April 4, 2012
2012 Army Spring Review
WEST POINT, N.Y. - Just nine weeks after the curtain came down on the 2011 season, the Army Black Knights were back on the practice field to begin their preparations for the 2012 campaign. After having played more freshmen than any other team in the country last season, the Black Knights' practice sessions featured a competitive atmosphere among so many talented returnees.
This year's spring drills were historic for two reasons. For the first time, the Black Knights conducted all of their workouts in the morning and the annual Black/Gold Game was played at historic Doughboy Stadium on the grounds of Fort Benning. The morning workout time required a commitment from the Academy's academic and military leaders, but Ellerson was able to work out the details in order to conduct the experiment which he believes will help improve the team's rest and recovery cycle, nutrition and time management. While the early returns in the spring were positive, it has not been determined if the move is viable for the fall.
"It's problematic in the fall because it means every morning instead of every other morning so that hasn't been determined," Ellerson said at the conclusion of spring drills. "We've liked what we've seen so far. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. I'm encouraged by the quality of the 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."
While the time of the workouts was earlier than usual, at least the surroundings were familiar. The same could not be said for the annual Black/Gold Game which was shifted 1,000 miles to the south. After receiving permission from the NCAA to take the spring scrimmage off campus, the Black Knights loaded up two C-17 transport planes and headed for Fort Benning. The team was divided into Infantry and Armor squads, honoring two of the branches that call the Georgia post home. In addition to the game, the Black Knights were able to gain a better understanding of their military futures by attending a basic training graduation, touring the National Infantry Museum and interacting with soldiers. The Armor team came away victorious, scoring a 20-14 victory in front of a packed Doughboy Stadium.
"I thought it was spectacular," Ellerson said. "However good I thought it was going to be, it was better. It was good on so many levels, and there were so many positive takeaways. Everybody you talked to was so excited about their experience. Everybody had a slightly different takeaway, and I don't think it's all sunk in yet. We experienced so much in 36 hours. I think in the days, weeks and months to come, we'll continue to reflect on that trip and what we witnesses and what we were a part of. I think it will continue to pay dividends throughout this team's lifespan."
Spring schedule changes aside, the 2012 team began to take shape inside the Foley Athletic Center. The most positive news to come out of spring practice was the development of the defensive line. A vastly undersized unit a year ago, the front four saw the emergence of several players that should help the Black Knights be successful at the point of attack and improve the defensive unit as a whole.
"I'm encouraged by where the group up front on defense is," Ellerson said. "It's a much more physically mature group. We have some guys that are back playing the positions they should be as opposed to being forced into service somewhere other than where they wanted to be. That's where good defense starts. We're looking like we made some gains in that area, and that bodes well for us."
While the defensive line group was able to show their improvement to the coaching staff, a rash of injuries at the offensive skill positions left some interrogatives unanswered heading into preseason camp.
"There are all kinds of positive stories out there, but there are some frustrations as well," Ellerson explained. "There are some things that didn't get done offensively because of the injury bug that bit us. It wasn't a lot of serious stuff, but it was enough to keep us from exploring all the things we hoped we would.
"We left some question marks in the offensive backfield. There were some things we wanted to investigate, that we weren't necessarily able to do as much as we wanted. We'll try to set ourselves up for that early in training camp. The only things we feel a little bit frustrated about are the things we weren't able to explore to the extent that we wanted to because of the injury situation, and that was mostly in the offensive backfield."
On paper, the Black Knights are primed to have one of the most prolific offensive seasons in Academy history. Army returns its top seven rushers from last season's team that led the country in rushing yards per game. The group combined for 296.7 of the team's 346.5 yards per game and 27 of the team's 35 rushing touchdowns last season. Eleven players that scored rushing touchdowns last season are back for 2012.
Senior Trent Steelman will be back under center as the starter for the fourth straight season. Steelman has been one of the most durable quarterbacks in Academy history, starting a school record 22 straight games before suffering injuries that kept him out of some or all of five games a year ago. Despite missing that time, the Bowling Green, Ky., native was the Black Knights' second-leading rusher with 645 yards and led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns. Steelman is the only Army player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards during his career.
The Black Knights also have the luxury of an experienced backup. While just a sophomore, Angel Santiago gained valuable experience during his plebe season, playing in four games. He rushed for 162 yards and a score as a rookie, including a 72-yard effort in his lone start opposite Rutgers at Yankee Stadium. Despite the established starter above him on the depth chart, Santiago did not take anything for granted during spring drills and showed the coaches that he is ready to step in if necessary.
