Blue Ribbon Preview: Army
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Give Army head coach Rich Ellerson credit; he's not afraid to think creatively.
After watching his team go 3-9 last year, Ellerson shook things up
Sept. 8 -- @San Deigo State
15 -- Northern Illinois
22 -- @Wake Forest
29 -- Stonybrook
Oct. 6 -- Boston College
13 -- Kent State
20 -- @Eastern Michigan
27 -- Ball State
Nov. 3 -- Air Force
10 -- @Rutgers
17 -- Temple
Dec. 8 -- Navy*
* Lincoln Field, Philadelphia
• 2011 Statistics
In the spring, moving several players to new positions, and even tweaking the Black Knights' practice schedule to maximize his team's "recovery cycle, nutrition, and time management."
Ellerson conducted all his spring practices in the morning, to, he hoped, give his players an advantage over their rigorous schedule, which is unique to other non-military academy teams. Morning practices worked so well, Ellerson said, he's considering using them during the fall, to cut down on injuries and get the most out of his team.
"We've like what we've seen so far," Ellerson said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, [but] I'm encouraged by the quality of work that's been done, and what I'm seeing tells me it's a positive. We're chipping away at the nutrition, and the rest-recovery model looks to be better, but we don't want to get caught rooting for something. We want to make sure we step back and look at it objectively. So far, the initial data points we've gotten have been positive."
Head Coach: Rich Ellerson (Hawaii '77)
Record at school: 15-22 (3 years)
Career record: 75-63 (12 years)
• Gene McKeehan (Utah State '68) Associate Head Coach/Offensive Guard/Centers
• Ian Shields (Oregon State '94) Offensive Coordinator/QBs
• Payam Saadat (Washington State '95) Co-Defensive Coordinator/LBs
• 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 Linebackers
• John Mumford (Pittsburgh State '79) Ddefensive Ends
• Luke Thompson (Assumption '98) Fullbacks/Special Teams
• Bill Tripp (Bridgeport '70) Offensive Tackles
• Tucker Waugh (DePauw '93) Slot Backs/Recruiting Coordinator
When senior quarterback Trent Steelman (6-0, 207) was forced to sit out last year's spring practice because of a shoulder injury, Ellerson's prevailing emotion was relief, because it meant that Steelman would be able to rest after taking a pounding in 2010.
Relieved, however, isn't how one would describe Ellerson this spring, after Steelman was forced to shut it down before the spring game because of a knee injury.
Once thought to be an iron man, with a lengthy games-started streak to match his reputation, Steelman has shown in the last 12 months that he's in fact flesh and bone. He avoided a major injury for six regular season games, before suffering a left ankle injury in the first half of a loss to Vanderbilt. Steelman missed the second half of that game and the next three games, against Fordham, Air Force and Rutgers. He played sparingly against Temple, before taking all the snaps against Navy.
Steelman's health clearly affected his productivity. After rushing for 721 yards in 2010, he accounted for 645 last year, although he did finish second in the FBS among quarterbacks with 12 rushing touchdowns. His passing numbers were cut by more than half, dropping from 995 two years ago to 424 last year.
If Steelman can shake off his injuries, he possesses game-changing talent. With 2,056 career passing yards and 2,072 rushing yards, he's the only quarterback in program history to pass and rush for more than 2,000 yards.
If Steelman succumbs to his injuries, the Knights believe they have a quality backup in sophomore Angel Santiago (5-11, 195). Santiago was Steelman's primary backup last year, finishing with 162 yards rushing, including 72 against Rutgers, and 84 yards passing. Ellerson likes Santiago's physical skills but knows he has to fine-tune his mental ones.
"There are some things that Angel does as well or better than Trent," Ellerson said. "The only criticism of him I have moving forward is that when he's out there in those game situations, which he's much more comfortable in than practice, that he consistently gets the ball in the hands it needs to. If he can manage that, he's a complete quarterback."
The Black Knights coaching staff is doing all it can to help senior slot back Jared Hassin (6-3, 235) return to his sophomore-year form, when he rushed for 1,013 yards, including a school-record four consecutive 100-yard games. Hassin was moved to slot from fullback to alleviate some of the pounding he took as a sophomore. The coaches have even hinted at moving one of the starting slot backs, senior Malcolm Brown (5-11, 181), to wide receiver, a move that would pave the way for Hassin to be a starter alongside junior Raymond Maples (6-1, 218).
