The Army football team has a national fanbase and serves as a representation of the U.S. Army, so it is not surprising that they will leave West Point to play their spring game at the "Home of the Infantry" at Fort Benning, Georgia on March 9th.
In the Rich Ellerson era, the spring game at the US Military Academy has been mostly a low-key affair designed to give the 100-plus members of the Army team an opportunity to show what they can do under game conditions. The game is the culmination of 15 spring practices held over 30 days' time.
Normally, the first-string players have a few series to work together as a unit. Then the day is turned over to reserves and those competing for positions on special teams, the traveling roster and the scout team.
The trip to Fort Benning—located just outside Columbus, Georgia near the Alabama line—provides the Cadets a chance to see one of the Army's largest bases devoted to the training of the backbone of the Army, the infantry soldier.
The players, coaches and staff will have a chance to tour the base, witness a basic training graduation day ceremony and visit the National Museum of the Infantry.
The game will be played at Doughboy Stadium originally built in 1924 to honor World War One soldiers. The stadium seats about 8,500 fans and projects an Army like sense of history. One of the base's early football coaches was West Point graduate and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The base football team currently plays a six-game schedule as part of the base's recreation and morale-building activities.
The outing will be an opportunity for a large crowd of soldiers, families and more than a few alumni stationed at the base to see the Army's team practice and play a simulated game first hand.
West Point head Coach Rich Ellerson, the son of an Army officer, is constantly making efforts to tie the football team to the Army as a whole. His players are expected to do all of the requirements of cadets, such as the annual march back for the freshman completing their own summer basic training.
Speaking about the opportunity to play at Fort Benning, he commented in the Academy's release (via GoBlackKnights.com):
It’s something we’re anxious to do, it makes too much sense. As spring football games have become a little bit more of a media event, it’s a chance for us to showcase the program and articulate that connection with the U.S. Army.
The host of the event will be Maj. General Robert B. Brown. the Commanding General at Fort Benning, and a 1981 graduate of the US Military Academy. Fort Benning is also known as the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
It will be a great experience for us and hopefully for the folks at Fort Benning, continued coach Ellerson in the release, It’s a first-time thing. We had to get an exception from the NCAA, but it makes sense given the institutional relationships. We’ll see where it leads us.
For the Army football team, spring practice will focus on tuning up the experienced offense, which includes several key players who will be seniors next year—quarterback Trent Steelman, fullback Jared Hassin and guards Frank Allen and Matt Villanti. Many will be watching to see if Army adds more passing plays to its offense.
West Point led the country in rushing last season averaging 346 yards per game. Returning for his fourth year as a starter will be Trent Steelman. It will be hard to get used to thinking of Steelman as a senior after years of watching him progress from the plebe who started every game as the QB to the vocal team leader walking up the sidelines encouraging his teammates.
Many of the Black Knights who led the offensive attack this past year will be back, including now-junior fullback Jared Hassin. The Wisconsin native can be expected to bounce back from injuries in 2011 that reduced his rushing total to 450 yards after over 1,000 in 2010.
Also back will be Raymond Maples and Malcolm Brown, who both averaged over seven yards a carry and ran for a combined 1,600 yards. Freshman Larry Dixon showed tremendous potential as fullback running for sharing duties with Hassin and running for 542 yards and five touchdowns.
Steelman remains as the go to runner in the red zone, leading the team in touchdowns in 2011 with 12, playing in only nine games.
One of the players to watch will be freshman Angel Santiago who is the heir apparent at quarterback for the 2013 season, and could play extensively if Steelman is injured—as it happened in the second half of 2011.
Santiago is a talented runner who the coaching staff just felt needed more practice time to better handle the Army option offense.
The defense will need to fill big holes at linebacker with the coming graduation of Steve Erzinger and Andrew Rodriquez. Coach Ellerson told us Monday in taping our WVOX radio show that building up the defensive line, admittedly undersized in 2011, will be a priority.
Last year, the defense depended on quite a few young players, who will improve their reactions and cohesiveness as a unit during spring practice.
Young players for West Point on defense this past year were highlighted by sophomore free safety Thomas Holloway, who was second on the team in tackles with 76. Freshman middle linebacker Geoffrey Bacon had 60 tackles, as did sophomore safety Tyler Dickson.
Three key seniors next year leading the defense will be veteran cornerback Josh Jackson, linebacker Nate Combs and nose tackle A.J. Mackey, who both were cornerstones in holding up the Black Knight defense in 2011.
Jackson also was a reliable punt returner during the past season.
Both Jackson and Mackey are from the Atlanta area, so this will be a homecoming for them.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson will be a guest in a two-part series on the Sons of the American Legion Radio Report broadcast on WVOX 1460 AM from New Rochelle, NY on Monday February 6th and 13th at 2:45 PM EST. The interview can be heard nationally on WVOX.com.
Ken Kraetzer's Twitter address is SAL50NYRadio