"There are some things that Angel does as well or better than Trent ," Ellerson said. "There is the potential that he can continue to evolve and put some pressure on that position. He's got extraordinarily quick feet. I think there is still a little bit of a confidence issue with the football - confidence letting the ball go, confidence in pitching the ball aggressively on the option. He's much more comfortable with the ball in his hands or the fullbacks hands. He's not necessarily comfortable pitching the ball or trusting his receivers to win a fight for the ball in the air. He throws it well. 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, getting the ball thrown on time, getting the ball pitched on time, not forcing the ball into his hands. If he can manage that, he's a complete quarterback. That's really all that's left for him to manage. What you see out there is really a good football player."
Sophomore Gino DeBartolo and junior Parker Hite also had opportunities during spring practice. With Steelman nursing an injury that kept him out of the spring game, DeBartolo took most of the repetitions for the Infantry squad. He threw for a touchdown and accounted for the game's longest play with a 44-yard run.
The first option in Army's triple-option attack is manned by one of the Black Knights' most productive freshmen a year ago. Sophomore Larry Dixon played in all 12 games last season, including five starts. He finished fourth on the team with 542 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. His five rushing touchdowns were the second most on the team.
Junior Hayden Tippett occupies the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Tippett rushed 11 times for 77 yards and a touchdown in limited duty last season. In addition, senior Jared Hassin, who rushed for 1,000 yards as Army's main fullback in 2010, is still an option despite spending the spring working at the C-Back position.
"I feel really great about the fullback position," Ellerson said. "We have Larry Dixon and Hayden Tippett, and I'm really excited about those two guys. They're really a 1-2 punch. You've also got Jared Hassin, who has a thousand turns at that position. The fullback, just like the center and the quarterback, those positions that are right down the middle of your offense, are so crucial to our success. We can't feel better about them."
When spring practice began, the running back depth chart was stocked with familiar names that had productive 2011 campaigns. However, several nicks and sprains limited the Black Knights' ability see how far those players have progressed since the end of last season.
"I look at the board and I see two or three guys at both of those slot positions who are really good football players, and in some cases they're veteran football players like Raymond Maples and Malcolm Brown," Ellerson said. "Then there are some young guys with all kinds of upside who started as freshmen at different times during the season like Trenton Turrentine, Terry Baggett and Stephen Fraser. Then you go out for spring football and you can't have a full practice because you don't have enough running backs that are healthy. It was a thick group that had a heck of a time practicing because of a sprain or a strain. There are some guys that just have hard time being healthy. 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 they were all healthy every day, we would have a challenge getting the requisite amount of reps for everyone."
At the A-Back position, Brown enters the fall as the starter despite missing all of spring drills. Brown was the Black Knights' third-leading rusher last season with 572 yards and three touchdowns on 81 carries. His 7.1 yards per rush was second on the team. Brown is also the team's leading returning receiver after catching seven passes for 163 yards and a team-high two touchdowns last season.
A pair of sophomores should also see significant playing time behind Brown. Turrentine started the first three games of last season before suffering a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of the season and all of spring drills. In his limited time, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry, gaining 98 yards and scoring one touchdown. Baggett played in three games last season as well, running for 53 yards and a score on 10 carries.
At C-Back, the Black Knights' most productive rusher from 2011 is back in the record-setting Maples. The Philadelphia native rushed for 1,066 yards and four touchdowns last season, the ninth-highest season total in Academy history. Maples set the Academy record, averaging 7.301 yards per carry, the most ever by an Army rusher with at least 100 carries in a season.
Army may be the only school in the country entering fall camp with a 1,000-yard rusher backing up another 1,000-yard rusher. Senior Jared Hassin, a mainstay at fullback the last two seasons who ran for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore, made the move to C-Back full time this spring. Hassin began his transition last season, starting opposite Navy as one of the Black Knights' slotbacks. In 2011, Hassin rushed for 450 yards and a touchdown on 98 carries (4.6/rush). The 2012 season will mark the first time in Academy history that two players with 1,000-yard rushing seasons to their credit will be on the Army roster.