Now, all Hassin has to do is remain healthy.
Hassin, nagged by myriad injuries last year, fell well short of his sophomore year numbers, rushing for 450 yards and one touchdown on 98 carries. After starting the first seven games last year at fullback, he moved to the slot but didn't improve his numbers. Instead of perfecting the slot position this spring, he watched from the sidelines for most of it, beset by the same nagging injuries.
"There are some guys that just have a hard time being healthy," Ellerson said of the whole running back corps, although he might as well have been talking about Hassin in particular. "I don't think that's the nature of this particular group, but that's what I'm concerned about. It doesn't matter how many good players you have, if they're always hurt."
If Hassin regains his health, he and Maples could make last year's top-ranked rushing offense in the FBS even better. Maples turned in a record-setting performance last year, rushing for 1,066 yards on 146 carries and four touchdowns, which came out to a program-record 7.3 yards-per-carry average. Maples started slow in his first two games, but he rushed for 95 yards in his third, then cracked the 100-yard mark in five of his next six games, including a 159-yard performance in a win over Fordham.
Brown, who missed all of spring practice, took over the starting role last year after sophomore Trenton Turrentine (5-9, 206) suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game. Brown performed well after that, rushing for 572 yards and three touchdowns on 81 carries, and catching seven passes for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Turrentine, who also missed the spring, is slated to back up Brown, along with sophomore Terry Baggett (6-1, 200), who made two starts last year.
At fullback, Ellerson has two he likes in senior Larry Dixon (6-0, 238) and junior Hayden Tippett (5-11, 234). Dixon, who started the final five games last year, rushed for 542 yards on 87 carries and five touchdowns. Although he's the more talented of the two, expect Dixon to share carries with Tippett, as Ellerson wants to keep both players fresh throughout the season and avoid a repeat of what happened to Hassin after he carried the ball 191 times as a sophomore.
When you have a rushing offense that consistently ranks in the FBS' top 10, you tend not to worry about your passing offense. That's the case with the Black Knights, whose health concerns regarding Steelman center on his ability to run, not pass, and some of the best compliments laid at the receivers' feet during the spring had to do with their blocking abilities.
Even by Army standards, this year's receiver corps is green, with a four-player rotation that combined last year to catch four passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
The most experienced player among them is junior Anthony Stephens (6-2, 194), who started four games last year, catching a pair of passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. But because of injuries during the spring, he's currently backing up sophomore Chevaughn Lawrence (6-3, 195), who caught one pass for nine yards last year but impressed coaches during the spring with his playmaking ability.
Starting opposite Lawrence will be junior Patrick Laird (6-3, 219), who caught one pass for 14 yards last year, but saw most of his time on special teams. He'll be backed up by junior E.J. Tucker (5-11, 204).
One player who the Knights had hoped to have in the rotation but won't is Jared McFarlin. McFarlin, who caught seven passes last year for 74 yards and a touchdown, including four for 35 yards and a touchdown in a season-opening loss to Northern Illinois, left the team during the winter.
The Black Knights return four starting offensive linemen from a unit that last year helped Army rank No. 1 in the FBS in rushing offense, although not all of those starters are returning to their previous positions.
The most notable movers are senior right tackle Will Wilson (6-2, 290) and junior right tackle Michael Kime (6-2, 246). Kime and Wilson started a combined four games last year at center, before sophomore center Ryan Powis (6-0, 257) took over the position. Kime also started a game at left tackle, while Wilson started one at right guard. Ellerson believes Wilson has earned the right to start, but he expects Kime to push him.
"He's like a Swiss Army Knife; he can do so many things," Ellerson said of Wilson. "But we owe it to Will to let him settle in and be the guy at tackle unless somebody can chase him out of there." Senior Ben Jebb (6-5, 246) will start at left tackle after serving as a backup the last three years. He'll be backed up by either sophomore Nick Bennett (6-1, 270) or junior Dan Whitaker (6-3, 258).
