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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 85: Army

You knew this picture was coming. Uncle Sam wants you to get behind these Cadets.

For the first time since 1996, Army won at least five games. Not a great fact for one of the more prestigious programs in college football history. Yet the 5-7 finish marked an auspicious debut season for Rich Ellerson, the former Cal-Poly coach whose option-based offense is slowly bridging the wide gap between Army and its two service academy rivals, Air Force and Navy. Oh, Navy. Even as the Cadets make a move towards respectability, their bitter rivals finish with at least eight wins for the seventh consecutive season. Let’s not allow Navy’s continued dominance to ruin what will be a very feel-good preview. Army is off and running — pun intended — towards a very bright future.

Conference
Independent

Location
West Point, N.Y.

Nickname
Black Knights

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 117

2009 record
(5-7, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 94

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Eastern Michigan
  • Sept. 11
    Hawaii
  • Sept. 18
    North Texas
  • Sept. 25
    at Duke
  • Oct. 2
    Temple
  • Oct. 9
    at Tulane
  • Oct. 16
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 30
    V.M.I.
  • Nov. 6
    Air Force
  • Nov. 13
    at Kent St.
  • Nov. 20
    Notre Dame (in New York)
  • Dec. 11
    Navy (in Philadelphia)

Last year’s prediction

I love Army’s decision to hire Rich Ellerson. It may take a year or two for Ellerson to both educate his players as to the offense’s nuances and recruit players better suited for its style, but the future at Army looks infinitely brighter than it did a season ago. Not that I think this team will be particularly good (as evidenced by the low ranking). I predict Army to finish 3-9, matching its record from each of the last two seasons, and to finish third in the race for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. But the move to hire Ellerson goes a long, long way towards evening the playing field with their fellow military academy rivals.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Army still has its sights on matching — and surpassing — the heights reached by Navy, which continues to churn out eight-win seasons despite a recent coaching change. Last year was a good start. Progress was certainly made in Ellerson’s first season, most notably in the win column but also in the tone of the program. Yes, the offense still needs to be fine tuned, but few expected the transition to the option — though that process was at least somewhat put into place under Ellerson’s predecessor — to occur overnight. If one could term Ellerson’s task to be a three-year process, consider year one to be a certified success.

High point Yes, Army’s five victories are tainted by, well, the fact that the five teams it beat – four F.B.S. teams, really – were terrible. Still, Army should be proud of its victory over SEC opponent Vanderbilt, as the Commodores were the best 2-10 team in the country. Conversely, Ball State was the worst.

Low point Another loss to Navy. A closer, more competitive loss, to be sure – only the third by less than 12 points this decade – but a loss nonetheless. The tone of this rivalry may certainly be changing, but the Cadets have dropped eight straight against their bitter rivals.

Tidbit Despite last season’s nice finish, Army remains mired in a 13-year losing streak. Prior to 1997, when this streak began, Army’s longest string of consecutive losing seasons was six: 1978-83. Army’s current losing stretch ranks as the fourth-longest current streak on the F.B.S. level, trailing Duke (15 years), Baylor (14 years) and Eastern Michigan (14 years). Army plays Duke and Eastern Michigan this season, so something may have to give.

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 LB Caleb Campbell (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

U.S. Army generals
1. George Washington.
2. John Pershing.
3. Ulysses Grant.
4. Douglas McArthur.
5. George Marshall.

Coaching

Rich Ellerson (Hawaii ’77), 5-7 after one season at Army. Ellerson was hired in an effort to level the playing field with Navy, and after one season, Army’s decision seems like the right one. Though the Cadets did not beat a team that finished 2009 with a winning record, the team was more competitive – despite struggling on offense – than it had been under Stan Brock, who compiled a 6-18 record at Army from 2007-8. Army had decided early after firing Brock that their next head coach must be well-versed in the ways of the option, a decision that led them to investigate both of Navy’s coordinators before landing Ellerson, then the head coach at Cal-Poly of the Football Championship Subdivision. The 2008 Cal-Poly Mustangs led the F.C.S. in points (44.4) and yards (486.5) per game and finished third in rushing (306.5 yards per game), numbers that illustrated his grasp of the option. Over all, Ellerson posted a 56-34 record over eight seasons with the Mustangs, winning at least seven games each of the last six seasons. Cal-Poly had only one winning season in the six seasons prior to Ellerson’s arrival in 2001, perhaps indicating his ability to build a winning program from the bottom up. Such an ability would come in handy at Army. The program’s decision to go forward with the option offense is an inspired move (even if one wholly motivated by Navy’s recent success), and Ellerson is the right coach to lead this team in a new direction. The Academy shouldn’t expect any miracles, but this is a great first step for a program lagging behind its rivals in the chase for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. If his first season is any indication, Army won’t fall any farther behind Navy and Air Force, and may close the gap sooner rather than later.

