July 31, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. - -
The Black Knights will officially begin preparations for the 2011 season on Monday, Aug. 1. With less than 24 hours before the start of the season, www.goARMYsports.com takes a look at the Army defense and special teams.
One of the hallmarks of Ellerson's double-eagle flex defense is its ability to adjust to fit its personnel's skills and strengths. That philosophy will be put to the test in 2011 as the Black Knights must find ways to replace some of the most productive players in program history.
Army lost six starters on defense, including its leading tackler and emotional leader from 2010 (LB Stephen Anderson), the program's all-time leader in tackles for loss and quarterback sacks (DE Josh McNary), a three-year starter at nose tackle (Mike Gann), both safeties (Donovan Travis and Donnie Dixon), including one who occupies the No. 2 position on the Black Knights' all-time interceptions list (Travis) and a defensive end who played in 36 games over the past three seasons (Marcus Hilton). Having to account for the contributions of those players, along with some valuable reserves, will challenge the Army coaching staff in not only finding new talent, but developing ways to deploy that talent to maximize productivity.
The preseason two-deep is littered with players who enter the 2011 campaign as unknown commodities, at least to program outsiders.
"It looks like some of those guys have really taken a step forward," Ellerson said. "(After the season) they step back (off the field), they train, they lift, but they're playing that movie in their head over and over. Then they step back out here and they look like they're so much further ahead. They're more mature and their reactions are so much better.
"Defensively, this spring we were very simple and kind of generic in our adjustments because there was a bit of discovery phase. We had to find our strengths and weaknesses before we start to maybe tailor things to his personnel set. That's something we'll be scratching our heads about, to make some of those calls. I think the defense will adjust to the personnel set we have, but it's going to be our defense."
Much like the offensive front, Army's defensive line will have several new faces come the first weekend in September. Familiar faces such as Mike Gann, Josh McNary and Marcus Hilton are gone, but an exciting crop of newcomers is waiting in the wings.
Even with the loss of McNary, a name familiar to Army fans will line up at the "quick" defensive end position. Junior Jarett Mackey started all 13 games at the "bandit" position, a hybrid lineman/linebacker. Mackey made an immediate impact in his first season as a starter, finishing fourth on the team in total tackles (47), fourth on the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and second in quarterback sacks (4.0). Junior Shola Mustapha, who has yet to see any time with the varsity squad begins his third season as Mackey's primary backup.
The other defensive end spot has a pair of new faces heading into fall camp. Sophomore Holt Zalneraitis begins his second season on the Banks of the Hudson as the projected starter. Zalneraitis did not have any statistics in one game as a plebe. Senior Chad Littlejohn is listed as Zalneraitis' backup. Littlejohn was moved to end from linebacker before the start of preseason practice. As a junior, he started seven times at "whip" linebacker, making 30 tackles, including 3.0 for loss.
One of the key position battles this past spring was supposed to be for Mike Gann's starting spot at nose tackle. However, a rash of injuries kept players such as junior A.J. Mackey off the practice field. The positive outcome of those injuries was the number of players who were able to take repetitions at those spots during spring drills.
Despite the injury, Mackey enters 2011 as the starter at right tackle. Mackey played in seven games last season, including a starting assignment versus Air Force. He was productive in his limited playing time, posting nine tackles, including an assist behind the line of scrimmage, and a forced fumble. Sophomore Corey Watts is listed as the primary backup. Watts did not see any time during his first season at West Point.
Sophomore Clayton Keller and junior Parker Whitten begin 2011 as the top two left tackle candidates. Despite not getting any playing time last season, Keller impressed enough during the spring to earn the top spot on the depth chart. Whitten saw action in six games, making one tackle and breaking up a pass. Whitten is also in the mix to be the Black Knights' long snapper on punts and field goals.
"I have still have some concerns," Ellerson said after Army's spring scrimmage. "We didn't answer the questions we have about the interior defensive line. That we didn't get resolved because those guys that quite frankly we were looking at to fill those gaps didn't practice. They got themselves nicked up early so that's something to still be determined. It's something that's going to be a concern going into training camp."
A mixture of new players and returning veterans at new positions will make up the 2011 Army linebacking corps.
While the middle linebacker spot was without much doubt in 2010, this year's preseason camp opens with plenty of new faces. Two-time captain Stephen Anderson, last season's leading tackler with 108 stops, is slated to be replaced by junior Nate Combs. Combs earned the starting job at the "whip" spot last season, starting the season opener at Eastern Michigan. His year was cut short, however, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter. The injury kept him out of spring practice.
