Thursday, December 12, 2013
Army's Raymond Maples ready to cheer teammates
Raymond Maples was poised at the start of the season to etch his name in the Army record books again before departing West Point.
Instead, he's gone from backfield threat in Army's triple option to spectator as the final game of his senior season looms. It's the biggest game of his college career -- against archrival Navy -- and he'll have to watch from the sidelines on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in his hometown of Philadelphia, wondering what might have been.
"It's been humbling," said Maples, who suffered a rare tendon avulsion in his right leg against Stanford in the third game of the season and has been out of the lineup since. "You never anticipate getting hurt, especially me. I've never been hurt. You learn how to appreciate the small things about the game. Even though I'm not playing, I still love it.
"It's going to be a bittersweet feeling (on Saturday). Me, personally, I don't put too much importance on any one game -- to miss any game is kind of heartbreaking for me."
Army (3-8) enters the game against Navy (7-4) averaging 325.9 yards rushing, tops in the nation as the Black Knights seek their third straight rushing title, which would be an academy first.
Last season, Army rushed for a school-record 4,438 yards, while the 2011 squad ran for 4,158. Those mark the only two times the team has topped 4,000 yards, and the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Maples was an integral part of both. He rushed for 1,215 yards in 2012 and 1,066 the previous year, becoming just the third sophomore in school history to eclipse 1,000 yards. He also averaged 7.3 yards per carry as a sophomore, breaking the Army record for average yards per rush by a player with at least 100 carries in a season.
Spectator wasn't what anyone was anticipating.
"It's obviously been very frustrating," Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. "It's heartbreaking for him because we thought he was going to be able to make a run at it late in the season, but it hasn't happened."
The chance to match former star Mike Mayweather as the only running back in Army history to post three 1,000-yard seasons vanished on one of the staples of the triple option -- a simple pitch.
"I caught the ball and tried to jump and it popped," said Maples, who had 23 carries for 123 yards this season. "I thought it would be fine, but the next day it got extremely swollen. I didn't think it was that bad, but when the MRI came back the doctors were shocked."
Maples has had plenty of company as Ellerson continues to deal with an array of injuries. Junior fullback Larry Dixon, the team's second-leading rusher, suffered a dislocated left wrist against Western Kentucky a month ago, joining safety Geoff Bacon with the same injury. Senior Hayden Tippett, Army's second-string fullback, missed the last three games with an ankle injury, but Ellerson is hopeful Tippett can play against Navy.
"We've had so many guys who have played so much football for us who have had to miss games for one reason or another," Ellerson said. "Teams that have a lot of turnover in that starting 11, that's not a good sign. That does not correlate with success on the scoreboard.
The injuries have afforded junior running back Terry Baggett more playing time. He has 1,072 yards rushing on 130 carries, 8.2 yards a carry, and credits the man he replaced with much of his success.
"Ray has done an excellent job being there for me, giving me pointers and tips on how to be a better running back," said Baggett, who rushed for a school-record 304 yards against Eastern Michigan in mid-October. "He's still been a great teammate. It's definitely hard. I can't imagine (missing the Navy game). I know it hurts. I see it."
Navy has won 11 straight against Army, which has come within one possession of victory in the waning moments the last two years after being humbled by an average of nearly 26 points in the previous nine.
Ellerson has dusted off film of the 1964 game in this storied rivalry to demonstrate anything is possible. Despite a losing record for the first time in 13 years, those Black Knights beat Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach and the Middies 11-8 behind the heroics of Rollie Stichweh and John Seymour.
It's not difficult to fathom what another upset would accomplish.
"A win would mean everything for this team," Maples said. "It would mark a victory for the season. To break an 11-game losing streak against your rival -- don't get no better than that."