Powis returns at center after starting the final eight games last year. He'll be backed up by sophomore Todd McDonald (5-11, 253), who's yet to see the field as a collegian.
Like Powis, senior right guard Matthew Villanti (6-3, 278) began last year on the bench, before taking over as the starter for the final six games. He'll be backed up by either junior Zach Reichert (6-2, 250) or sophomore Steve Schumaker (6-0, 280).
To say that the Black Knights have an inexperienced interior defensive line is an understatement. Starting left tackle, junior Robert Kough (6-3, 250), has yet to play a college game, while the starting right tackle, sophomore Richard Glover (6-0, 270), played in three last year, registering a pair of tackles. Of the two, Ellerson likes Kough's upside.
"Bobby was dragging an ankle around [in the spring], and he was still as advertised," Ellerson said. "I wanted him to step into a game environment, and that felt like a game down there [in Fort Benning, Ga., where the spring game was played]. It was great to get Bobby out there. I don't think he was 100 percent, but even at 85 or 90 percent, he still made a statement."
Army's situation at defensive end is slightly better, especially if senior Jarrett Mackey (6-1, 240) is able to return to the "quick" defensive end position from a knee injury that forced him to miss all but one game last year. Entering the fall, Mackey is listed as a co-starter with senior Zach Watts (5-11, 207), who replaced Mackey last year when he went down. Watts started 11 games, finishing with 26 tackles, including a team-leading 6.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks.
At the "whip" defensive end position, junior Holt Zalneraitis (6-2, 225) returns after starting a total of eight games last year; six at defensive tackle and two at defensive end. He'll be backed up by junior Kyle Maxwell (6-5, 226) and sophomore Derek Sanchez (6-3, 215).
Army fans might be curious as to why Zalneraitis, who played on the defensive line last year, is slated to start at whip, and not senior Nate Combs (6-1, 225). The answer is that Ellerson and his coaching staff decided to play with the defense's terminology. The position formerly known as defensive end, where Zalneraitis played last year, is now known as whip, while the position formerly known as whip, where Combs played, is now known as bandit.
While an argument over semantics is the only one the Black Knights have currently, they might have a positional one if Combs can't regain his health, and sophomore Jacob Drozd (6-3, 225) continues to develop. Combs, who started six games last year, finishing with six tackles for loss and three sacks, missed the spring because of an injury, creating opportunity for Drozd, who started six games last year at defensive line. Ellerson is enamored with Drozd's wide array of skills.
"Sometimes you're asked to be a defensive lineman; fine, he's been one," Ellerson said. "Sometimes you're asked to be a linebacker and a pass rusher; he's done all those things and been first-team doing all those things.
"Some of those guys [at bandit] are much stronger at part of that job description than others. He [Drozd] has a chance to be extraordinary at all of them."
At middle linebacker, sophomore Geoffrey Bacon (6-0, 207) returns to the starting lineup after starting the final five games last year and finishing tied for third on the team with 60 tackles. He'll be pushed by junior Zachary Williams (5-11, 210).
Ellerson wanted more competition this season in the Black Knights' defensive backfield, so he created it, moving a trio of players to different positions to push the starters.
At rover, Ellerson moved senior Thomas Holloway (5-11, 190) from free safety to compete with junior Justin Trimble (5-11, 200), who earned the starting job in the spring. Holloway started the final five games last year and finished second on the team in tackles with 76.
Trimble started three games at middle linebacker, finishing with 12 tackles.
At free safety, senior Ty Schrader (5-8, 176) will be pushed by senior Kyler Martin (6-2, 205), who started five games last year at rover and strong safety. Martin, like Holloway, was impressive at his old position, finishing with 32 tackles, including a pair of sacks, and an interception. Shrader made 10 tackles and an interception.
Finally, at boundary cornerback, junior Tyler Dickson (5-11, 203) moves from free safety to compete with senior Waverly Washington (5-10, 194) for the starting nod. Dickson started five games at free safety last year, finishing third on the team with 60 tackles, and registering an interception. Washington started one game last year, finishing with 12 tackles.
