The Black Knights start their season Saturday night about an hour west of Chicago at DeKalb, Illinois. They are facing a very good Northern Illinois team..
The Huskies, from the Mid-America Conference, come off an 11-3 season in which they defeated Fresno State 40-17 in the Humanitarian Bowl. Former head coach Jerry Kill who left the team after the MAC Championship game to take the head coaching job at Minnesota, is replaced by Dave Doeren previously the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Senior quarterback Chandler Harnish is coming off a phenomenal junior year in which he threw for 2,530 yards, 21 touchdowns and rushed for 836 yards.
We had a chance this week to participate in head coach Rich Ellerson's weekly Tuesday press conference. The third year coach of the Black Knights is very excited to see how a core of veteran players led by quarterback Trent Steelman, fullback Jared Hassin and linebacker Steve Erzinger can perform surrounded by a new offensive line and a rebuilt defense.
With spring practice that started in mid-February, and a long month of August training camp, the Black Knights are like every other college football team in America, anxious to start the season.
"We're anxious to play. It's been a long preseason. It's been a long time leading up to this. We'll have another full practice this afternoon and then start tapering. We want to make sure that we take a fresh, healthy outfit to Northern Illinois," said coach Ellerson at his Tuesday press conference.
The third year coach also described the start of the season as a tough opening assignment.
"This is the most difficult opening game since I've been here. We're playing an opponent that is as good or better than anybody we faced last year. They've got an awful lot of people back on offense who were tremendously productive. And yet there's still some uncertainty going in to face an opponent that has a new head coach," said Ellerson.
An asset for any football team is to go into the season with an established veteran quarterback and that is what West Point has in Trent Steelman. The Bowling Green, Kentucky native has mastered the option offense, can accelerate to the outside, run for crucial yards up the middle and when needed make the key pass. He scored 11 touchdowns himself in 2010 and threw for seven more with only three interceptions on the year.
"Well, we have some things going for us offensively. Trent has 25 starts going into his junior year in this style of play. To have that kind of experience in this offense, to have that kind of physical resiliency is really remarkable," said Ellerson.
In addition to having an experienced signal caller, the Black Knights have 2010's 1013 yard gainer Jared Hassin at fullback. Hassin is a strong physical runner who often is asked to test the middle of the opponent's defense but has the speed to break big gainers. By mid-season last year, Hassin was becoming a favorite for Steelman to throw to coming out of the backfield.
"He was really productive last year in really his first football in a couple of years. The relationship between the quarterback and the fullback in this offense is really important, and these guys have been around the block completely together. We should benefit from that," Ellerson said.
We have watched Black Knight sophomore wide receiver Jared McFarlin mature into a potential playmaker right in front of our eyes during the last two scrimmages. The local native of Monroe, NY can make the quick out catch keeping his feet in bounds or go deep and catch the long ball. At 6'5" he can grab the ball over the heads of many opposing backs.
"We're proud of Jared. Last year was a chance for him to try to get caught up physically, going through the rigors of his plebe year at West Point and Camp Buckner over the summer."
"He's still trying to catch up a little bit physically, but we think he's a guy who has the potential to change the equation on the perimeter for us, in time," Ellerson said.
One of the big questions going into the season has been the rebuilt offensive line. I asked the Coach if it was bit easier to implement new linemen into the option type offense?
"I don't know that, to be honest. What helps us, I think, is the fact that we've been consistent. They're doing the same things as juniors as they were being introduced to as freshmen, and that helps a guy. When you do the same thing in practice, you value the same things in the offseason. What drives you crazy and sets you back is when the system changes on you, so I think that consistency should help this bunch. I think that's probably universal, though. I don't think that's unique to us," said Ellerson.
On defense the Black Knights lost key starters through out the unit that helped win its first Bowl Game win in 25 years. Their defensive system is called the Double Eagle Flex, which focuses on controlling the line of scrimmage and getting big plays from the linebackers and safeties.
I asked the Coach if this style of defense makes it easier for new players to be productive?
"I do think it's an advantage, but basically we just think it's a fun defense to play in. We think we can get guys dialed in relatively early on. We can get their eyes and feet where they belong and allow them to play, as opposed to struggling to be right, or struggling to get their eyes and feet where they belong. We feel like the defense lends itself to that. " Ellerson said.
He continued by saying a team gets better over the season.
"That comfort within the system allows you to grow and become more situationally present. You get to study your opponent. We're not doing all those things as well as we will do them in time, but in terms of being able to go out there and be right with our eyes and feet and play hard and have fun, I think we've set our guys up for success in that regard."
On special teams the Black Knights should be in good shape led by senior placekicker Alex Carleton who has been booting 40 plus yard field goals in the scrimmages one after the other. I asked the Coach if he would continue his practice of using key defensive starters to anchor the kickoff coverage team?
"There's so much field position in play when you're kicking the ball off or punting the ball. We'll use our best people," Ellerson said.
Ball control has been a trademark for coach Ellerson. When asked about the need to keep the ball in the hands of his veteran offensive core, the Head Coach pointed the change in college football that he is preparing his team for.
"There's something happening in college football and I think it will become evident maybe this year with the success that we saw at Oregon with their style of play and the way they attack the clock. They're trying to get the ball snapped 90 times a game. What we're hearing is that Northern Illinois is trying to do something along those lines, and I don't think they're the lone rangers. They're a lot of teams out there that are trying to snap the ball more and more to where the tempo of the game starts feeling rugby-esque. That can be especially challenging for a young defense."
The Army coach likes to talk about the advantages that the military training the players receive at West Point is an asset that can help them on the field. The fact that the team won all five road games in 2010 at true campus sites could be an example of the focus on mission the players are taught. So how does a faster speed of play favor the Cadets?
"That's where I think the game is moving toward us a little bit at the academy. What we think an athlete looks like, how we think he should be conditioned, how he should handle fatigue and adversity, all those things should play to our strengths in time. We'll just have to see how this plays out, but I do think there's something interesting happening in the game, in general. The style of play is changing, and I think it's going to mean that we have to change what we value in our systems and what we expect from our players."
West Point coaches are commenting avidly about the young players that have been attracted into the program in recent years. One example is sophomore wide receiver, Jared McFarland. But what about their impact for opening night of the season?
"He's not the only guy like that, but he's one of those guys that we're scratching our heads about. We have a bunch of guys in that category on both sides of the ball, but especially on the defensive side of the ball. We have high expectations for those guys. We believe in their athleticism. We know they're on the right path, we just need to find where on the path they really are against a quality opponent like we're going to face on Saturday," said Ellerson.
It could be that the Black Knights play a bunch of wide open games scoring methodically on offense carried by the running of Jared Hassin, the speed of several other young backs and the multi-dimensional play of Trent Steelman.
Perhaps, the defense will be a work in progress—maturing as the season unfolds. The first three games of the year against Northern Illinois, San Diego State and Northwestern will be real tests. But the program now has a sense of confidence built off of the winning season and the bowl victory in 2010. It should be a lot of fun to watch.
Ken Kraetzer covers West Point Football and Iona basketball for WVOX radio in New Rochelle, NY. Listen to the West Point Football Report Tuesday nights on WVOX.com during the season. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org