7 Questions for Army in the Spring Practice

Rich Ellerson, who is in his second season leading the Army Black Knights, lived up to his promise to bring back winning football to West Point. Army finished the 2010 season with their first winning season since 1996. The season ended with a win over SMU Mustangs in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl which was the first bowl win for program in twenty-five years.

Despite that success which helped fuel a 2011 recruiting class which potentially seems to be the best in a decade. Rich Ellerson faces a number of challenges. Ellerson and his staff hope to build on last year's success.  ArmySports.com sees five key areas that need to be answered this spring. The class mentioned on all players reflects their fall status.

1. Who's who on the offensive line?

Last year we at ArmySports.com placed the onus on the four returning seniors as the most critical area of the team that needed improvement. The 2010 offensive line answered the call as they lifted their collective games and the team nearly doubled its offensive output (2009 averaged 15.3 ppg to 2010 averaging 26.6 ppg).

This season will see the return of only one starter in physical junior left guard Frank Allen.  Everyone else graduated and it will be difficult to replace all that experience. Last year there was a noticeable drop off like against Rutgers when Zac Peterson had to leave the game early in the fourth quarter and the Black Knights running game ground to a halt.

There are a few soon to be seniors who have limited experience.  Mike McDermott (6-6, 257) can play either tackle spot and started four games in 2009. Converted tight end Brad Kelly (6-5, 250) is the only other tackle with game experience. Kelly drew his only start against Iowa State in 2009. Derek Bisgard is a 6-1, 252 junior who was converted from defense last year. Bisgard, who was considered one of the top defensive linemen in Arizona as a high school senior, has excellent feet and moves well. He finished the year as backup on the depth chart behind starter Jason Johnson.  Other tackles in the mix are junior Tom Houser (6-3, 240) and sophomore Dan Whitaker (6-3, 250) who stood out on film for the JV team.

The right guard spot looks to be a two man competition at the start of camp. Senior Joe Bailey (6-2, 270) started three games in 2009 and finished last year as second on the depth chart and Junior Matt Villanti (6-3, 272) will push for a starting spot. Villanti is a very physical player in the mold of Frank Allen.

Center falls to Will Wilson a 6-2, 284 pound junior. Wilson has battled some injuries but is expected to be the heir apparent. With former USMAPS standout center Shelby Jackson moved to defense expect some new faces to emerge at center from the glut of backup guards.   

Similar to last year, for Army to be a winning successful team, they have to be able to run the ball effectively. It starts with the guys up front executing their blocks and establishing the midline option. There is not a lot of experience here but there seems to be competition and ability at most spots. 

2. Will Jarrett Mackey stay inside or move to quick end?

Junior  Jarrett Mackey emerged  last spring as we noted at the time  in the absence of Josh McNary who was recuperating from shoulder surgery.  Mackey proved to be too good to leave on the bench so he was moved to bandit tackle. He was really a defensive end playing bandit tackle. Mackey  grew into role and played better as the season progressed. Mackey finished with 47 tackles, 6 1/2 for a loss, with 4 sacks and forced two fumbles. Mackey weighs only 230 and at times was over matched at point of attack. As the only returning underclassmen up front it will be interesting to see if the staff moves him back outside to quick end or keeps him at bandit.

Right now that decision might be based on if sophomore Quentin Kantaris is ready for a starting spot at quick end. Kantaris was a direct admit plebe who ended the year backing up both defensive end spots a freshman. Kantaris has the chance to be a big time player at quick end as a pass rusher if he stays healthy and adds weight. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Kantaris is a natural pass rusher from Moorpark, California. Kantaris was voted his league's defensive lineman of the year in 2009 after he recorded 16 sacks. He looks like he was born to play quick end in this defense. The question to see this spring is he big and strong enough for a fulltime role. If Mackey moves to quick end he should be an impact player.

3. Who will replace Anderson at Mike LB?

Stephan Anderson was the fiery heart and soul of the Black Knights defense and it's best player. The team captain was a tough, aggressive, super intense Mike linebacker who read exceptionally well and had sideline to sideline range. Anderson led the team with 108 tackles and four forced fumbles. He also had two key interceptions this year stopping an SMU scoring drive in the Armed Forces bowl and his interception against Duke set up an Army touchdown. Army co-defensive coordinator Payam Saadat said it best when he told Sal Interdonato of the <i>Times Herald-Record</i> following Anderson's 14 tackle performance against SMU,  "I've been coaching for 16 seasons and he's by far the most prolific captain I've ever been around as far as his leadership ability on the field and off the field."

