Army's Steelman a plebe like no other
When Army coach Rich Ellerson ponders Saturday's game against rival Navy, his thoughts turn to Middies quarterback Ricky Dobbs.
``He can run the option, he can throw the ball, and he has scored a gazillion touchdowns this year,'' Ellerson said of Dobbs, who leads Navy with 924 rushing yards and a team-leading 23 touchdowns. ``Certainly, they have a lot of weapons.''
Ellerson has a weapon or two of his own on offense, and foremost is freshman quarterback Trent Steelman. He is Army's leading rusher with 690 yards, and when he takes the first snap against Navy (8-4), Steelman will become just the second plebe to start at quarterback for the Black Knights against the Midshipmen and the first Army quarterback, regardless of class, to start 12 games in a season.
``I came out and learned the offense quickly and adjusted to the speed of the game,'' Steelman said. ``I've had (senior) Carson (Williams) and the other quarterbacks guide me along the way, and that's helped me a lot. It has been a good fit. Just being able to use my speed, the offense fits me well. I'm blessed right now. I'm trying to help this team any way I can.''
In his first year as head coach, Ellerson adopted a triple option attack similar to the one Jim Young installed at Army in the mid-1980s. Young enjoyed great success during his tenure, and Ellerson has guided Army (5-6) to within a victory of qualifying for the postseason for the first time in 13 years.
The Black Knights are averaging 212 rushing yards and 71 yards passing per game behind Steelman, who's rushed for five touchdowns and thrown for three more in averaging 113.6 yards of total offense a game. But Army has dropped the ball more than Ellerson would like, losing 13 of 31 fumbles.
``I would say that the development of our offense in general has been a little bit uneven, but certainly he (Steelman) is one of the highlights,'' Ellerson said. ``He is probably the guy that's the most dynamic with the ball in his hands. He does a better job every week of managing the game and distributing the ball. He has demonstrated the mental and physical toughness that it takes to play quarterback in this offense and at this level, and he's done it while he's been a plebe at West Point.
``All of those things are remarkable accomplishments. I couldn't be more pleased with where he is.''
Steelman, who just turned 20, was an honorable mention all-state selection as a senior at Bowling Green (Ky.) High School. He threw for 5,663 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for 1,694 yards and 30 TDs in high school. He also was a pitcher and center fielder on the baseball team and an all-star basketball player.
Steelman landed at West Point by chance. Playing Division I football in college was a dream, partly because his dad, Bob, lettered in football at Appalachian State. Steelman had no offers until Army popped up on his radar in late February of his junior season.
Saying yes to a military commitment in a time of war was no big deal considering his family history: His paternal grandfather, John Steelman, served in U.S. Air Force during World War II; his uncle, Tom Steelman, served in the Army during the Gulf War; and his great-uncle, Peter Roberts, served as U.S. Counselor General to Venezuela during the Nixon administration and also was as an interpreter at the Nurenberg Trials during World War II in Germany.
Steelman, the first Army freshman to start a season-opener at quarterback in the modern era (since 1944), has guided the Black Knights to two straight victories. And he's coming off his best rushing game of the season - 132 yards on 23 carries and the winning touchdown with 1:43 left in a 17-13 victory three weeks ago at North Texas.
``Overall, I think I managed the games pretty well this year,'' Steelman said. ``The thing I've got to do better is deal with the different defenses, being able to communicate to my coach what's going on out there.''
There's an awful lot riding on Saturday's game. Navy already is locked into the Texas Bowl, but for Army to make the postseason for the first time since 1996 it must win the 110th meeting between the two service academies. The Black Knights have a tie-in with the EagleBank Bowl if they win six.
More importantly, Army's senior class, like so many before them, has never beaten Navy. The Midshipmen have won seven straight meetings, and 10 of the past 12, to grab a 53-49-7 advantage in the rivalry. Navy's current winning streak is the longest in the series by either academy, and the Middies have outscored Army 274-71 during that span.
Steelman attended last year's game, so he knows what the scene will be like at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. He says he's not fazed.
``Not really. It's been such a long season,'' Steelman said. ``I've got 11 games under my belt. That just helped me progress, just being able to deal with the big-game situation. I'm just approaching it like any other game. It's just another game I'm going to have to go through.''
His coach has a different take.
``We talk about the edge,'' Ellerson said. ``This is one of those games where I don't worry about getting to the edge, I worry about jumping off the edge.''