Players to watch

The Cadets have finally identified a quarterback. He’s still somewhat raw, befitting his age, but sophomore Trent Steelman performed well under the harshest of conditions: a plebe — first-year student at West Point — who started every game of the season. No rookie Army quarterback had ever done so. His running ability is what first allowed Steelman to put a stranglehold on the position during fall camp, as his predecessor, junior Chip Bowden, was never comfortable performing the duties of an option quarterback during the 2008 season. On the year, Steelman led Army with 706 yards rushing and 5 scores; he added another 637 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, completing 54 of 110 attempts. Ellerson will never ask Steelman to excel as a passer — if he does, the Cadets are in trouble — but look for the sophomore to continue to hone his passing skills over the next three seasons. The position looks in good hands.

The backfield will receive a major boost from Air Force transfer Jared Hassin, who will attempt to loan some talent to a position sorely lacking in production in 2009. For an idea of how important a fullback is to Ellerson’s attack — and I hate to say this — take a look at the impressive totals Navy has put forth from the position. Having an interior running threat completely opens up the triple option attack, of course, as The Birddog will tell you. The Cadets are already in good shape at slot back, returning each of last season’s starters: seniors Patrick Mealy (673 yards rushing, a team-best 6.1 yards per tote) and Jameson Carter (238 yards).

The offensive line, like the offense as a whole, began to gel over the second half of last season. Four starters return, all seniors; this is a good thing. Leading the way is center Zach Peterson, whom Ellerson singled out for his stellar play several times during the spring. The experience continues with bookend tackles Anees Merzi (left) and Jason Johnson; Merzi started the first two games of 2009 at left guard before moving to left tackle from mid-October on. Speaking of left guard, sophomore Frank Allen and senior Mikel Welch are fighting to replace two-year starter Fritz Bentler. The winner of that competition will join senior Seth Reed in rounding out the interior of the Army line. If the last half of 2009 is any indication, this group will be a strength.

While Ellerson has received praise for the development of Army’s offense, his background is on defense. The storyline behind Army’s wholesale move to the option, in fact, greatly overshadowed what was the finest Army defense in nearly 15 years: 16th nationally in total defense (304.7 yards per game) and 35th in scoring defense (21.9 points per game). The Cadets return key pieces at each level of the defense; perhaps the group will be even stronger in 2010.

The linebacker corps returns intact. However, the health of middle linebacker Stephen Anderson remains somewhat in doubt: a knee injury that cost him the final three games of 2009 also kept Anderson out of spring drills. Even when missing those three games, Anderson finished second on the team in tackles with 83 (9 for loss). Kingsley Ehie, a former fullback, took snaps at middle linebacker with the first team during the spring and will be Anderson’s top backup. Andrew Rodriguez (team-best 85 stops, 2 interceptions) and Steve Erzinger (71 tackles) will flank Anderson.

Losing Victor Ugenyi hurts. Returning end Josh McNary helps. The senior enters his final season already holding the program’s career sack record with 18, thanks mostly to his superb 2009 campaign: 12.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. McNary is all speed off the edge, often beating blind side tackles off the snap to make plays in the backfield. He did line up alongside Ugenyi last fall, however, so let’s see if McNary can duplicate his success without a threatening interior presence drawing frequent attention from opposing offensive lines. Mike Gann, who made 34 tackles (7 for loss) in 2009, will be a key factor in helping Army improve upon last season’s pedestrian run defense. Replacing Ugenyi will be key, of course. Keep an eye on senior Marcus Hilton, who made a single start last fall, as well as fellow senior Carson Homme.

