Q&A with Army Football's Nate Combs
By Eric S. Bartelt
Each season has its fair share of challenges that football players must contend with both mentally and physically. This year proved to be another gauntlet that Army senior linebacker Nate Combs was willing to accept and conquer.
Combs dealt with injury again, missing two games due to a shoulder problem, much like in 2010 when he missed all but one drive when he injured his knee in the season opener. However, when Combs is on the field, he is a playmaker, a game-changer and the ultimate leader on the defensive side of the ball.
The 113th installment of the Army-Navy rivalry takes place Saturday at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field with the big incentive of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy at stake. The CIC Trophy is on the line due to Navy’s (7-4) 28-21 overtime win over Air Force and the Black Knights’ 41-21 victory over the Falcons earlier in the season.
While the season as a whole has been a disappointment for Army because of a 2-9 record, defeating the Midshipmen would wash much of the pain away.
If Army were to beat Navy this year, chances are Combs will be a major part of it; such has been the case in the last two academy games he’s played.
Last season, in his first Army-Navy Game start, Combs made a career-high nine tackles, two sacks and recovered a fumble. Then, this season versus Air Force, he finished with eight tackles, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and an interception that ended Air Force’s final drive.
It’s been an up and down year, but when the Pointer View sat down with Combs for a Q&A feature, the focus was on the positives, including the Air Force victory, his style of play, leadership and the road that lies ahead for the newly-branched future infantry officer.
Pointer View: Despite the loss against Navy last year, what did it mean to you to have a big game on that platform and to be involved in the Army-Navy rivalry?
Nate Combs: “It felt good. I’m kind of glad I was a part of that because it makes me that much more confident going into this one. We had a lot of defenders who actually got some experience during that game, so we won’t have the “huge” eyes when we go out there Saturday … because we are young all around.
“I felt good about my play, but the one thing I felt bad for was our seniors, guys like (Steven) Erzinger and Andrew Rodriguez— those guys had been my mentors here, guys I looked toward and to see their (emotion) after the game was kind of depressing. I don’t want any of the seniors to look like that this year.”
PV: You lead the team in a bunch of defensive categories (sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries) this year; describe your style of play at linebacker that allows you to be a playmaker on defense?
NC: “I try to get in the backfield every play and cause chaos—every play—and that’s my goal, to cause chaos and have the offensive coordinator to not know what to do the next play.
“How is he going to defeat this? I try to make sure I set up other plays as well. I always try to make sure (sophomore linebacker) Geoffery Bacon’s involved and (sophomore defensive back) Hayden Pierce too. We’ve got to get those guys involved in the game and make sure they are mentally in the game as well.”
PV: How has coaching proved to be a catalyst in your development as a player? NC: “I think (Coach Rich Ellerson) has given me the big picture of things. When I first came here, I only knew my position group in a sense that I would only know what the linebackers do, but Coach E really breaks it down well and where the defense is supposed to fit accordingly.
“He knows where everybody needs to be on every play with different fronts and so forth, and me getting that knowledge has helped me tremendously as a player, especially these last two seasons.”
PV: You bring a lot of energy to the field, emotionally-charged some would say. How important is it for you to know you’ve left everything on the field at the end of the day?
NC: “I think that’s a given, I think my brothers on the team would say that I’m giving it all every play and I would expect the same from them. That’s one of the things as a leader of the team you make sure you are doing because there’s a trickledown effect that will affect everybody on the team.
“People like Trent (Steelman), myself (and other leaders) must make sure we’re giving it our all every play because the team will emulate that and follow you—that means a lot to me and I try to make sure I do that every game.”
PV: You’ve scored two career touchdowns —against Fordham last year and Air Force this year—but let’s talk specifically about scoring against Air Force and describe the energy on the field and in the stadium after what had basically cemented the victory?
Senior linebacker Nate Combs scored his first collegiate touchdown last season in the snow versus Fordham. He returned the fumble 52 yards for the score during a 55-0 win Oct. 29, 2011. Photo by Tommy Gilligan/USMA PAO
NC: “It felt good. When I saw that ball out, I was wondering who was going to grab it. I kind of had that feeling last year against Navy too because I was actually blocking for whoever was going to grab it, then nobody grabbed it so I finally fell on it (in the Navy game).
“It’s one of those instances, a surprise effect, where I kind of cancel out the energy from the fans and stuff, but to see my teammates come up to me and congratulate me is an amazing feeling and seeing the coaches (happy), knowing that we finally did what we’ve been working for, for this long, and to give us the opportunity to win the CIC was amazing.”
PV: With the Air Force victory, was there a big weight lifted from the team’s shoulders after beating one of the academy rivals for the first time in seven years?
NC: “I think there was, not only with the football team, but I felt like the school itself … people were walking differently, a lot more confident in a way. We still have Navy obviously, but going into Navy I think we have more confidence because we played so well against Air Force.
“That was the Army team we were looking for all season and it showed up, and now we have another chance to show up on a bigger stage.”
PV: Like the Air Force victory, how special would a victory against Navy be, not only to sing the alma mater second, but to capture the CIC Trophy that hasn’t been here since 1996?
NC: “It would be unbelievable, not only for the team and the seniors, but also for the Army itself. I think the Army has been waiting to erupt to get that CIC back finally and to brag about it. That will give us a chance for something to brag about, especially right now that we’ve been in a decade of war—our guys need something, and maybe this will do something that they can grasp around and cheer for.”
PV: I know you mentioned about your brothers, talk about guys like Trent Steelman, going back to the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, and your senior brothers, all the victories, all the defeats and adversity you’ve been through —how special is this group?
NC: “This group is phenomenal. We’ve been with each other for some, the direct admits, four years and a lot of us prepsters five years, and the things we’ve been through. Most of us, like myself, we were recruited by Coach (Stan) Brock and then we had Coach E come in, the adversity that erupted from that was the unknown, such as, am I still going to be playing football?
“We lost a lot of guys going through our four years, not only from the football team but school, who we were all pretty close to … we really got close and really understood what’s at stake here, we see the big picture of the Army football program and we’re trying to leave that legacy behind. I think the CIC Trophy is one way we can leave our legacy on the Army football program.”
PV: Injuries have played a big part of your collegiate career. How tough was it from a competitive aspect to watch from the sidelines knowing you can be a difference maker out there?
NC: “That is a huge thing being a guy like myself. I hate watching that kind of stuff especially after losing those two games this season. I told myself after my sophomore season that I would never watch another game from the sidelines and this season was the first time I had to sit out (since then).
“I was kind of disappointed in myself because I wish I could have done something. I’m still disappointed that I could have somehow done something in some way to play in those games to help our team, maybe be a difference in our record. But, I just try to focus on the next target, and right now that’s Army-Navy.”
PV: This is your last game, there’s no bowl game, and in 2010, you basically missed the whole season except for one drive with a knee injury. How tough was it to be on the sidelines when the team beat SMU in the bowl game and, with that, can the CIC Trophy be a nice substitute?
NC: “You know some of the players still joke around about that, that I wasn’t really a part of that season. It would be kind of cool to actually make sure I contribute to something like this (winning the CIC) because, yes, I was a part of the team (in 2010) but I didn’t really contribute as much as I wanted to. But, to contribute to something like this, a victory in my last game would be a tremendous feeling.”