"Those guys have played a lot of football for us," Ellerson said of the players who were shuffled. "We're going to leverage those things they've done well for us in the past, we're going to expand the job descriptions just a little bit, and give them each a chance to be in the front of the line."
At strong safety, sophomore Hayden Pierce (6-3, 187) returns after starting 10 games last year and finishing with 32 tackles, including three for loss. He'll be backed up by junior Lyle Beloney (5-11, 197).
Senior Josh Jackson (6-0, 185) moves over from boundary corner, where he started nine games last year, back to field corner. Jackson led the Knights with four pass break-ups. He'll be backed up by either sophomore Marques Avery (6-1, 180) or sophomore Lamar Johnson-Harris (5-9, 173), who started nine games at field corner last year.
One way the Black Knights can help themselves is by improving their special teams. Army ranked 113th out of 120 FBS teams last year in punt and kickoff returns. Although lousy punt returns were certainly a team effort, the Knights sole punt returner was Jackson, who returned 15 punts for a 3.7 yards-per-return average.
Jackson might receive some help this season from Marcus Jackson (5-11, 180), who returned punts during the spring. Unlike punt returns, Army tried several different options at kickoff returns, all to no avail. Seven different players returned kickoffs last year for an 18.7 average. Junior Scott Williams (5-8, 170) was the Knights' best option, returning 30 punts for a 20.6-yard average. But he was limited in spring practice because of injury.
Army attempted 34 fourth-down conversions last year, the second most in the FBS behind Duke, and only six field goals. Obviously, the Black Knights lacked stability at placekicker, something they hope to regain this season with senior Eric Osteen (6-1, 187).
Osteen has yet to attempt a collegiate field goal, but in high school in Georgia he made a 57-yarder, the fifth longest in Georgia high school history. Osteen's leg appears to have retained its power, as he regularly nailed field goals from well beyond 40 yards during spring practice.
Osteen's back up will be junior Billy Fisher (6-1, 170), who's yet to appear in a collegiate game. Although Osteen hasn't kicked field goals since high school, he'll handle the Black Knights' kickoff duties for the second year in a row. Last year, Osteen booted 57 kickoffs for a 63.1 yards-per-kick average, including 10 touchbacks.
Like their place-kicker brethren, the Black Knights' punters weren't very busy last year. Army attempted only 35 punts, the fewest in the FBS. Senior Chris Boldt (6-0, 181) attempted 31 of those 35 punts, and he's back again this season.
Considering how few attempts he had, Boldt wasn't too shabby in his first year as a starter, averaging 39.8 yards per punt and dropping 10 inside the 20.
Ellerson must have a lot of confidence in his offense, because his recruiting class was long on defense, at least in terms of players who could contribute immediately. The Black Knights picked up a pair of talented safeties in Gervon Simon (5-11, 175) and Cedrik Bell (5-11, 180). Bell, who was directly admitted into Army, is a taented safety out of Marion (Ind.) High, and projects as a strong safety.
On the defensive line, the Knights added Todd Blatnik (6-2, 282) and Jack Hanley (6-3, 265). Hanley, who was directly admitted into Army, also had an offer from Air Force.
Ralph Freibert (5-11, 175) could help stabilize the placekicking situation in the future, as he was the ESPN's 85th-ranked place-kicker out of Jesuit High in New Orleans.
Other notable recruits who were directly admitted into Army include Cincinnati fullback Aaron Kemper (5-7, 207), who rushed for 1,541 yards and 26 touchdowns his senior year, and New Jersey's Elijah St. Hilaire (5-10, 176), who's listed as an athlete and could contribute immediately on special teams.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
All signs point to Army struggling this season. After going 3-9 last year, the Black Knights needed a stellar spring to not only gain confidence, but to also work out a few personnel issues. What they received instead was a spring wracked with injuries, in which almost nothing was finalized.
Add to that the fact that there are questions about Army's quarterback, running game, receivers, defensive line, and special teams, and it's hard to find more than three or four wins in its schedule. The best thing Army has going for it is Ellerson, who's been working tirelessly since January trying to find ways to help his team win games. He's moved players around and tinkered with the offense and defense. He even changed the Knights' practice schedule to improve their rest and recovery.
Whether all that change results in more wins is the big question.
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