Blue Ribbon Preview: Army
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Give Army credit. It knew last year.
It knew that its team chemistry was as good as anybody could remember. It knew that it had finally found offensive and defensive systems -- head coach Rich Ellerson's triple-option offense and double-eagle flex defense -- that fit its personnel perfectly. It knew that if a few breaks went its way, it could accomplish something that a Knights team hadn't accomplished in almost 15 years.
"We had high hopes," Ellerson said of his team's mindset entering last year.
The shine from last year's 7-6 campaign, Army's best since 1996, has yet to wear off. Junior quarterback Trent Steelman still receives slaps on the back from alumni who congratulate him for helping return the Knights to respectability. Ellerson noticed a bounce in his players' step during the spring that he hadn't seen since he arrived three years ago.
Ellerson, however, knows it would be foolish to feel any sense of relief. The Knights forced their way onto the FBS radar after being off it for almost 15 years. Now they must work even harder to stay there.
"We have to go from high hopes to high expectations," Ellerson said. "I think people are paying attention to us, but they're not necessarily convinced. To do that, all sorts of things need to be accomplished."
One way Ellerson chose to remind his team that its work isn't finished, especially considering it lost 11 starters from last season, was by ratcheting up the intensity in spring practice.
"I'd say it was as physical a spring as I've ever run," Ellerson said. "I wanted the younger guys to distinguish themselves. I wanted them to knock each other down and get after each other."
Head Coach: Rich Ellerson (Hawaii '77)
Record at school: 12-13 (2 years)
Career record: 72-54 (11 years)
• Ian Shields (Oregon State '97) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Payam Saadat (Washington State '95) Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
• Chris Smeland (Cal Poly '74) Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
• John Brock (Curry College '02) Rovers/B-Squad
• Tony Coaxum (West Point '00) Cornerbacks
• Andy Guyader (Cal Poly '97) Wide Receivers
• Capt. Clarence Holmes (West Point '03) Defensive Tackles
• Robert Lyles (TCU '94) Whip Linebacker
• Gene McKeehan (Utah State '68) Offensive Guards/Centers
• John Mumford (Pittsburgh State '79) Defensive Ends
• Joe Ross (West Point '95) Fullbacks/Special Teams
• Bill Tripp (Bridgeport '70) Offensive Tackles
• Tucker Waugh (DePauw '93) Slot Backs/Recruiting Coordinator
News that junior quarterback Trent Steelman (6-0, 204) tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder at some point last year and would require off-season surgery to repair it should have concerned Ellerson. Instead, it elated him.
Steelman's as tough as they come, as evidenced by his 25-game starting streak. But the streak took its toll on him physically last year. His least-productive game was his last, a 16-14 win over SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. In that game, he rushed for 27 yards on 10 carries, completed 2-of-7 passes for 30 yards, and failed to find the end zone.
Steelman's injury gave Ellerson an excuse to hold an exhausted Steelman out of spring practice and allow him to recover.
"The biggest thing that's helped him is that he didn't have spring football, so that allowed his shoulder to tighten up," Ellerson said. "He's the last guy that needed to run into anybody this spring. I didn't even want him to fall down, let alone run into anybody."
Steelman admitted that watching spring practice rather than participating in it had a restorative effect on him.
"To be honest with you, this is the best spring I've had, because I've been able to get my legs back," Steelman said. "I haven't been able to do that since I got [to Army]."
A healthy Steelman should be a dangerous one. After a noteworthy freshman campaign, Steelman improved in every area last year. He completed 71-of-133 passes for 995 yards and seven touchdowns to go along with only three interceptions, and rushed for 721 yards on 197 carries and 11 touchdowns. His 197 carries and 11 touchdowns led the team. He's already ninth on Army's all-time combined yards list with 3,050.
Of course, any enthusiasm about Steelman's passing numbers must be tempered by the fact that the Knights ranked 120th out of 120 FBS teams in passing offense. But they did rank eighth in rushing offense, and Ellerson believes Steelman's passing stats will continue to rise thanks to his team's wealth of experience at wide receiver.
With his shoulder incapacitated during the spring, Steelman focused on improving some of the intangible aspects of his game.
"[Ellerson] quietly explained to me that this is my offense now," Steelman said. "The quarterback is a leader, and I need to be able to embrace it and take hold of it. I also need to become more reliable in crunch time."
Steelman doesn't come off the field often, but when he does he has a capable replacement in senior Max Jenkins (6-2, 195). Jenkins doesn't have much of a college resume. He completed only one pass last year for 20 yards, and rushed for 55 and a touchdown. But at Langham Creek High in Houston he set a single-season record for yards passing per game, and once threw for 386 yards as part of a 589-yard, eight-touchdown single-game performance.