Whether Army’s third-ranked pass defense was due to a strong secondary or an often-porous run defense depends, as it often does, on your point of view. I’m far more willing to give credit where credit is due: Army’s defensive backfield was very good, thanks to a strong safety combination and an improving group of cornerbacks. While Army lost starting cornerback Mario Hill, the Cadets plan on replacing the departed starter with senior Richard King, who was projected to have a sizable impact in 2009 but missed the year while recovering from a serious concussion. The consensus was that King showed no signs of sluggishness upon returning to the practice field; he’ll team with junior Antuan Aaron to give the Cadets a fine cornerback tandem.

The stars of the show in the secondary remain the safeties, particularly senior free safety Donovan Travis. He made 71 tackles, tying for third on the team, and made a team-leading four interceptions. Fellow seniors Donnie Dixon and Jordan Trimble give Army two solid starting options at strong safety; Dixon earned the majority of the starts last fall, but Trimble (29 tackles, 1 interception) should again push him for snaps in 2010. A great back end to the defense.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver Army must replace its two leading receivers from a season ago. Ali Villanueva used his overwhelming size advantage to good use in 2009, leading the Cadets with 34 receptions for 522 yards and making all five of the team’s touchdown grabs. Damion Hunter added another 26 receptions, with the duo accounting for a whopping 82 percent of the team’s receiving total. The best news in this case is that the passing game will always run second in the Army offense, obviously. Nevertheless, it’s somewhat concerning to see the Cadets return only two receivers — receivers, not slot backs — with any game experience. That pair, juniors Austin Barr and Davyd Brooks, combined to make five receptions in 2009. In an effort to increase competition at the position, Army moved sophomore Kyler Martin to receiver from the defensive side of the ball. Martin actually made two starts on defense last fall — at middle linebacker, of all places — but arrived on campus as an offensive skill player. Again, not to belabor the point, but this is not a true concern: it would be far more damaging to see Army lack proven options at quarterback, or again lack a fullback best suited for the triple-option attack. Yet these unproven underclassmen must grow in a hurry in order to give Steelman options in the passing game. Ellerson’s offense won’t run at full tilt unless the threat of a passing game exists.

Game(s) to watch

Navy. I say this — and mean it — every year: if given only one game to watch in any given season, I will invariably pick the annual affair between Army and Navy. The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will continue to go through Navy, though Army should not ignore the recent success of Air Force, another service academy flourishing under a new coach.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell If the Countdown is to be believed — it’s often not — Army is progressing very nicely under Rich Ellerson. From No. 117 heading into last season (far too low, of course) to No. 94 in my post-season re-ranking to No. 85 heading into 2010. So I don’t project the Cadets to take that next step into bowl play this fall; let’s not allow that to detract from my overall positive feeling about the direction of the program in its second year under the former Cal-Poly coach. Ellerson made all the right moves in 2009, rebuilding not only a woebegone offense — somewhat — but also the confidence of a team far too accustomed to playing third fiddle among the nation’s service academies. More improvement will come in 2010. The offense will be better, thanks to an added year in the system and improved play from the Army fullbacks. There is also little reason to believe the defense will suffer any substantial decline from last year’s terrific numbers. However, the schedule toughens. Gone are Ball State, Iowa State and Vanderbilt — two wins — replaced by Hawaii, Kent State and Notre Dame, the latter two away from West Point. It’s for this fact that I believe Army will repeat last season’s five-win total. What I’m most interested in seeing is how Army fares against Air Force and Navy. Particularly Navy.

Dream season Army beats Navy, tops Air Force, claims the C.I.C. Trophy and finishes with a winning record for the first time since 1996.

Nightmare season Navy beats Army.

In case you were wondering

Where do Army fans congregate? Both Army Sports and Go Black Knights do a great job of covering Army athletics. As always, list other options in the comment section below.

Up Next

Who is No. 84? If visiting our next university in September, be sure to check out its hot air balloon festival, the fifth-largest in the United States.

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Comments

  1. Steve says:

    #84 – Louisville

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