Army retools, hopes to keep building
Rich Ellerson isn't one to dwell on good fortune.
Almost overnight, the determined Army coach was ready to move on after guiding the Black Knights to a 7-6 mark in 2010. It was Army's first winning season since 1996, and it was capped by the team's first bowl victory - a 16-14 decision over SMU - in 25 years.
And now ... the encore.
But Ellerson is faced with a big personnel puzzle as the Sept. 3 season opener at Northern Illinois looms.
''There are 10,000 details that aren't close. There is still some system to be installed,'' said Ellerson, now in his third season at West Point. ''But now, we can start to focus those efforts on the handful of individuals at each position that are likely to help this year.''
Making Ellerson's job somewhat easier is quarterback Trent Steelman, who has started all 25 games the past two seasons. The junior already ranks in the Black Knights' all-time top 10 in total offense (3,059 yards) and has a great command of Army's triple-option offense, which averaged 251.6 yards per game last season.
Along the way, Steelman ran for 721 yards, threw for 995 and had just three interceptions in 133 pass attempts. He just missed becoming the first Black Knight to rush for at least 500 yards and throw for 1,000 in a season. And he's now healthy, after sitting out spring drills with a shoulder injury.
''Each year you get a little bit more comfortable, and that continues this year,'' said Steelman, who accounted for 18 touchdowns in 2010. ''We have a lot of new faces. But at the same time, we have a lot of good guys and a lot of good talent. I'm excited about what this offense is capable of doing this year.''
He should be. Junior fullback Jared Hassin gives the Black Knights a powerful backfield option. Hassin averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and gained a team-high 1,013 yards on the ground, becoming only the second sophomore in program history to reach the four-digit mark. He also led the Black Knights with 17 rushing plays of at least 20 yards.
Slotback Patrick Mealy, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards during his career, graduated in the spring, and will be missed. But the Black Knights have plenty of candidates to step in. Junior Malcolm Brown is back after starting opposite Mealy last season. Brown was Army's fourth-leading rusher last fall with 343 yards, despite missing seven games with a shoulder injury.
Brown ranked second on the team at 5.5 yards per carry, and also averaged 21 yards on 13 kickoff returns.
And sophomore Raymond Maples, who ran for 208 yards on 47 carries in 10 games in his first year, entered preseason camp as the projected starter at the A-Back position.
Whether Hassin has the holes to bolt through, or Steelman has the time to throw to the senior wideout duo of Davyd Brooks (15 catches, 238 yards) and Austin Barr (14, 215), depends on an offensive line that has to be retooled. Four linemen who started 12 games last season - tackles Jason Johnson and Anees Merzi, guard Seth Reed and center Zach Peterson - were lost to graduation.
The defense is in a state of flux, too.
When Ellerson arrived, he installed a double-eagle flex defense that has the ability to adjust to fit the skills and strengths of the players. But he has a lot of assessing to do this month, having to replace six starters, including one of the most productive players in program history in nose tackle Josh McNary, who had 10 sacks last year.
Gone, too, is linebacker Stephen Anderson, the team's emotional leader, who paced the Black Knights with 108 tackles. Anderson will be replaced by junior Nate Combs, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Senior Steve Erzinger, second on the team in 2010 with 76 tackles, also returns at linebacker, where he has started the last 25 games. And junior Jarett Mackey, who started all 13 in 2010 at the ''bandit'' position, a hybrid lineman-linebacker, will help fill the defensive void, as well.
Mackey made an impact in his first season as a starter, finishing fourth in total tackles (47) as well as tackles for loss (6.5). He was also second with four sacks.
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, who finished the season with 11 consecutive field goals. He enters his senior year already No. 3 all-time in Army history with 33 field goals.
Ellerson and Jim Young are the only coaches in Army history to win a bowl. But now, comes the hard part. The team's newfound success has raised expectations a bit more on the banks of the Hudson River.
And, there are plenty of obstacles, some from major conferences, in the way. On Sept. 17, Army plays host to Northwestern. On Oct. 22, they travel to Vanderbilt. And then there's the matter of the Navy game, of course. The Midshipmen have won nine in a row in that storied series.
''The biggest fear after winning the bowl game is getting complacent,'' Steelman said. ''The way I see it is 7-6 is one game above average. We're not an average team.
''We have the capability to be a great team. We're willing to face anything that is put before us, but we have to handle ourselves in a manner that is going to allow us to be successful.''
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