Army determined to get back to winning ways
Entering his fourth season at Army, coach Rich Ellerson knows what's expected at West Point. That the Black Knights failed in that mission last fall puts the stamp of urgency on the new season.
''Well, we have expectations, and they're high,'' Ellerson said. ''We know we're better. We have to prove that on the scoreboard.''
A year after playing - and winning - its first bowl game since 1996, Army finished 2011 at 3-9, capping a forgettable campaign with its 10th straight loss to Navy.
A new year. Same focus, as always.
''It's been on our mind for three years now, and we think we're in a better position now more than ever to go out and get that (win over Navy),'' senior quarterback Trent Steelman said. ''We're looking forward to getting back out there.''
Blame some of last season's woes on Army playing more freshmen than any other team in the nation (19), including several starters.
Steelman is the man who makes Army's potent option attack effective - the Black Knights led the nation in rushing last season with a 346.5-yard average (5.6 yards per carry). No reason they can't do that again.
''Trent has a lot of experience, and he is full-speed every day,'' offensive coordinator Ian Shields said. ''He's a great leader. We're probably one of the few teams in the country that have the luxury of having a fourth-year starting quarterback.''
Steelman had started every game of his college career - an academy-record 32 straight - until he injured his left foot against Vanderbilt last fall. He did not play against Fordham, Air Force and Rutgers, and missed parts of two other games and spring practice, but he's healthy now and that bodes well.
''It's probably the healthiest he's ever been, frankly,'' Ellerson said. ''It's obviously a difficult job. He's going to have the ball in his hands, and his legs are very important to our offense. Things are going to happen in games. We just don't need to do anything silly on the side to set ourselves back.''
Despite all that missed time, Steelman was the Black Knights' second-leading rusher with 645 yards and led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns. He's the only player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards. He'll likely be backed up by sophomore Angel Santiago, who gained valuable experience as a plebe, rushing for 162 yards and a score while playing in four games.
Army's backfield is full of experience - 11 players who scored rushing touchdowns last season are back and ready to pick up where they left off. The Black Knights return their top seven rushers, who combined for 296.7 yards per game and scored 27 of the team's 35 rushing touchdowns. They'll have to do it behind an offensive line that's been retooled because of the loss of three starters.
Leading the group of running backs is Raymond Maples, who gained 1,066 yards, averaging 7.3 yards per carry, the most in academy history for a runner with at least 100 carries in a season. His backup is senior Jared Hassin, a mainstay at fullback the last two seasons who ran for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore.
Sophomore Larry Dixon played in all 12 games last season and finished fourth with 542 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns, second on the team. Malcolm Brown, back for his final year, was the team's third leading rusher last season with 572 yards on 81 carries, averaging 7.1 yards per touch, but has been moved to wideout.
''It's something to see because it's something Army hasn't had in a long time. It takes a lot of pressure off me,'' Steelman said of the depth at running back. ''I can just get under center and play my role and be a distributor.''
The key to success will be improving on last season when the Black Knights lost 22 of 36 fumbles.
Spring ball helped develop a defensive line that was vastly undersized a year ago. The Black Knights' edge rushers will be bolstered by the return of Zach Watts and Jarett Mackey. Watts, who started all 12 games last season, including the last 11 at the quick spot and was a first-team Academic All-American, made 26 tackles, and was ranked second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss. Mackey, 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.
Holt Zalneraitis will play a key role at whip defensive end. Last season, he made 25 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, in 12 games.
''When we look back at this team, I suspect we'll say that this defensive front was so improved and gave this team a chance to be a consistently good, occasionally great defensive football team,'' Ellerson said.
The linebackers are one of the most experienced units on the defensive side despite the loss of Steven Erzinger. Returning starter Geoffery Bacon is back in the middle after taking over as a freshman and recording 60 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
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. Combs played in all 12 games a year ago, starting six times, and made 37 stops, including six behind the line of scrimmage.
The strong safety features returning starter Hayden Pierce (32 tackles, three for loss).
The Black Knights will have to replace Alex Carlton, the placekicker for the last three seasons. Senior Eric Osteen, junior Billy Fisher and freshmen Dan Grochowski and Cale Brewer were vying for the job.