Along with Hassin, sophomore Stephen Fraser will push Maples for playing time. After flashing his big-play ability with a 99-yard touchdown run in a junior varsity game, Fraser played in five of the last six games, including two starts. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 14 rushing attempts.
Both starters from last season are gone, so this spring was important in the development of the 2012 receiving corps. Unfortunately, the injury bug that bit the running backs also took a chunk out of the wide receivers.
At the X position, junior Patrick Laird is penciled in as the starter. Laird was a special teams stalwart last season and was utilized as a tight end in certain specialty packages. He made one catch for 14 yards in 2011, but his physicality and blocking ability will be a key to Army's success in 2012. Junior E.J. Tucker is listed second behind Laird.
On the opposite side, sophomore Chevaughn Lawrence had a standout spring to win the Z position entering preseason. A gifted athlete, Lawrence played in eight games last season and made one catch. Junior Anthony Stephens, who played in 12 games a year ago but was limited by injury this spring, is penciled in as the backup.
"We were a little bit nicked up out there," Ellerson said of his wideouts. "Anthony Stephens didn't have a full spring, but he did some good things this spring. He's played a lot of football for us. Patrick Laird and E.J. Tucker are tough sons-of-guns. They catch the ball and they block their tails off. They're tough. Chevaughn Lawrence really had a great spring. Throughout the spring, he really made some great plays and the consistency of that play improved throughout spring. He did a nice job blocking in the spring game in particular. That's not something he didn't have a big background with. It's great to see him come out knocking some guys out of their shoes. That was the encouraging part."
As with any run-based offense, the offensive line will be a key to the Black Knights' offensive success. Four seniors and a sophomore who started the last eight games of his rookie season ended spring drills as the starting five.
The line is anchored by third-year starter Frank Allen at left guard. Allen has started 25 consecutive games and has been a key member of the front that helped Army rank among the top 10 in the nation in rushing each of the past two years. Junior Jon Szott is listed as Allen's primary backup.
Lining up next to Allen at tackle with the first unit is senior Ben Jebb. The local product from Cornwall, N.Y., has been a backup during his first three seasons, but won the starting job this spring.
Sophomore Ryan Powis is back at center after winning the starting job after four games last season. Classmate Todd McDonald did not see any action last season, but won the backup job with a solid spring.
At right guard, senior Matt Villanti returns after playing in all 12 games and starting the last six outings last season. Villanti missed most of the spring practice season with an injury, but should be ready for action by the start of training camp. Junior Zach Reichert and sophomore Steve Shumaker occupy the backup spots on the post-spring depth chart.
The right tackle position will be an interesting battle during preseason camp with a pair of players who started at center last season fighting for the No. 1 job. Senior Will Wilson is listed at the top of the depth chart entering the fall. Wilson started three games at center and once at right guard last season. Junior Michael Kime will also make the transition to right tackle in 2012. Army's starting center in the season opener last year, Kime battled injury through most of the season, but also started once at left tackle.
"Will is a guy who has a lot of turns under his belt at center, but he finished spring ball as the No. 1 guy at right tackle," Ellerson said. "He's done a nice job there. He's another one of those guys that you have to be careful with. He's like a Swiss Army knife. He can do so many things, 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.
"That will be contested because Michael Kime is going to come back and compete with him. Both those guys have a background at center, but both those guys are aspiring to be the right tackle. Will had a good spring, and nobody is really surprised by that. He knows exactly what is expected of him, and he has a tremendous football IQ. He can manage space. Our tackles block in the run game much as a tight end would block in a traditional offense. They're at the second and third level an awful lot. So much of that is just spatial awareness and understanding angles. Will has a great understanding of that. It's almost a sixth sense."
The biggest issues facing the Army defense this spring were improving the play up front and making sure the Black Knights defense adjusted to the myriad of offenses it will see in the fall. Ellerson believes both efforts went well.
"I don't know if you would say we made adjustments, but the emphasis has moved as college football has evolved a little bit," Ellerson explained. "I think the biggest thing will be the play in the defensive front. As that starts to mature, the second and third row gets a little more noticeable. There are some things conceptually that have always been a part of us, but maybe not the lead part, that are now coming to the forefront because of the style of play in college football. If you watched the bowl season, you can see how people are investing in the quarterback's legs week in and week out. What (Tim) Tebow did in the NFL with his legs that is just an extension of what his happening in the college game.