Junior slot back Malcolm Brown (5-11, 180) enjoyed many accomplishments last year. He rushed for a career-high 343 yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries. His 5.5 yards-per-carry average was second-best on the team. But when most people talk about Brown last year, they don't mention his statistics. They mention a hit.
On a kickoff return against Rutgers, Brown absorbed a hit from Scarlet Knights defensive end Eric LeGrand that left Brown with a broken collarbone and LeGrand paralyzed. Brown missed the next four games, returning for the final two. Although his injury healed, the memory of the hit stayed with him. "It's still on my mind a lot at night," Brown told USA Today last year. "It's kinda hard. I'm still dealing with it."
Brown is fully recovered and hoping this season will provide him with the opportunity to create more positive memories.
Brown will be an integral part of a backfield that returns most of its talent from last year, when it ranked eighth in the FBS in rushing.
Starting opposite Brown will be sophomore Raymond Maples (6-1, 200). Maples made an immediate impact last year, rushing for 208 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries.
Not only does the slot back position have good starters, it has plenty of depth. Junior Brian Cobbs (5-11, 185) saw his role increase last year because of Brown's injury. Although his total yardage wasn't overwhelming (302 on 50 carries), he led the team with a 6.0-yards-per-carry average and scored five touchdowns.
Sophomore Jonathan Crucitti (5-11, 195) also played a larger role than he expected, carrying the ball 29 times for 87 yards. Neither Crucitti nor Cobbs participated in spring drills, as Cobbs played for the baseball team and Crucitti the track team.
Although the slot back position will be a strength this season, it's still No. 2 to the fullback position, in particular junior Jared Hassin (6-3, 235). Hassin arrived on campus last year with much hype, but he didn't live up to it immediately. Hassin struggled through the first five games, failing to rush for 100 yards in any of them. But he found his rhythm in the sixth game against Tulane, rushing for 144 yards, and never looked back. Over the next three games he rushed for 118 (Rutgers), 158 (VMI) and 114 (Air Force), tying an Army record with four consecutive 100-yard games.
Hassin wound up with a team-high 1,013 yards, and he scored nine TDs.
Hassin won't come out of the game often, but when he does, he'll be spelled by junior Dan McGue (6-2, 220), who didn't play last year but looked good in the spring, scoring two touchdowns in the spring game.
Army might never be an "aerial circus," as Ellerson said, but it does possess a stable of experienced receivers who have the ability to make big plays when given the opportunity.
Back for their second year in the starting lineup are senior Austin Barr (6-4, 210) and junior Davyd Brooks (6-3, 212). Barr and Brooks posted similar, pedestrian numbers last year. Barr finished with 14 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, while Brooks made 15 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown.
But a look inside their numbers reveals something impressive. Thirty-three percent of Brooks' catches went for 20 or more yards, including a 27-yarder against Notre Dame and a 22-yarder against SMU. Twenty-one percent of Barr's catches went for 30 or more yards, including a 39-yarder against Kent State.
Adding depth to the wide receiver position will be a trio of receivers who don't have any experience but possess plenty of athletic ability. Sophomore Jared McFarlin (6-5, 195) earned praise from Ellerson coming out of the spring and will be joined by classmates Justin Allen (5-10, 179) and Anthony Stephens (6-2, 190).
Ellerson entered the spring skeptical about how the Knights' offensive line would come together after losing four starters from last year's team. But he exited it hopeful.
"Coming out of the spring, we felt good about our progress on the offensive line," Ellerson said. "The guys [waiting] in the wings stepped into their roles. That's [the position] where we made the most progress."
Ellerson wasn't the only one who was impressed by the offensive line's spring performance. Steelman spent a lot of time watching the offensive line this spring and liked what he saw.
"That was a big question, because we only have one returning starter," Steelman said. "But those guys really developed. I think we could be more explosive and bigger [this season]. That's exciting."
The lone returning starter is junior left guard Frank Allen (6-4, 275), a key member of last year's rushing offense that ranked eighth in the FBS. Allen sat out the spring game, which allowed the coaching staff to take a good look at two of his position mates, senior Joe Bailey (6-2, 270) and junior Matt Villanti (6-3, 272).
Bailey, who's played in 23 games over his career and made three starts at left guard during his sophomore year, is listed as the co-starter at both right and left guard, but it's likely he'll end up as the starting right guard, with Villanti as his backup. Villanti appeared in every game last year but received most of his minutes on special teams.
Senior left tackle Brad Kelly (6-5, 250) was so impressive during the spring he earned the starting nod over senior Mike McDermott (6-6, 257). Both players have extensive experience. Kelly has appeared in 24 games over his career, starting one, while McDermott made four starts his sophomore year.
