There were many familiar faces at West Point Wednesday morning as the Army Black Knight football players and coaches gathered to talk to the media before starting their first day of practice.
This is head coach Rich Ellerson's fourth year at the helm of the Army program, and most of the players are ones that his staff recruited to West Point. The Black Knights have seven home games this year after only playing four times at Michie Stadium in 2011.
Key goals for the team are to win the Commander-In-Chief games against Air Force at home the first Saturday in November, and the Navy game in December to be played back in Philadelphia. I have to doubt if there is another school in the country where the players are reminded so often of the goal for every season, "Beat Navy!".
Coach Ellerson commented on the start of summer training at the Media Day press gathering at Randall Hall:
"We just got the guys back yesterday, the guys go all over the map over the summer, but it looks like we had a productive summer, we took care of business, but we kept the arrow up physically, and guys are excited to go."
It is also the fourth season in a row that Trent Steelman, the Bowling Green, Kentucky native, will go into the opening day lineup as the Black Knights' quarterback. As a freshman, Steelman had to do a lot of the running himself and took a lot of hits when the coaches often called his number on short yardage and goal line situations. The toll became visible when he missed playing time for the first time after injuries in the Vanderbilt and Temple games. Despite this, in 2011, he led Army with 12 touchdowns scored.
I asked the Army quarterback about now being a senior after starting as a plebe:
As a senior, you are it. You are the leader of the team more than ever. Obviously, as the quarterback, you have to be able take on that role as leader of team. But when you put the senior brand on it, it makes it that much more important. People are going to look to you in adverse situations, looking to you to lead the team. That is what I need to be able to do this year.
Few probably realize that Army led the country in rushing last year with an average of 296 yards gained on the ground per game. Amazingly, the top seven runners are all back for the Black Knights, who will have one of the most experienced backfields in Academy history.
Steelman himself ran for 645 yards and can call upon two players who have run for over 1,000 yards in an Army uniform—senior Jared Hassin in 2010 and junior Ray Maples, who had 1,066 yards in 2011. Throw in senior slotback Malcolm Brown, who had 572 yards last year, and sophomore fullback Larry Dixon from Bremerton, WA who had 542 yards. Both Brown and Dixon contributed five touchdowns to the offense.
Larry Dixon described to me what it was like to play and start several games as the West Point fullback:
It was a real honor, especially when you think of the history this place has, the kind of guys I got to play next to. It was just a real honor to be able to play with them.
The offensive line has depth going into the start of the season. One of the young players who gained experience at center last year was Michael Kime from Zionsville, Indiana. I asked the now 246-pound junior, who is targeted for play as a tackle this year, about the experience he gained last season:
I think I had a pretty good season last year, unfortunately I was hampered by some injuries, I was really happy to be out there, being able to contribute to the team, and helping the guys any ways I could.
On defense, the Black Knights played numerous freshmen and sophomores in key roles last year, and lacked size on the front line. Now Coach Ellerson has Jarrett Mackey back, who was injured in the opening game last year, and three talented players in Mike Ugenyi, Richard Glover and Robert Kough to bring size and speed to the defense. Jr. Holt Zalneraitis played in all 12 games last year on the defensive line and will move to defensive end this season.
Co-Defensive Coordinator, Chris Smeland, described to me the start of the new season:
It is exciting because it is the start of a new season, new ball club, We might have some of the same players, but every year it is a different personality. We are excited about this year's crew, and looking forward to getting started this afternoon.
It is just the start of the season and a long way to go, but this coaching staff and squad of players has the potential to have a winning season, win games in the "Commander and Chief" rivalry and play in a post-season bowl game. The Black Knights will be fun to watch.
All quotes were obtained at the West Point Media Day. John Chuhran contributed to the story.
Ken Kraetzer covers West Point Football for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, and Sons of the American Legion Radio.