July 30, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. - -
The Army football team will officially begin preparations for the 2011 season on Monday, Aug. 1. The Black Knights will take part in their annual media day in the morning before taking the field for the first preseason practice in the afternoon. With the start of the season at hand, www.goARMYsports.com takes a look at the offense.
Head coach Rich Ellerson had one goal in mind when he took the reins of the storied Army football program prior to the 2009 season - bring winning football back to West Point. He and the Black Knights accomplished that mission in 2010. In 2011, the focus shifts to keeping winning football on the banks of the Hudson.
The echoes of West Point's "Alma Mater: following the Black Knights' Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl victory over SMU had barely faded when Ellerson reconvened his squad for spring drills. Just six weeks after Army's first bowl win in 25 years, Ellerson and the Black Knights began the task of putting the pieces together to ensure the 2011 season is as memorable as 2010.
With the departure of several key members of last season's squad that posted a 7-6 mark, Army's spring practice sessions focused on identifying up-and-coming talent that can step in and contribute in 2011. Many of the Black Knights' known commodities either did not participate at all in spring workouts, or had their repetitions limited, in order for the coaching staff to get a better grasp of the improvements made by players that have limited game experience.
"Spring is always a great chance to develop fundamentally," Ellerson explained. "Then there is the discovery process that takes place. You have a freshman class that you have an impression of based on what you saw in the summer and the fall, but it's just that. Frankly, they're going to be so much different just a couple of months later.
"It's a real challenge when we are as relatively young as we are. When you have as large and prolific of a senior class as we graduated, there are a lot of opportunities out there and a lot of guys that you might want to juggle around. It's re-evaluating the younger guys and getting them in a position where they have a chance to contribute because a number of them are going to have to."
The Black Knights welcome back six starters from last season's team that ranked eighth in the nation in rushing offense (251.6 yds/game) and became Army's highest-scoring unit since 1996 (26.6 points/game). The vast majority of that experience returns at the skill positions, led by the tandem of junior quarterback Trent Steelman and junior fullback Jared Hassin. In addition to the Black Knights' top two rushers, Army returns both its starting receivers and four of its top five most productive slotbacks.
Most of the rebuilding work will have to be done on the offensive line. Just one starter, junior guard Frank Allen, returns from the front five that not only opened holes in the rushing game, but also allowed the third-fewest sacks per game in the nation last season (0.6 sacks/game).
Despite sitting out spring drills due to a shoulder injury, Steelman returns firmly entrenched as the Black Knights' starting signal caller. The Bowling Green, Ky., native has started each of the 25 games Army has played during his two seasons and enters his junior campaign already ranked among the Black Knights' all-time top 10 in total offense (3,059 yards). Steelman showed great command of Army's triple-option offense in his second season, increasing both his rushing (721 yards) and passing (995) totals from 2009 and finishing only five passing yards shy of becoming the first Army player to rush for at least 500 yards and throw for 1,000 yards in the same campaign. He accounted for 18 touchdowns during the season, including 11 rushing scores. Steelman is already the Black Knights' winningest starting quarterback (12 victories) since Ronnie McAda started 16 Army wins from 1994-96.
The Black Knights are also in capable hands should Ellerson have to call on a reserve. Senior Max Jenkins, who took the majority of snaps in spring practice due to Steelman's absence, reprises his role as the primary backup signal caller. Jenkins appeared in seven games last season, including scoring a touchdown on his first collegiate snap versus Hawai'i. Jenkins has been lauded by the coaching staff for his ability to learn the game plan without the need of extended practice time.
Sophomore Cody Jackson also received reps during spring practice, but has never taken a snap collegiately.
The biggest difference between the 2009 Army offense that averaged 15.3 points per game and last season's squad was the ability to produce big plays from the fullback position. Hassin, only the second sophomore in program history to post a 1,000-yard season, led the team with 1,013 yards and ranked second on the squad with nine rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.3 yards per rush in 2010 after the 2009 fullback corps combined to average 4.2 yards per rush. Hassin led the Black Knights by posting seven of the team's 17 rushing plays of at least 20 yards.
Entering preseason camp, junior Dan McGue occupies the backup spot on the depth chart. McGue played in three outings during the 2010 season, but has not carried the ball in a game. Despite his inexperience, McGue took the majority of snaps with the first team during the Black/Gold Game last spring, scoring two short-yardage touchdowns.
Junior David Collins and sophomores Jay Tully and Hayden Tippett also return to compete for playing time behind Hassin.
The biggest loss at a skill position is the graduation of slotback Patrick Mealy who rushed for more than 1,500 yards during his career. Fortunately for the Black Knights, there are plenty of candidates to replace his production.
Junior Malcolm Brown is back after starting opposite Mealy last season. Brown was Army's fourth-leading rusher in 2010 with 343 yards despite missing seven games with a shoulder injury. Brown ranked second on the team at 5.5 yards per carry and was fourth among Army runners with four rushing touchdowns. Brown was also effective in the return game, returning 13 kickoffs for an average of 21.0 yards per attempt.
