NCAA Football Preview - Army Black Knights
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After finishing 7-6 and notching a rare bowl victory in 2010, Army took a step backwards in 2011 with just three wins.
A key early-season win over Northwestern (21-14) and a rout of Tulane (45-6) had the Black Knights feeling plenty confident entering an Oct. 8 matchup at Miami-Ohio. However, they let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in that game and never seemed to recover. The Black Knights went 1-6 the rest of the way, with the lone victory coming against Fordham of the FCS. In December, they lost for the 10th straight time against rival academy Navy (27-21) in a game that was tied entering the final quarter.
One positive that came from the 2011 campaign is that head coach Rich Ellerson played more freshmen than any other team in the country, and that game experience could pay big dividends in 2012.
OFFENSE: Despite their poor record, the Black Knights led the nation in rushing last year (347 ypg) thanks largely to junior running back Raymond Maples, who ran for 1,066 yards. He set an Army record with a 7.3 yards per carry average, tops among backs with at least 100 carries in a season. Maples and fourth-year starting quarterback Trent Steelman combine to form arguably the nation's top option-game tandem, while center Ryan Powis anchors the offensive line after starting eight games last year as a freshman.
Steelman is the only player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in a career, and he is on pace to break the school's career marks for rushing yards and touchdowns by a QB. That is, if he is healthy. Steelman battled numerous injuries last year and was forced to sit out the spring game because of a knee injury.
Overall the team is in very good shape in the backfield, as the top seven rushers from last year are back. The group combined for 296.7 of the team's 346.5 yards per game and 27 of the team's 35 rushing touchdowns. At the all- important fullback position for Army's triple-option attack is Larry Dixon, who played in all 12 games last year as a freshman and ran for 542 yards (6.2 ypc) and was second on the team with five scores.
"I feel really great about the fullback position," Ellerson said. "We have Larry Dixon and Hayden Tippett, and I'm really excited about those two guys. They're really a 1-2 punch. You've also got Jared Hassin (a 1,000-yard rusher in 2010), who has a thousand turns at that position. The fullback, just like the center and the quarterback, those positions that are right down the middle of your offense, are so crucial to our success. We can't feel better about them."
DEFENSE: The biggest development of spring practices was the much improved play of the defensive line, a unit that was overmatched regularly last year.
"I'm encouraged by where the group up front on defense is," Ellerson said. "It's a much more physically mature group. We have some guys that are back playing the positions they should be as opposed to being forced into service somewhere other than where they wanted to be. That's where good defense starts. We're looking like we made some gains in that area, and that bodes well for us."
Senior defensive end Jarrett Mackey is healthy after missing all but one game last year with a knee injury. Fellow senior Zach Watts also figures into the rotation after picking up 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 11 starts. The Black Knights are light on experience, and size, at defensive tackle, but Ellerson likes what he has seen from junior Robert Kough and sophomore Richard Glover.
Plenty of experience returns at linebacker, led by Geoffrey Bacon, who started the final five games last year as a freshman and finished third on the team with 60 tackles. Several players have moved around to different positions in the secondary, as Ellerson wanted to create more competition. Starting free safety Tyler Dickson, who had 60 tackles in 2011, has moved to cornerback, while Justin Trimble takes over at rover after starting three games at middle linebacker last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ellerson hired Luke Thompson away from Georgetown to run the special teams. Thompson's first order of business will be replacing Alex Carlton, the team's kicker for the last three seasons. Senior Eric Osteen and junior Billy Fisher are battling for the job. Senior Chris Boldt is back to handle punting duties after averaging 39.8 yards a year ago. Boldt had four kicks longer than 50 yards, including a 72-yarder. Army must get better in the return game however, after ranking 113th out of 120 FBS teams in punt and kick returns.
OUTLOOK: The good news for the Black Knights is that they boast plenty of talent and experience where it matters most: in the backfield. However, the team's success on the ground will depend largely on the health and availability of Steelman, who runs the whole show.
The defense is inexperienced up front, and several players in the secondary are learning new positions. All told, that doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for instant success.
Instead, look for the Black Knights to improve as the season progresses. A bunch of freshmen got experience last year, and Ellerson will continue to groom those youngsters into key roles. Meanwhile, Steelman and Maples will get as many carries as they can handle, in hopes of carrying the team to a few more wins than last season.
08/23 09:25:57 ET