This article originally appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on September 16, 2009, and was written by Mark Brown.
WEST POINT, N. Y. » New Army head coach Rich Ellerson was here to see the birth of this version of the triple-option offense two decades ago in Hawaii.
Ellerson studied the new core of the Black Knights' offense during his days with former Hawaii offensive coordinator and current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson. At Navy for several seasons, Johnson used this offense in a victorious run that included rare bowl appearances for the Mids.
"Paul is still the dean of this offense," Ellerson said. "We all know what he executed at Navy, but I also know what we can do with this offense. I've implemented that offense (at Cal Poly and now at Army), but also have several assistants with me who are familiar in running this offense."
Now Ellerson plans to bring it to another level and transform its execution into achievement. As head coach at Southern Utah and most recently at Cal Poly, Ellerson parlayed the option into a triumphant run, and is now viewed, as others before him here on the plains of West Point, as a potential savior of a moribund program.
The opportunity to return to glory here on the banks of the Hudson is the successful implementation of this option offense. It's this vehicle which Ellerson, the pupil, studied under Johnson, the mentor, and, together, the result was a boost of the Hawaii program in the early 1990s to national prominence.
The first semblance of Ellerson's transition appeared to take hold last weekend. In Army's 27-14 opening-day win over Eastern Michigan, the Black Knights ran the ball 49 times for a net of 300 yards. True to the nature of the triple option, Army threw the ball five times, completing two for 8 yards.
In the loss to Duke last Saturday, the Black Knights carried the football 56 times for a net of 266 yards. That failed to come close to the team mark of 88 carries set in 1984 against Holy Cross, but strongly indicates that Army will bank on execution of the triple option.
At times, though, Ellerson may have a change of heart.
Down 21-13 to Duke in the final minutes last Saturday, Ellerson changed his approach and, in an attempt to forge a tie and perhaps overtime, began throwing. Senior Carson Williams finished 8-for-18 for 91 yards, but threw two picks to the Blue Devils' Leon Wright. He returned both for touchdowns within 16 seconds in the final 1:48 of the game.
That prompted Ellerson to tell reporters that the game dictated a change of approach, but the option is the Knights' choice of direction.
"At the end, we didn't have that personality," he said, referring to the option. "We're getting close, though. We need to be more consistent and get that 4, 5, 6 yards a carry on each snap. Right now, the field is too long."
Ellerson has put execution of this offense into the hands of Trent Steelman, a true freshman, from Bowling Green, Ky. Steelman ended last Saturday's game against Duke with 17 attempts for 75 yards.
Steelman appears comfortable guiding this offense.
"I ran the triple option in high school as a sophomore, and, though we went to more of a spread in my final two years, we also used it in my junior and senior years," Steelman said after the Duke game. "So, yes, I'm very familiar in running this offense."
With Ellerson's recent track record, where he went 56-34 at Cal Poly from 2001 to 2008 and led the nation in total offense in 2007, his belief in the triple option has players clearly buying into this offensive approach.
"It's a new offense, but we believe in the system," said Patrick Mealy, who rushed for 99 yards against Duke. "We believe in our coaching staff. We'll come back next week and get back in the grind."
It's still three months to the Navy game in Philadelphia, but already, it shapes up as Ellerson, the pupil of Johnson, and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, another disciple of Johnson, clashing for dominance of this potentially explosive offense.