The Army offense may have its top seven runners back from last season's Black Knight team—which led the country in rushing—but the team is being exhorted to "hold onto the football" during West Point summer workouts by head coach Rich Ellerson.
In 2010 when Army defeated SMU at the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas, the Black Knights had one of the best turnover ratios in college football. Last year's team, despite averaging 296 yards per game, was plagued by losing 22 fumbles, which often occurred at key times.
Sunday's early morning practice focused on offense. Before starting a series of drills, Ellerson challenged the team to "not put the ball on the ground" under penalty of doing 10 "up and downs," which in high school we used to call grass drills. The players jog in place and then on command they drop their chests to the hit the ground and then quickly get up. The three teams of offensive players had one drop, so the coach called for five reps of the exhausting exercise.
Starting quarterback Trent Steelman looked sharp in passing drills; one crisp 20-yard sideline play was completed to junior wideout Patrick Laird. Backup and heir apparent next season to Steelman is sophomore Angel Santiago, who took snaps with several offensive teams. Santiago, known for his speed running the ball, is working on his passing and decision making skills.
It is neat to watch the organization at practice where three offensive groups simultaneously workout practicing plays with the defense at the other end of the field. Army worked out of their no-huddle offense with the same process as last year, with the team at the line of scrimmage checking cards held up from the sideline for plays.
The 100 or so Army players started the early morning practice with full pads indoors, despite sunny skies and mild temperatures. The airplane, like Foley Athletic Center, is big enough for a full length "Field Turf" field. One of the coaches said that they like to practice inside because it is easier to record video. After a short break, the players practiced in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts on the outside field, also called Field Turf. Later they moved back in for the last segment and ran through plays.
Coach Ellerson has a deep offensive backfield and will start the season with last year's 1,078-yard runner Ray Maples at halfback and sophomore Larry Dixon expected to start at fullback. The 1,000-yard gaining fullback from 2010, senior Jared Hassin, is expected to play at a slotback position which allows him to carry the ball, block and also give QB Steelman a receiver option out of the backfield. Add to that speedy halfback senior Malcolm Brown, who had 572 yards last season and sophomore Trenton Turrentine to the mix of Army options out of the backfield.
The Army "Triple Option" offense, directed by coordinator Ian Shields, does not use tight ends but depends on the fullback, slotbacks and wide receivers to block. The wide receivers are often blocking or running deep routes to move the corners and safeties away from the running plays. Steelman will usually make a couple of deep throws in the first half to keep the defense honest. On Sunday, he and junior Patrick Laird connected for a neat outside 25-yard completion that pleased the rest of the offensive players and coaches.
Upfront, the Black Knights feel very comfortable with sophomore Ryan Powis at center, who took over the starting job mid-way through 2011, and as he told me at Media Day, feels much more comfortable about the opportunity to start having had several games and spring practices to mold with the starting offensive team.
Senior Will Wilson at 6'2" and 285 pounds is Army's biggest player on the roster and is expected to start at right tackle but was taking some snaps in practice at center on Sunday. Last year, Wilson started at center in the win over Northwestern. He had surveyed the defense before plays as if to see he was going to run over on the upcoming play. Very few Army players have the intimidating size and the same bit of a mean streak like Wilson.
After Wilson took blocking penalties against Miami last year, the coaches shifted to playing Powis at center, like Larry Dixon a high potential freshman. I have wondered if Wilson might have been given a chance to fill in on Army's undersized and undermanned defensive line late last year when the team got run over by Temple. A small difference might have changed the outcome against Navy.
In 2012, Army plans to wear same style of football uniforms that they wore against Navy last year— sand colored helmets and pants. The helmets retain the black strip, but the pants are plain. The jerseys will not have the alternate color shoulder sections of the past two years but rather Academy and Army patches.
An advanced copy of Joe Drape's new book on Army football, "Soldiers First," which will be released before the season starts details the extraordinary background of Coach Ellerson's family in the Army. Geoffrey Ellerson, his dad, was a Colonel who graduated from West Point in 1935. His brother John Ellerson '63 was a West Point football captain, who retired a two-star general. His brother Geoffrey
also graduated in 1963 and retired as a Colonel. An active duty officer, Colonel Geoffrey Ellerson III has served deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Black Knights have a scrimmage scheduled for Saturday, August 18th at 1 p.m. but then start classes on Monday. They will start practices during the school year at 6:50 a.m., except for Thursdays at 7:35 a.m. Another scrimmage is planned for Saturday, August 25th, with the start time to be determined. A mock game is planned for Friday, August 31st. The Black Knights do not play Labor Day weekend but will open up at San Diego State on Sept. 8.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football for WVOX 1460 AM and Sons of the American Legion Media. Twitter @SALRadio50NY.