Sophomore Reggie Nesbit is a very talented athlete who seems to be the odds on candidate at the start of spring ball. Nesbit has dressed with the varsity and saw some time from scrimmage late against Air Force. Nesbit, 6-2, 215, is fast and can pursue. His senior season in high school he had 119 tackles, a sack, two interceptions.  Chad Littlejohn is a solid tackler who has started at whip linebacker due to injuries but might be a better fit inside. Littlejohn's lack of range was been noticeable in a number of

4. No one at Nose.  Who will play there?

The loss of graduating nose tackle Mike Gann is a concern. Going back to 2005 Army has had an excellent run at nose tackle with physical players like Tony Fusco, Ted Bentler and the aforementioned Mike Gann. This year's top candidates are undersized even by Army standards and the depth is paper thin.  Depth is a problem because, as we discussed last spring, Army lost their top three 2009 defensive line recruits when USMAPS stars Julius Warmsley and Jamal Mtshali both left. Top direct defensive line recruit Joel Cox, who committed to attend West Point this year, signed with Ball State after not being admitted because of his physical.

A.J. Mackey, Jarrett's brother, is 6-1, 260 and played well against Air Force. He worked hard in the weight room. Chris Swain (6-3, 260) started against Temple and did a solid job in 2009 in place of injured Victor Ugenyi

One interesting candidate will be Bobby Kough who starred on the 2009 USMAPS team.  Kough (6-3, 240) suffered from the effects of Beast Barracks and was sick early in year.  Kough played defensive end at prep last year but was moved inside on the JV team. He is a strong kid and he has the frame to add weight.

5. Can Army's whips be good?

Army had to used third and fourth string players at whip linebacker this season and it hurt the effectiveness of the defense. Andrew Rodriguez, last year's starter, injured his back and missed the entire season. Rodriguez was not only one of the best players on the defense in 2009; he also called the defensive signals and was never out of position. Rodriguez has a back surgery and it is doubtful he'll play again. Sophomore Nate Combs was groomed to replace Rodriguez yet he suffered a season ending knee injury on the first defensive series of 2010. Combs had knee surgery and will be out this spring.

Zach Watts played well at whip late in the year. Watts forced a fumble when he sacked SMU quarterback on the opening series that Josh McNary returned for a touchdown.

6. Who will help at safety?

Army has to replace both safeties this year. Losing Donovan Travis hurts. Travis was Army 's best defensive back and understood and thrived in this system. He showed good range and was a solid tackler despite average speed. Travis ended his career with eleven career interceptions. 

Tyler Dickson, who was the prep school's defensive MVP in 2009, looked to be the heir apparent at free safety but there are questions about this status this fall. Last year's back up at free safety was overachiever Ty Shrader. Shrader lacks size and speed but has good instincts and a nose for the ball.

The leading candidates to replace Donnie Dixon at SAM safety are sophomores Justin Trimble, Matt Luetjen and Lyle Beloney. Justin Trimble (6-0, 200) has impressed doing spot duty at Rover. He has the speed to help at safety.  Luetjen was recruited as a quarterback where he's played on JV team but is being groomed as a safety with varsity. Lyle Beloney has played SAM safety for the JV team. Beloney is a 5-11, 181 strong safety with 4.48 speed. Beloney has ability but needs to put it all together.

7. A little Magic please?

Rich Ellerson has mentioned on more than one occasion that he's looking for someone on offensive with a little magic with the ball in his hands. Raymond Maples has a chance to be that player after an off season in Brett Gerch's strength and conditioning program.  Maples twisted his ankle on the first carry of his college career against Hawaii, then broke a bone in his hand which has limited him at times. Despite the injuries Maples has averaged 4.5 yards a carry. Maples has the chance to be a very productive back.  Maples is quick runner with tremendous vision. He has excellent feet, reads blocking well and runs to daylight. Maples is not a true burner but is able to burst into the open field. He runs much bigger than his size. He's shown good hands in the passing game, catching a 34-yard touchdown pass against Duke.  Maples is also a willing blocker. Maples will be a lot better player next year. The offense can also use a speed wide receiver to stretch the defense. Among those practicing this spring is sophomore Anthony Stephens. Stephen is a 6-2, 190 pound who is smooth, fluid runner with the ability to adjust to the ball, a burst to get open and has good hands. 

Other players on the roster who might make a move up the depth chart are sophomore Thomas Holloway, a 5-11, 190 pound defensive back, who is a smart, aware player with good range. On the defensive line there is sophomore Victor Ripley (6-4, 230) who Rich Ellerson told me he really liked. Last season as a plebe Victor Ripley missed the season with shoulder injury. A two-way tackle in high school, Ripley had 24 sacks the last two years in high school.  I also like the size and speed of sophomore Ryan McCollum. George Jordan (WR), Sean Maag (S) and Brandon Porter (CB) have left the program.

As always ArmySports.com doesn't include any depth chart analysis or projections on the current prep players or direct recruits until R-day. Spring practice offers players a platform to demonstrate their talents. We will keep our readers updated with weekly posts.

ArmySports.com Top Stories