Opposite Kelly will be junior right tackle Derek Bisgard (6-1, 252), who also turned in an impressive spring. Neither Bisgard nor his backup, junior Ben Jebb (6-5, 244) have much experience. Bisgard played in one game last year, while Jebb has yet to log a collegiate appearance.
Ellerson was the most surprised by the play of junior center Will Wilson (6-2, 284), who won the starting job over sophomore Michael Klime (6-2, 240).
"I was surprisingly pleased with the play at center," Ellerson said. "I thought we'd be serviceable there, but not maybe as far along as we are. That was encouraging."
Ellerson knew entering the spring he wouldn't be able to find a defensive tackle to replace Mike Gann's productivity. But he didn't know he wouldn't be able to find a defensive tackle at all.
A rash of injuries to almost all of the Knights' top defensive tackles forced Ellerson to delay making a decision about starters until at least August. Senior Broghan Carnes (6-2, 250) and sophomore Bobby Kough (6-3, 240) missed all of the spring. As a result they weren't even mentioned in Army's official post-spring depth chart. Juniors A.J. Mackey (6-1, 266) and Parker Whitten (6-2, 235) are listed atop the depth chart, despite the fact Mackey also missed the spring and Whitten was limited. Chris Swain, who appeared in 11 games last year, participated in spring drills but has since left the team.
"Our top three guys didn't even step on the field, so [defensive line] remains a questions mark," Ellerson said. "It's something that's going to be a concern going into training camp."
Adding to Ellerson's concern is the fact he might have to reconfigure his defense to fit the Knights' talent, a decision he would have liked to have made during the spring.
Last year, Gann's tenacity allowed Army to use him as a nose tackle to go along with a pair of defensive ends and a "bandit," which is a defensive line/linebacker hybrid. Without Gann, Ellerson might have to add a defensive tackle to the mix.
The Knights' interior defensive line is Ellerson's primary concern, but it isn't his only one. The bandit position and one of the defensive end positions will probably be manned by players who haven't experienced a collegiate snap.
At bandit, sophomore Brian Zalneraitis (6-2, 220) played well enough to earn the starting nod over senior Chad Littlejohn (6-0, 234), who started seven games at linebacker last year. At defensive end, Army will go with either sophomore Corey Watts (5-11, 220) or sophomore Clayton Keller (6-2, 220). Watts, who's from the Pittsburgh area, is known as a big hitter.
The only returning starter on the defensive line is junior defensive end Jarrett Mackey (6-2, 230), but even he's out of position. Mackey started all 13 games last year at bandit, making 47 tackles, including four sacks. He also forced two fumbles. Backing him up will be sophomore Quentin Kantaris (6-2, 215), who played in nine games last year.
Even the most die-hard Army fan will have a difficult time sorting out the linebacker depth chart after Ellerson moved some players to take advantage of their skills sets and build depth.
The most notable move is that of senior captain Steve Erzinger (6-1, 222), who began the spring at rover, where he'd started 25 consecutive games, but finished it at middle linebacker. Erzinger is the Knights' most productive returning defensive player after making 76 tackles last year, including 4.5 tackles for loss, and breaking up five passes.
Backing up Erzinger will be junior Kyler Martin (6-2, 200), who began his career as a receiver, moved to linebacker, moved back to receiver, moved to defensive back and finally moved back to linebacker. Adding depth will be junior C.J. Shelley (5-9, 197), who has yet to play collegiately.
Erzinger's move allowed for a new starter at rover, and it will be either sophomore Justin Trimble (6-0, 200) or junior Nate Combs (6-2, 220). Trimble, whose older brother Jeremy is Army's all-time leader in receiving yards, appears to have the edge if only because he was healthy during the spring.
Combs sat the spring as he continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in last year's first defensive series. Whenever Combs comes back, it will be to a new position, as he suffered his injury at whip linebacker.
Adding depth to the rover position will be sophomore Matthew Luetjen (6-1, 205), who played quarterback last year.
Junior whip linebacker Zach Watts (6-0, 205) was also nicked up during the spring, but he did enough to show the coaching staff he can start. Watts played in 11 games last year, making 20 tackles, including a sack.
Backing him up will be seniors Bill Prosko (6-2, 207) and Justin Schaaf (5-11, 219), who both played in all 13 games last year.
Sophomore free safety Tyler Dickson (6-0, 195) and sophomore strong safety Lyle Beloney (5-11, 195) enjoyed two of the best spring practices judging by their depth-chart ascensions.
Dickson, who appeared in three games last year, began the spring behind junior Ty Shrader (5-10, 176), who appeared in 10 games last year, making 14 tackles. Shrader appeared to be the favorite to replace Donovan Travis, who led the team with five interceptions last year. But Dickson quickly passed him and established himself as the starter.
