Sept. 21, 2011
By Christian Anderson, Army Athletic Communications
Adjusting to the United States Military is no small task for young men and women who make the life-altering decision to embark upon the path toward a West Point degree and a five-year military commitment in the U.S. Army. They leave the comforts of home behind and are forced to say goodbye to their family and friends in mid-June. During the summer months, these courageous cadet candidates endure the grueling six-week training known as Beast Barracks. After toiling at Camp Buckner in the heat and humidity that the Hudson Valley summer brings, those cadet candidates enter West Point as plebes and are immediately thrust into life at the Academy and all of the demands that it presents.
As if the mental and physical grind of plebe year is not hard enough, several members of the freshman class are also playing an integral role on the Army football team this fall. In addition to training at Camp Buckner throughout June and July, and adjusting to Academy life in August and September, nine talented and mentally tough individuals navigated head coach Rich Ellerson's preseason camp and made their collegiate debuts against Northern Illinois in the season opener two weeks ago.
The impact of having so many underclassmen playing key roles on this year's team is not lost on Ellerson, who would prefer to lean more on the juniors and seniors. The third-year Army mentor and his coaching staff assembled a talented freshman class, but that doesn't mean that he feels completely comfortable relying on them as much as he will this season.
"You shouldn't have to play freshmen in order to have a good Academy football team," says Ellerson. "The center of gravity should be in the junior and senior classes. It's asking so much of the freshmen to carry that much of the load. It's problematic because their summer was different than everyone else's summer; it was extraordinarily demanding. The academic year is not a whole lot better, and the rest/recovery model is really challenged. Between the academic load and their responsibilities back in the company, to be carrying the load on Saturdays is really remarkable."
Two of the Army freshmen who stepped up to carry part of the load against Northern Illinois in the season opener were running back Trenton Turrentine and safety Hayden Pierce, who defied all odds and lined up with the starting unit.
All Turrentine did with his first career carry was rush for a 14-yard touchdown. The Keller, Texas, native rushed for 68 yards on just 11 rushes in his debut.
"It was amazing to go out there and do that," says Turrentine. "I wasn't expecting it at all. Honestly, I came in hoping to contribute just a little bit at the running back position, but I worked hard and it feels great to be able to contribute."
Pierce, meanwhile, posted seven tackles in his first game in an Army uniform.
"Honestly, when I got here, my goal was to make a special teams unit to be on the travel squad, and I just kept doing my best and this is where it has gotten me," says Pierce. "It was fun and really exciting to start in the opener versus Northern Illinois. I was really nervous, too, because the difference in speed between the (USMA) prep school and Division I football is pretty big. Everyone at this level is a lot bigger, faster and a lot more athletic."
While Ellerson was happy with what he saw from his freshmen, he has been around the game long enough to realize that there is still a long way to go before the plebes become polished college football players.
"Obviously, they were far from perfect, but they showed that they belonged in that environment," states Ellerson. "As they become more and more comfortable and rehearsed and at home there, they will become more and more productive. Obviously, physical maturity is an issue when you're playing with that many young guys, and we're getting into some fights that are uphill, physical fights for them. We need to plus them with the system to give them a chance to be consistently productive. The downside is that now you're stretching them mentally as well, without the experience to go with it. You're going to see them improve dramatically as the days and reps go by because they are seeing things for the first time. Because of that, we'll see some growth, but there's going to be some ups and downs. That's the nature of young guys."
While young, many of the freshmen on the Army football roster attended the United States Military Academy Prep School last year. That group, which both Turrentine and Pierce are a part of, enters West Point a little more physically mature and mentally prepared for the rigors that the Academy and Army football present.
"The prep school helped me a lot with Beast, because the training we went through for prep school was very similar," says Pierce. "In terms of football, we learned the system, so that was a big help."
"The prep school helped me tremendously," says Turrentine. "My coach helped me work on my steps and get ready for the next level. We lifted a lot and I got bigger, faster and stronger. I worked on my athleticism."
Turrentine believes that this year's freshmen who attended USMAPS formed a special bond that has helped them succeed thus far at West Point.
"It all started at the prep school from the first day of basic training to the first day of football practice," says Turrentine. "We bought into Coach Ellerson's idea of bonding with the corps. We came in and decided that we wanted to be really good, so we worked real hard at the prep school at everything we needed to do, and it has paid off here so far."
These freshmen, who have done an extraordinarily good job at adapting to the Academy and to playing college football, are already leaving their mark on the 2011 Army team. Provided they continue to progress at their current pace, the Army football program's future seems to be a very bright one.