Still, even I know that no football team – and especially no option football team – can have success without the benefit of a well organized and well coached offensive line. Talk all you want about the matchup problems opposing teams will have with covering 6-foot-10 wide receiver Ali Villanueva, or the ‘key’ quarterback competition between incumbent Chip Bowden and newcomer Trent Steelman; but when it comes to success or failure in 2009 you can bank on Army’s offensive line being at the center of attention.
It’s not just one of those generalizations which football commentators and color analysts love to make on your Saturday afternoon broadcasts either, but rather a tried and true mantra that any coach can and will attest to. Don’t believe me? Maybe you should take the word of one already established option football coach.
Back in June, I got the rare chance to actually go “in the film room” with Naval Academy football coach Ken Niumatalolo to see just what goes into a well executed option play. I won’t pretend to have understood everything that Niumatalolo went over, but one of the biggest takeaways from my lesson in “Option Football 101” was the importance of the interior offensive linemen on an option play. That’s not to say each and every player on the field doesn’t play an essential role in creating running lanes for the big-play gains on the perimeter, but rather a testament to the need of the offense to neutralize the middle linebacker of the opposing defense.
Neutralizing the middle linebacker isn’t the end-all, be-all of running a successful triple option play, but from my brief study with coach Niumatalolo it became very apparent that taking out the middle linebacker is often paramount for the development of a positive gain. This is a point of particular emphasis as more and more college teams see option offenses, and was demonstrated last season when Pittsburgh visited Navy in Annapolis. During that game, Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop lined up a few yards farther back than most middle linebackers would usually line up. Coach Niumatalolo told me this is a trend that he and his staff are seeing a lot more of lately, with particularly athletic linebackers like McKillop able to compensate for the distance by giving themselves better angles to avoid the interior lineman – often a guard – who is assigned to block them. Try as they may, both Niumatalolo and Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper were unable to scheme around McKillop, whose athleticism and instincts helped to stuff Navy’s attack from the inside out.
So what’s the lesson for Army with this little story? Well, the way I see it, the biggest challenge for Army offensive line coach Gene McKeehan and his staff won’t be in finding players to man Army’s new and noticeably thinner offensive line, but rather in getting these players up to speed with executing their roles in the offense during a game setting. Rich Ellerson has spoken at length since the spring about his confidence in the offensive line, and about how his mix of faster and more agile players will be able to better handle the demands of the scheme. No argument from me there, but the questions begs to be asked; will the new linemen be able to connect the ‘thought’ of what they need to do to the ‘action’ of actually doing it?
That obviously remains to be seen until the start of the season. The point to take away now, however, is that the first step in implementing a more effective line has already been made – namely the transition of more athletic players to that line. Yet does athleticism guarantee success without experience? To answer this question, let’s take a look at a player whom coach Ellerson has been very high on since this start of the spring, but nevertheless has yet to play a meaningful snap in an actual college game.
One question many Army fans have had is how well guard Seth Reed can be expected to perform after transitioning to the offense from the defense this past offseason. Reed, who at 6-foot-1, 266-pounds is a ‘lightweight’ by most teams’ offensive line standards, nevertheless fits the mold of the quick and explosive offensive lineman who can thrive in an option offense. Physical ability aside, making the transition from a backup on the defensive line to a starter on the offensive line seems like a lot to ask from a player in the course of one offseason, and looking for perspective on the matter I decided to consult a former Navy offensive lineman who made a similar transition a decade ago.
Center Terrence Anderson was not only an Academic-All American at Navy, but he was the anchor on a Midshipmen offensive line which ran the ball at will on opposing defenses during the 1998 and 1999 seasons. Anderson, who stands just under six feet tall, originally came to Navy out of Stillwater, Oklahoma as a linebacker, but was moved over to the Navy offensive line because he was unable to crack the starting lineup on defense. When I asked Anderson about the initial move to the offense I was expecting a story of hardship and excessive trial and error, but the story I got was much different. Instead of telling me about a steep learning curve, Anderson instead downplayed the transition, and said that if anything, the move to the offensive line was made easier by a “defensive mindset.”
“I think it is a fairly easy transition if you have a defensive mindset,” said Anderson, who now serves as a U.S. Navy doctor. “If you have that mindset - whether you are a defensive tackle or a linebacker like I was - then you can easily transition to the offensive line in this style of offense because you can have that sort of ‘reckless abandon’ that you would also have on defense.”
Added Anderson: “It’s about attacking the defense in this particular offense, and it just really lends itself to brining over guys from the other side of the ball.”
The good news for Army fans is that Seth Reed and the other members of the Army offensive line will be coached by the very man who helped Anderson make the transition a decade ago. Gene McKeehan may very well be the most experienced option offense position coach in the entire country, and brings two decades of trial and error with him in helping previously downtrodden offenses adjust to running the triple option. While nobody is saying that McKeehan will help Army’s offense vault to the top of the national rushing rankings in 2009, the point should be made that he has helped to facilitate this kind of transition before, and with the right players on the field he’s bound to have success doing it again.
With preseason camp rapidly approaching, all eyes will inevitably gravitate towards the offensive skill positions. And while nobody disputes the importance of the impending quarterback competition or the need for Army’s offense to find explosive players on the perimeter, Army fans would be right to remember that success and failure still depend on the players up front. That they might not fit the mold of the “down and dirty hogmollies” so often described by the media shouldn’t matter, just so long as they can carry on a tradition of a long, but noticeably thinner, grey line.