"There is nothing we're doing that we haven't done in the past. but those things play a bigger role. That's been the starting point. Sometimes those were the things you invested some time in at the end of spring ball. You spent a couple of days on those concepts and defensive movements. This year, that was the first thing we did. We kind of flipped the equation. That became the emphasis."
The Black Knights' edge rushers will be bolstered by both the return of an impact player and familiar face in a new place. At the "quick" end position, both senior Zach Watts and classmate Jarett Mackey will see plenty of time. They are listed as the co-starters following spring practice. Watts started all 12 games last season, including the last 11 at the quick spot. A first-team Academic All-American, Watts made 26 tackles and ranked second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss. He tied for the team lead with 3.0 sacks. Mackey, who was chosen as Army's legacy captain by last year's seniors, did not participate in spring drills while rehabbing a knee injury suffered in last year's opener. As a sophomore in 2010, Mackey made 6.5 tackles for loss, including 4.0 sacks.
"Jarett is in that leadership role (legacy captain)," Ellerson said. "He does a wonderful job with the team in the locker room and in the Corps. His recovery is right on track. That should be a solid group coming out in training camp."
Some terminology along the defensive front has changed this season. In what has simply been known as a defensive end in prior years is now termed the "whip." The defensive line/linebacker hybrid position that had previously been known as the whip is now listed as "bandit" on the depth chart.
Regardless of what it's called, Holt Zalneraitis will play a key role in the Black Knights' scheme. Moving from defensive tackle to the whip defensive end this spring, Zalneraitis opened the coaching staff's eyes with a productive spring campaign. Last season, he made 25 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, in 12 games. Junior Kyle Maxwell and sophomore Derek Sanchez are also fighting for time behind Zalneratitis.
"The other guy we should talk about up there is Holt Zalneraitis," Ellerson said. "He played such a prominent role on the interior of the line last year, but moving him out to defensive end, he had a tremendous spring. I thought Zach Watts did as well, but Holt especially. He's much more comfortable with the job description which is more consistent with his physical make-up. He was really productive this spring."
While the Black Knights' defensive scheme relies on speed and quickness up front, last year's interior defensive line was even more undersized than usual. The 2012 version will feature plenty of new faces that, based on their performance this spring, should be one of the most improved units on the Army roster.
The five players listed on the post-spring depth chart have a total of four games of experience. At left tackle, junior Robert Kough is back on the field after missing all of last season. Despite having never appeared in a game, Kough will be counted on to anchor the middle in 2012. Kough showed why the coaches have such high expectations during the Black Knights' spring game.
"Bobby (Kough) was dragging an ankle around, 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. That was one of the benefits of the trip. It didn't feel like a spring practice or a spring scrimmage, it felt like a football game and had all the excitement and butterflies that are associated with that. 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."
Junior Shane Finnane finished the spring as Kough's primary backup on the left side.
On the right side, sophomore Richard Glover won the starting job coming out of spring drills with a strong showing. Glover is the most experienced of the defensive tackles after appearing in three games last season. Classmates Joe Drummond and Mike Ugenyi are listed as the backups. Drummond ade his collegiate debut last season, but suffered an injury that kept him out of spring drills.
"I'm really happy with the spring that Richard Glover had," Ellerson said. "He's changed his body a little bit. Throughout the course of the spring, and in the spring game, he really made a statement. Mike Ugenyi is catching up with his body. His legs are getting underneath him. He's got a way to go yet, but the progress he made this spring is really consistent with what we were expecting him to do."
The Army linebacking corps is one of the most experienced units on the defensive side. Returning starter Geoffery Bacon is back in the middle after taking over the job as a freshman. Bacon recorded 60 tackles as a plebe, including 2.5 for loss. Junior Zach Williams, senior C.J. Shelley and sophomore Michael Cermak are also in the mix at the middle linebacker position.
The rover position features to very familiar faces. Junior Justin Trimble ended spring practice as the starter, while junior Thomas Holloway is his primary backup. Holloway started last season at free safety, but was moved to rover in order to better fit his skills into the Army system. Trimble was limited to six games last season because of injury and made 12 tackles. Holloway was Army's second-leading tackler with 76 stops. Holloway was just one player who was shuffled to a different spot on the defense during spring practice.
