-like situations, more competitive situations, in order for his players to, in his words, "have a chance to reveal that in fact they are 'The Guy.'

"We know things about our guys athletically, but we don't necessarily know that's not the same as being a football player. So we have to create opportunities for guys to present as players a dynamic combative situation - which is not necessarily what you do with a veteran football team.

"When we get to the end of spring you'll say, 'Yeah, we hit a little bit more, we were on the ground a little bit more.''

Ellerson, wearing shorts, a sweatshirt and his signature camouflage baseball cap, spent most of his time observing various position groups.

Assistant coaches led drills in getting running backs to properly explode into a blocking bag held by a teammate, defensive linemen charging a student assistant who was holding a football on a rope as they tried to pop it out from under his arm.

Punters spent about 15-20 minutes on the adjacent outdoor field, kicking within the dwindling snow drifts that bordered the field.

Some players, like quarterback Trent Steelman, hung out near their position units waiting out an injury. (More on him later today).

Early during workouts, however, Ellerson was hands-on with defensive linemen on subtle hand movements going against their offensive counterparts.

The basic approach was based on martial arts, a tool Ellerson has taught for years, the intent of which is to enlighten players, "to solve problems that have been proven by the masters of antiquity, if you will. "What we've done,'' he explained to a few reporters after practice, "is we've zeroed in on a handful of those things we've seen and we can validate within a relatively short period of time. Some of it you can make arguments for, but it might take years to find itself onto a game film. What we've found over the years is a body of knowledge that guys can pick up and you can see a year later. We start giving it now and you can see it next fall.''

The technique is basically hand-to-hand combat, with a defensive player trying to get an advantage in balance and therefore immediate entrance into the backfield. It's about beating run blocking and pass blocking.

Without the aid of a visual demonstration, suffice to say that his salute drills, side drills, space drills and spin drills will lead to what Ellerson calls the four levels of competence.

In simple terms, he uses an analogy of a 16-year-old learning to drive. "You can keep the car between the lines, man, but that's all you can do. You weren't listening to the radio you weren't trying to put your arm around your girlfriend. But now,'' he said with a smile, "you're talking to Suzie, you're playing the radio, you're singing along, you're thinking about what happened in class, and all of a sudden you're home!

"You achieved a degree of unconscious competence, associated with moving the car up and down the road. That's how you play football,'' Ellerson said. "That's how your fundamental package looks like. We talk about our sparring drill. We have these drills and we have these tools, a Western analogy which is very Eastern in its origin.

"Because we're all artists, we can use these same tools with different combinations and come up with unique solutions. So if you reach that level,'' he said, "where you don't think about it, you react. When you react to it you're really fast. You're really good''

This team has the potential to be really good. But again, it is very young. And the off-season that leads into actual spring and summer will serve as time for them to mature and improve.

For this group, Ellerson said, that will be critical.

And despite all the drills, despite spring in winter, this group has actual proof that Army can win football games. Army can go to bowl games. "We have to have this football team take that legacy, and embrace that legacy that's been passed on to them and make sure they make it their own out here,'' Ellerson said.

"These guys expect to win. They believe in what we're doing in terms of our offense and defense. They know those things will dictate the outcome of a game. And they know the bar's been raised. But they know there's room to push it to a higher level still.''

Starting with spring in February.

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