Not only did Dickson pass Shrader, so did sophomore Thomas Holloway (5-11, 190), who appeared in one game last year. Beloney didn't play last year, but he won the free safety job over sophomore Reggie Nesbit (6-2, 190), a converted linebacker who appeared in four games last year, and junior Robert Speidel (5-7, 197).
"Safety was a big concern," Erzinger said. "We lost Donovan Travis, who was like a general out there for us. Safety is a huge position to fill, but both those guys did a great job. I'm not sure how the coaches are looking at it, but from my perspective, I'm comfortable with both those guys back there."
While safety lacks experience, cornerback has plenty of it. Junior Josh Jackson (6-0, 185) didn't begin last year as the starter, but he quickly moved into that role. The speedster finished with 33 tackles, which led cornerbacks, an interception that he returned 59 yards and two pass break-ups.
Vying for starting time opposite Jackson will be seniors Antuan Aaron (5-9, 188) and senior James Whittington (5-10, 186). Aaron made 27 tackles last year but was limited to nine games because of a hamstring injury.
Adding depth to cornerback will be junior Waverly Washington (5-10, 194), who played in 13 games last year, mostly on special teams.
Punt and kick returns were an area of concern entering last year. But thanks to Jackson, they're not anymore. Jackson, who's also a starting cornerback, excelled at both duties last year, returning 18 punts for a 7.3 average, including a long of 16 yards, and 26 kicks for a 20.1 average, including a long of 42 yards.
Jackson's success came at the expense of senior Josh Jones (6-1, 199), who was the starting punt returner in 2008 and 2009. Jones will be Jackson's primary backup this season. Backing up Jackson on kick returns will be Maples, who's also a starting slot back.
Last spring, Ellerson identified senior place-kicker Alex Carlton's (6-0, 186) play as a cause for concern. Ellerson's concern no doubt extended into the early part of the regular season after Carlton missed five of his first seven kicks. But Ellerson stuck with Carlton, and he paid back Ellerson's confidence by making 13 of his final 15 field goals, including 11 in a row to end the year.
Carlton finished 15-for-22, giving him 33 field goals for his career. He also connected on 41-of-42 extra points.
Carlton might have to pull double duty this season, after the graduation of kick-off specialist Matt Campbell. The job could also go to junior Eric Osteen (6-1, 178). Osteen has yet to attempt a collegiate kick of any kind, but he once booted a 57-yard field goal in high school.
Last year, the Knights had plenty of experience at punter. Two-year starter Jonathan Bulls attempted all 56 punts, averaging 38.9 yards per punt, landing 22 inside the 20-yard line, and helping his team rank 63rd out of 120 FBS teams in net punting.
This year, they have no experience.
Competing to replace Bulls are senior Kolin Walk (6-0, 199) and junior Chris Boldt (6-0, 175). Walk hasn't attempted a punt, but he's been an integral part of the team the last two years as the holder on extra points.
If Walk wins the job, it will be interesting to see who his family roots for when Army faces Air Force. Walk's sister and uncle both graduated from Air Force, and two of his cousins are currently attending.
Steelman has played so many games for the Knights that it feels as though he's been around and will be around forever. But his career will come to an end some day. Ellerson knows that if his team is going to continue to improve, it will have to have someone well prepared to take Steelman's place.
To that end, Ellerson and his coaching staff recruited six quarterbacks. The quarterback haul was part of the Knights' overall recruiting plan to land more skilled players, who can athletically compete with their FBS opponents. In addition to the quarterbacks, Ellerson and his staff recruited 10 running backs.
Although none of the quarterback recruits were blessed with many stars from the recruiting analysts, there are some notable performers. Kelvin White (6-3, 212), from Enola, Pa., accounted for 2,300 yards and 27 touchdowns, including 18 passing, his senior year, and received scholarship offers from several FCS schools.
Running back Dwayne Randall (6-1, 205), from Frederick, Md., received interest from several ACC and Big East teams, and could be the Knights' next great fullback.
Paving the way for all the skill position players at offensive guard in the next couple of years could be David Evans (6-3, 270), from Sauquoit, N.Y.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Army finally achieved success under Ellerson last year, breaking through the .500 barrier thanks to a bowl-game win over SMU. The question now is whether the Knights can sustain their success with increased attention focused on them. Army's offense should be fine, with all of its skilled-position players returning.
As Ellerson said, the Knights will never be an "aerial circus," but they're running game will be among the best in the FBS, and Steelman won't hurt his team with his arm.
Defense, however, could hinder the Knights. The defensive line, a key position group in Ellerson's scheme, will most likely be in flux all season.
Army also has a challenging schedule, with Northern Illinois and San Diego State to begin the season, and Air Force, Rutgers, Temple and Navy to end it. If the Knights can return to a bowl game, their season will have been an unqualified success.
BLUE RIBBON: INDEPENDENT PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2011 season for each Independent school. Take a look: