Created: Thursday, September 13, 2012 11:11 p.m. CST
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 11:13 p.m. CST

NIU faces challenge against Army's flex defense

Jamal Womble runs for a touchdown in NIU's 49-26 victory over Army in 2011. (Kyle Bursaw –

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DeKALB – Sometimes, you have to do a quick double take when glancing the depth chart of Army's double-eagle flex defense.

There are the two usual defensive tackles, but instead of listing defensive ends or outside linebackers, there's the "quick", "whip" and "bandit" positions on the line of scrimmage. There are two linebackers, the middle and the SAM, while the rover is a hybrid linebacker-safety. The secondary features the normal two cornerbacks and the free safety.

The quick, whip and bandit will either line up in a three-point stance, or play a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage.

Northern Illinois had a shot at the defense last season, and the Huskies get another opportunity to face the complicated scheme Saturday in West Point, N.Y.

"There's just different players that are off the ball that can fit in different spots that normally aren't there. You've got to make sure you're sound in that way," NIU head coach Dave Doeren said. "The good thing is, you kind of know what coverages that you're going to see. There's not a lot of masking going on from that standpoint."

The Black Knights defense can be confusing, and offenses often have to adjust to it. One play Army will show one thing while the next snap will be completely different.

Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Carey said Army will play anywhere from two to five players at the line of scrimmage.

"It's different. We don't see it, and we won't see it again the rest of the year. It's based on speed and confusion, and they do a good job with it," Carey said. "They're well-coached, and they're disciplined in what they do. So it presents challenges just because it's different and you don't see it."

Every one of the Black Knights' three hybrid-type players are built like linebackers. Zach Watts, the starter at the quick position, is just 5-11, 203 pounds. Whip starter Holt Zalneraitis is 6-2, 224 and Bandit Nate Combs is listed at 6-1, 216.

"They have a certain body-type of guy that they get at the academy, and they tailor their defense to that," Carey said.

As the defensive line coach at Arizona from 1992-95, fourth-year Army coach Rich Ellerson helped build the Wildcats' flex defense under then-head coach Dick Tomey. It eventually became known as the "Desert Swarm." Over that span, Arizona won 30 games and competed in three bowl games. The defense featured players like two-time All-American defensive tackle Rob Waldrop and future NFL linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

Ellerson returned to Tuscon in 1997 to become the Wildcats' defensive coordinator, and brought the system with him in 2001 to Cal Poly, where he had seven winning seasons in his eight years there before heading to West Point.

Huskies tight end Jason Schepler said the key to blocking the defense is just knowing the rules about whether to block a man, or stay in a certain zone against a unit that will show so many different things.

"You've just got to remember your rules when you get out there," Schepler said. "Bad things start to happen when you freak out, so you've just got to stay calm and block your rules."

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