"I've got Ty (Sharader), Tom Holloway and Tyler Dickson all at different positions where they can compete and all of them can aspire to being in the front of the line," Ellerson explained. "The job descriptions overlap. The skills and reactions that you need to play these different positions - rover, free safety, boundary corner - there is carryover. There is some position flexibility built in there so I divvied those guys up."
The bandit linebacker features three players who were regulars in the lineup last season. Senior Nate Combs did not compete during the spring while recovering from injury, but will still enter the preseason as the starter at that position. Combs played in all 12 games a year ago, starting six times. He made 37 stops, including six behind the line of scrimmage.
Junior Corey Watts and sophomore Jacob Drozd are listed as Combs' primary backups. Watts played in 11 games in 2011, starting four times at defensive end. He made 15 tackles, including one quarterback sack. Drozd started six times on the defensive line as a plebe, racking up 18 tackles, three of which were for a loss. While only three players are listed on the depth chart, the Black Knights utilized a number of players at that position during spring practice.
"The bandit spot is where Nate (Combs) was. He played a lot there last year," Ellerson said. "Corey Watts had a good spring there. Jacob Drozd, Julian Holloway, Colby Miller, James Forgrave, all those guys took some turns there this spring. We have some really unique individuals in there. All those guys do things well. Some of them do different things better than other. Jacob, if he can see the game and gets used to that, he's got more ability in doing all that stuff. Sometimes you're asked to be a defensive lineman, fine, he's been one. Sometimes you're asked to be a linebacker and a pass rusher. He's done all those things and he's been first team doing all those things. Some of those guys are much stronger at part of that job description than others. He has a chance to be extraordinary at all of them. It's not an exact science."
While there are plenty of returning players in the back line, some of them are in different places than a year ago. After playing all 12 games, including seven starts, at free safety in 2011, junior Tyler Dickson will be battling for the boundary corner position. Dickson, who made 60 stops last season, finished the spring listed as the co-starter with senior Waverly Washington, a special teams regular who played in all 12 games last season.
At the field corner spot, senior Josh Jackson is the incumbent. Jackson has started 20 consecutive games and recorded 40 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups in 2011. Last season, he split his time between the two corner positions, playing mostly on the boundary. Behind Jackson, sophomores Lamar Johnson-Harris and Marques Avery will fight for playing time. Johnson-Harris started nine times last season.
The "sam", or strong safety features returning starter Hayden Pierce. Pierce, a sophomore, started all 10 games he played in as a freshman. He amassed 32 tackles, including 3.0 for loss. Junior Lyle Beloney is listed second on the depth chart. Beloney played in all 12 games, including a key role on special teams.
Two seniors occupy the top spots on the free safety depth chart. Ty Shrader won the job during spring drills, while Kyler martin will enter camp as the backup. Shrader played in all 12 games last season, while Martin made 11 appearances, including five starts between the sam and rover positions.
"You'll see Kyler martin and Ty Shrader battling at free safety, and Tyler (Dickson), Waverly Washington and Justin Allen battling it out at the boundary corner position," Ellerson said. "That was one of our goals this spring was to make sure those positions were competitive. We'll add in a really gifted newcomer at each of those positions come fall camp. Those guys have played a lot of football for us. 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."
Aside from any changes in personnel on the field this fall, the Black Knights will have a new face running the special teams on the sideline. Ellerson added Luke Thompson to the Army coaching staff. Thompson spent the past six seasons as the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at Georgetown.
"Luke is going to be a great addition," Ellerson said. "He's been a special teams coach recently. That's what he's been doing. He's an extraordinarily bright guy who has been leading a special teams unit. He has some background in things that we value and some things that are a little bit unique to us. He comes from a similar philosophical background. He's a successful, practiced leader in the kicking game, and he's a really sharp guy. I think we can turn that phase week in and week out into an advantage for us."
The Black Knights will have to replace Alex Carlton, the placekicker for the last three seasons. Following spring practice, the two candidates to take over the job are senior Eric Osteen and junior Billy Fisher. Osteen served as Army's kickoff specialist a year ago, while Fisher has not yet played in a varsity game.
The punting duties will once again be handled by senior Chris Boldt. Boldt was Army's primary punter in 2011, averaging 39.8 yards on 31 kicks. He had four boots of better than 50 yards, including a 72-yarder, and put 10 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The Black Knights are scheduled for seven appearances at Michie Stadium in 2012, the most since 1994. The season kicks off Sept. 8 at San Diego State.