While Brown started the majority of games, several other players with game action under their belts return to the backfield. Junior Brian Cobbs, a converted cornerback, played in all 13 games and made five starts at the C-Back position when Brown went down with his injury. Cobbs rushed 50 times for 302 yards and five touchdowns. His 6.0 yards per carry led the Black Knights.
A pair of rookies also made their mark in 2010. Sophomore Raymond Maples played in 10 games, making one start as a plebe. He posted 208 yards on and a touchdown on 47 carries while recording two receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown. Maples enters preseason camp as the projected starter at the A-Back position. Backing up Maples is junior Kelechi Odocha. Odocha has yet to see any varsity action, but impressed enough during spring drills to be listed No. 2 on the preseason depth chart. Also in the mix is sophomore Jonathan Crucitti. Crucitti, who did not participate in spring drills while playing baseball at West Point, played in nine games as a freshman. In addition to his 29 rushes for 87 yards and three catches for 28 yards, Crucitti proved to be an outstanding lead blocker in space while leading plays to the outside.
Junior Brian Austin solidified his spot as a capable back up to Brown and Cobbs during the spring. Austin played in two games a year ago, gaining 25 yards on five carries.
Unlike the 2010 season when Army's returning receivers had a total of five career catches, the 2011 receiving corps returns two starters who ranked among the team's most productive players in the passing game. The duo of seniors Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr each played in all 13 games a year ago, combining for 24 starts.
Brooks led the Black Knights last season with 15 catches and 238 receiving yards to go along with one touchdown reception. He was on the receiving end of Army's last completion of the season, a key third-down play that allowed the Black Knights to run out the clock in their bowl victory over SMU.
Brooks averaged 15.9 yards per catch and a team-high 12 of his 15 catches accounted for either a touchdown or a first down.
Barr also averaged more than 15 yards per catch (15.4), hauling in 14 passes for 215 yards and a team-best three touchdowns. Ten of his catches resulted in scores or first downs, including four on third down. Both Barr and Brooks played valuable roles in the running game as well with their ability to block defensive backs downfield.
Junior Justin Allen opened the coaching staff's eyes during spring drills and is listed as a reserve behind Barr. Allen played in nine games last season both as a backup receiver and on special teams. Sophomore Jared McFarlin, a local product from Monroe-Woodbury High School in Monroe, N.Y., did not play in a varsity game last season, but worked his way into a backup role with a solid spring.
Another relative newcomer is slated as Brooks' main backup at the other spot. Sophomore Anthony Stephens made his presence felt immediately in his first preseason camp and worked his way onto the travel roster. He did not make a reception in 2009, but played in nine games on special teams.
Perhaps the biggest task facing the Army offensive coaches this past spring was rebuilding the offensive line that featured the same starting five in 12 of its 13 games a year ago. Four of those players - tackles Jason Johnson and Anees Merzi, guard Seth Reed and center Zach Peterson - were lost to graduation.
With Allen entrenched at left guard, the majority of the spring was spent identifying candidates that could replicate the chemistry and effectiveness of last season's line. The good news is that despite the experience that has vacated the starting lineup, there are still a number of seasoned players available to fill those roles.
Seniors Brad Kelly and Mike McDermott enter the fall as the top two candidates at left tackle. Kelly has played in 24 games over the past two seasons, including drawing a starting assignment at Iowa State in 2009. McDermott has played in 13 career games, starting four times as a sophomore in 2009. Sophomore Dan Whitaker starts preseason camp as the backup.
Fighting for time with Allen at left guard is senior Jordan Pleasants. Pleasants has yet to appear in a varsity contest.
The center position not only lost a two-year starter in Peterson, but also the main reserve, Thomas Hagan. Junior Will Wilson and sophomore Michael Kime have stepped into those roles entering preseason camp. Wilson played in one game a year ago, while Kime did not see any varsity action as a plebe.
Senior Joe Bailey and junior Matt Villanti are the favorites to hold down the right guard job. Bailey started at left guard three times as a sophomore in 2009. Villanti played in all 13 games a year ago as part of the field goal unit. Senior Robert Kava is also in the mix at right guard. Kava has two career games played under his belt.
The right tackle spot will be manned by juniors Derek Bisgard and Ben Jebb who occupy the top two spots on the depth chart coming out of spring practice. Bisgard played in one game last season, accounting for the only appearance between the two.
"Obviously, we have some new guys in there, but those newcomers aren't all that new," Ellerson said. "Those are guys that have been in those positions in a backup role. They stepped in and stepped up and were really productive this spring. I was pleased with that transition. I was surprisingly pleased with the play at center. Will Wilson and Michael Kime did a nice job there. I thought we'd be serviceable there, but not maybe as far along as we are. That was encouraging."