Juniors Kyler martin and C.J. Shelley are locked in a battle for playing time behind Combs. Martin made yet another position switch during the spring. He entered the Academy as a receiver, but was moved to linebacker during 2009 where he played in all 12 games, mostly on special teams, before making two starts at middle linebacker after a season-ending injury to Anderson. He was moved back to receiver during 2010 spring practice, but switched to the defensive backfield during the season. He played in nine outings a year ago, primarily on special teams. This spring he was moved back to the middle linebacker spot. Shelley has yet to see any varsity action.
Fans won't need a program to know who the "rover" linebacker is. Senior captain Steve Erzinger has started the last 25 games at the position. Erzinger worked in the middle during spring drills, but starts preseason practice in his familiar position. The Houston native finished second on the team in 2010 with 76 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and broke up five passes. Prior to the start of spring practice, Erzinger was selected as a "legacy" captain by last season's seniors who felt he was the best representative to build on the foundation laid during 2010.
Sophomore Justin Trimble, who switched to the No. 5 jersey worn by his oldest brother Jeremy, Army's all-time leading receiver, is listed behind Erzinger. Trimble bounced between defensive back and linebacker a year ago, making five tackles in 11 games.
The "whip" linebacker spot has numerous candidates. Junior Zach Watts ran with the first team most of the spring. Watts played in 11 games last season, including three appearances in the starting lineup. He recorded 20 tackles, including a sack, recovered a fumble and forced two more.
Senior Andrew Rodriguez will attempt to return from a back injury that forced him to miss all of 2010. Rodriguez started all 12 games in 2009, leading the Black Knights with 85 tackles. The coaching staff will be cautious with Rodriguez during preseason camp.
Senior Bill Prosko and Justin Schaaf will battle for the backup spots. Both players drew action in all 13 games last season. Prosko made 16 tackles, while Schaaf added two stops in a primarily special teams role.
The cornerback position could be considered the most experienced spot on the Army depth chart. A pair of players with starting experience return to anchor the pass defense.
At field corner, junior Josh Jackson returns after playing in all 13 games, including 10 starts, a year ago. Jackson led the corners in 2010 with 33 tackles. He also made an interception and broke up two passes.
Senior Antuan Aaron returns to handle the boundary corner duties. Aaron recorded 27 stops and two pass breakups while fighting injuries that limited him to nine games during his junior season.
Junior Waverly Washington, a special teams stalwart in 2010, is the primary backup behind Jackson, while senior James Whittington will compete for time behind Aaron.
While the cornerback corps is stocked with experience, a set of fresh faces will handle the duties at both strong and free safety. The three players listed at strong safety on the post-spring depth chart have a combined five games of playing experience. Sophomore Lyle Beloney did not play in a game as a freshman, but impressed the coaching staff enough during spring drills to be listed on top of the two-deep. Sophomore Reggie Nesbit played in four games last season as a linebacker, but moved to the "sam" position during this past spring. Junior Robert Speidel played in one game as a rookie, but did not draw any field duty in 2010.
A pair of promising youngsters will vie for playing time at the free safety position vacated by Travis. Sophomore Tyler Dickson appeared in three games a year ago, while classmate Thomas Holloway made his collegiate debut in the bowl win over SMU.
"I am encouraged by that second row on defense," Ellerson said. "We've got some gifted guys back there. The physically maturity is going to be a race. Athletically, we'll have a chance."
Army will also have to re-make some special teams units hit hard by graduation. The Black Knights lost punter Jonathan Bulls and kickoff specialist Matthew Campbell, along with dependable long snapper Carson Homme.
The one familiar face among the specialists is kicker Alex Carlton. Carlton finished the season with 11 consecutive field goals and enters his senior season already ranked third in Army history with 33 field goals. Carlton will battle junior Eric Osteen for the kickoff duties handled by Campbell last season.
In the punting game, Kolin Walk and Chris Boldt are locked in a battle to replace Bulls. Neither has ever kicked in collegiate game. Walk has been utilized as Carlton's holder in each of the last two seasons.
While the players kicking the ball in 2011 will feature some new faces, the Black Knights have plenty of experience in the return game.
Josh Jackson returns after serving as Army's main return man both on punts and kickoffs. He averaged 7.3 yards on 18 punt return attempts, while he went for 20.1 yards on 26 kickoff return tries.
Malcolm Brown is also a proven commodity on kickoff returns. Brown averaged 21.0 yards per attempt in 2010. Raymond Maples and Brian Cobbs also took turns returning kicks last season.