August 1, 2012

Black Knights make summer gains

Army football's gains this summer are what the Black Knights didn't lose. And that's all was hoped for by Army head coach Rich Ellerson and his staff.

For example, returning senior starters such as quarterback Trent Steelman and left offensive guard Frank Allen left Fort Benning and CTLTs (Cadet Troop Leader Training) two weeks ago with weight gains from the end of the school year. Strength and conditioning coach Brett Gerch said his only goal was to help the players maintain their weight, so any gains are a bonus.

"I was down at Fort Benning in Georgia and the guys felt real good about the gains they made in strength and speed across the board," said Gerch, Army's strength and conditioning coach. "We're real pleased with what we saw."

After the seniors left Fort Benning for some time off at home, Gerch gave them conditioning programs to follow before they reported back to West Point on Tuesday before the Aug. 7th start of fall camp. Steelman, who was 6-foot, 208 pounds last year, checked in Tuesday at 212 pounds.  Allen, who was 6-4, 260, is now 267. In addition, Allen is bench-pressing 225 pounds 39 times; that's up from 34 reps.

The Training Paradox

The training paradox Army's football program has annually struggled with is the weight and strength gains from football conditioning throughout the school year were countered by losses during military duties in the summer.

Whereas coaches at civilian colleges want nearly their entire roster on campus attending summer school and training under the watchful eye of the strength and conditioning coaches (the NCAA prohibits the football staff from contact and working with their athletes in the summer), Army in the past saw its players scattered across the country to various bases fulfilling military responsibilities.

Army head coach Rich Ellerson, who is beginning his fourth year at West Point this season, understands his players are cadets first, so labeling the summer military responsibilities a problem to overcome was the wrong approach. Instead, Ellerson worked with the athletic department, the academy and the Pentagon to implement a system that more efficiently uses the players' time in the summer.

This was the first summer the new system was put to the test with changes from 70 players attending summer school to players stationed for duties at Fort Benning to Camp Buckner.

"I would grade it as an A," said Gerch, who arrived at West Point with Ellerson for the 2009 season. "I was more than pleased with what we got accomplished at Fort Benning. I definitely was pleasantly surprised with how the summer sessions went. All the guys that were here for summer sessions made great gains."

At Fort Benning, the dozen rising seniors football players were permitted 90-minute sessions with Gerch either before or after their military duties.

"We were just trying to maintain," Gerch explained. "We didn't want them to lose the body weight and strength they gained. The CTLT guys did a real good job. They maintained weight and some said they felt stronger towards the latter half of the summer."

Camp Buckner

For the rising sophomores that were at Camp Buckner near West Point, that meant mixing in workout schedules and proper nutrition when the players weren't out in the field relying on MREs (meals ready to eat). Although it's tougher for the cadets at Buckner to maintain their weight, Gerch added younger athletes are at a phase in their physical maturity that has them more likely to drop baby fat over their football weight.

But there were also some sophomores who didn't attend Camp Buckner that benefited from remaining at West Point in summer school. Colin Linkul, who was listed at 188 pounds at No. 3 quick defensive end on the spring depth chart, is up to 210 pounds, according to Gerch. That's 10 more pounds than the 12-pound gain originally thought in an earlier GoBlackKnights.com story. But one report of 20-pound weight gain by senior quick defensive end Zach Watts got distorted over the summer, although Gerch said Watts did gain five pounds and is now at 208.
 
Two others with significant weight gains after remaining at West Point for summer school were Hayden Pierce and Mike Ugenyi. Pierce, who is No. 1 at SAM outside linebacker, is up from 187 pounds to 200 on his 6-foot-3 frame. Ugenyi, who is listed as either/or at No. 2 right defensive tackle with sophomore John Drummond, is now 6-3, 265 after weighing 257 last spring.

"Mike is quicker off the ball, and that's the one thing we want out of him this season," Gerch said. "(Junior DT) Bobby Kough (6-3, 240) also got stronger and (senior DE) Jarrett Mackey (6-1, 235) is coming along. Jarrett was rehabbing his knee and not able to do a lot of lower body work, but he maintained his weight."

The changes to the football program this summer allows Army to better keep pace with summer progress made at civilian college programs. At the Big Ten media days last week, second-year Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson, a former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, was proudly boasting he had 100 players on campus for the summer in his rebuilding effort. Army only had 70, but it's progress for the Black Knights under Ellerson.
 
"The 70 players we had here this summer were more than any of the four years since I've been here -- probably ever, for that matter," Gerch said.

But one area where Army never has to play catch up with civilian colleges is the Ranger training experienced by the dozen Black Knights based at Fort Benning this summer.

Such training comes as an intense surprise for most college athletes. In a May 31 ESPN.com posting featured prominently on the website, writer Mark Schlabach highlighted the experience some Michigan players gained after the school year while training with Navy Seals in Coronado, Calif. Schlabach correctly praised Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who spent two years at nearby San Diego State, for ingeniously incorporating the SEALs sessions as part of a leadership training program.

"It's physical, for sure," Gerch said of the Army Ranger or Navy Seals training. "But all that stuff is pretty routine for us."

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