Linebacker Nate Combs, recently named an Army football captain with Trent Steelman and Jarrett Mackey, was announced by head coach Rich Ellerson at his weekly Tuesday press conference as out for "the foreseeable future" with an injury suffered in the closing moments of the Kent State game.
During the Kent State game, I was on the sideline taking photos in the fourth quarter when Nate Combs ran by with a trainer heading to the Michie Stadium locker room, holding what looked like his right hand and arm. Army officers as a group are taught to never complain, and this is a trait the Army football players demonstrate to a fault, but Combs was obviously in pain.
The Eastern Michigan game notes issued by Army on Monday afternoon omitted Combs' name at his usual "Bandit" position, listing junior Jarrett Mackey as the probable starter. Mackey is normally a down lineman. I asked about the injury during the press conference, and Coach Ellerson described the situation. The Army football Sports Information Director Brian Gunning confirmed by email to me late Tuesday,
"Nate is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. They're not exactly sure how long, but it's not going to be anytime soon."
This status might be interpreted to indicate that Combs is out for most if not all of the rest of the season prior to the Navy game on December 8th. The three-week break before Navy might provide an opportunity for healing and a return. We will see—Army did not release the severity of the injury.
Missing the Air Force game in two weeks will be a bitter disappointment for the senior captain. Army has quietly been looking forward to this game all season. It is the first of the Commander-In-Chief games, and this group of seniors has not beaten Air Force during their careers. A home game with the Falcons is considered an opportunity to make up for disappointing losses in recent years.
Cadet Combs plays the key linebacker role called a "Bandit" in the Army "Double Eagle Flex" defensive. The position is charged with diving into holes to stop running plays early and put heat on the opposing quarterback. The Army defensive coaches say they want this position to play in the opposing team's backfield trying to stop plays before they hit the line of scrimmage.
The 6'1", 216-pounder is the third-leading tackler on the team after six games with 29 tackles, 17 of which were unassisted. Most importantly, Combs leads the team with nine tackles for loss of 51 yards and generated half of the Black Knights' 12 sacks on the season with six QB tackles generating total loss of 42 yards.
Of course, it is sacks and plays stopped for loss which can really help a defense stop drives and force punts. On a young defense struggling to make stops, Combs had become the key senior leader in the middle of the defense, making plays and directing the young players around him, often playing side by side with the sophomore tackles up front, Michael Ugenyi and Bobby Kough.
As successor to the role played for Army in recent years by Stephen Anderson and Steve Erzinger, the loss of Nate Combs for most if not all of the rest of the season is a blow that will be hard to overcome.
Look for middle linebacker Geoffrey Bacon and possibly outside linebacker Zach Watts to be given more responsibility along with Jarret Mackey, who is still building up his game after being out injured almost all of last year.
The Army team often looks to its military training for direction, as they are taught if a soldier falls, another takes his place and the unit keeps fighting. Overcoming the loss of Nate Combs for the coming games will be difficult, but the team has tremendous pride and will find ways for players to step up and try to fill the void.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX 1460 in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio. Twitter: SAL50NYRadio