That success helped fuel a 2011 recruiting class that is potentially the best in a decade. However, Ellerson faces a number of challenges. The team has lost a number of impact players and is very light on senior playmakers. If Ellerson and his staff hope to build on last year's success they must see that six key issues are addressed. Here are ArmySports.com's six keys for a Black Knight winning season in 2011.
1. Defensive line must stop the run.
To me the biggest concern is the lack of size up front. It is true the Army double eagle flex defense is built on speed. I 'm not concerned about Jarrett Mackey at quick end who lines up outside the tackle in a ghost 7 technique or the combination of Brian Zalneraitis and Chad Littlejohn at bandit tackle which play a three technique and can be smaller than most FBS defensive linemen. Those positions lineup offset from the opposing offensive linemen. In the scheme their job is to get up field speed not to engage. Speed is at a premium here. In fact Jarrett Mackey at quickend won't be the impact pass rusher Josh McNary was but he should be a better run defender.
The concerns for me are the nose tackle position and defensive end on the strong side. They have to stand up at the point of attack. I'm worried about nose tackle A.J. Mackey being able to handle both A gaps. It's hard to play two gap at 266 pounds. Mackey, the brother of quick end Jarrett, has ability but has struggled with injuries. Corey Watts, the brother of whip linebacker Zach, plays fast and hard but isn't very big. Whether the defensive line will be able to hold up against the run is a total unknown at this point.
2. Offensive line must be ready.
Last year the four returning seniors lifted their collective games and the Black Knights 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.
The tackles are set with Brad Kelly (6-5, 250) at left tackle and Derek Bisgard (6-1, 252) at right tackle. Both played well this spring winning the starting jobs. Kelly has been the backup tackle the past two years. Brad has started one game against Iowa State during his sophomore year. Kelly was an All-State tight end in high school and has the quickness needed to get to the second level and finish his blocks. Bisgard, a junior, won the right tackle job in the spring after being converted from defense. Ellerson says when he informed Bisgard he was moving him to offense, "He [Bisgard] looked at me like I was a Communist!" It was a great move for Derek. He has been banged up a little this summer but will be ready opening day.
At the right guard spot senior Joe Bailey (6-2, 270) who started three games in 2009 and finished last year as second on the depth chart has taken the lead over junior Matt Villanti (6-3, 272) Center falls to Will Wilson a 6-2, 284 pound junior after he won the starting job this spring. Wilson was expected to compete for the backup job last year but he was injured and missed almost all of the 2010 spring practice. Last season Will was third on the depth chart and didn't see a lot of repetitions. He was one of the reasons the offensive line outplayed Army's defensive line in the spring. The player on the move is plebe center Ryan Powis who was the best player last year at the United States Military Academy Prep school. Powis was voted top lineman of the year by the USMAPS coaches last season. Powis stands 6-1, and weighs in at 265 pounds and is very quick, strong and explosive. He is tough, competitive, has the orneriness of a pit bull. He has started to move up the depth chart already. He should be at least the backup this year.
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 these guys up front executing their blocks and establishing the midline option. Similar to the defensive line, there is not a lot of experience here but the offensive line has looked good and played well. Personally I think this unit will be formidable once the whistle blows.
3. The linebackers must remain healthy.
After spring practice it looked like Army was going to have to move Steve Erzringer to Mike linebacker and find a new rover. That all changed this summer when it was announced that Andrew Rodriguez, Army's leading tackler in 2009, who missed all of last season would return. This was a complete surprise because most sources close to the program had predicted that A-Rod's Black Knight football career was over.
The good news continued when Junior Nate Combs demonstrated he was completely recovered from his knee injury. Combs had a great spring in 2010 and initially won the bandit defensive tackle spot as a flex player. After Andrew Rodriguez's back injury, Nate was moved to whip linebacker. In the opener Combs suffered a season ending knee injury on the first defensive series against Eastern Michigan. He missed this year's spring practice because he was still recuperating from knee surgery. So far this summer he's looks great and is the leading candidate to replace Stephen Anderson at Mike linebacker. This is a huge plus because it will allow Erzringer to return to rover. In addition to those players last year's back up Mike linebacker and special teams ace, Kingsley Ehie, returns for a fifth season. When you add in other talented young players like Zach Watts and Justin Trimble along with exciting plebes like Geoffrey Bacon and Michael Cermak the linebacker position seems to be a lot deeper than expected. If everyone can stay healthy this should be a productive unit.
4. At wide receiver a playmaker must be developed.
Wide receiver is the one area of the offense in which head coach Rich Ellerson is still looking to develop a playmaker. Army returns both of last year's starters in Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr. The staff is looking to see if they can develop depth and add more speed to the wide receiver rotation. Brooks, despite leading Army in receptions, had an inconsistent season last year. Barr, who was injured late in the SMU bowl game missed all of spring practice, is expected to be out a few more weeks.
The staff has looked at a number of sophomores for the answer. Jonathan Crucitti, who plays A-back, has been tried at wide receiver. If Crucitti stays at receiver his blocking on the perimeter would really enhance the running game. Two sophomore wide receivers, Anthony Stephens and E.J. Tucker, have played well this summer. Sophomore Anthony Stephens is a smooth route runner with sure hands. Stephens has to improve his blocking to get more consistent playing time. E.J. Tucker (5-11, 195) has above average speed and has looked good catching a few touchdown passes during drills. Another sophomore we mentioned as a player to watch is last spring is Jared McFarlin. McFarlin missed some time this past week but has talent and is 6-foot-5 with good speed.
Last year's United States Military Academy Prep team starting wide receivers, plebes Chevaughn Lawrence and Michael Hudson have also looked good so far but have seen most of their time with the second team and probably need more seasoning. Lawrence caught a 30 yard touchdown pass from Max Jenkins during Saturday's passing drill showing his speed.
5. Trent remains the man of Steel.
Trent Steelman has started every game as quarterback in his two years at the West Point which is a remarkable streak for an option quarterback just entering his junior year. While Steelman isn't a great natural talent, as long as he remains healthy he will start every game again this season. Trent is durable, physically tough and the unquestioned leader of the offense. While he didn't miss a game he did undergo off season surgery after each of the last two seasons.
Last year Steelman doubled his touchdown production both running and passing over his freshman season. He did an excellent job in reading the option and his decision making was usually sound. Steelman is the main reason Army finished tied for seventh in the nation in turnover margin. His passing mechanics have looked better this summer. He's an excellent game manager, leader, is gutty and maximizes his ability.
I have concerns about a major drop off in ability from Steelman to Jenkins if Trent is injured and out for an extended period of time. Senior co-captain Max Jenkins saw limited playing time last year and is currently secure as the backup. Max understands the offense, makes good reads in the option and is a solid game manager if not the world's most accurate passer or fastest runner. The only other option right now is plebe Angel Santiago who led USMAPS to 36.5 points per game last season. Santiago has played well and is the fastest quarterback on the roster. As promising as he looks, Angel still needs more experience since he's only played one season as an option quarterback. The bottom line is for Army to post back to back winning seasons Steelman has to remain healthy.
6. Secondary must be strong.
After spring practice the Black Knights were expected to return three cornerbacks that started last season and had developed depth during spring practice. The cornerback position received a huge hit when senior and three year veteran Antuan Aaron suffered a career ending back injury this week. Sophomore Casey Hughes, who played well this spring, has already left the academy. Richard King is no longer at West point after being mauled by singer Patti La Belle's entourage. I guess field cornerback Josh Jackson can now sing La Belle's hit "On my Own" as he looks around the practice field.
Since the spring Jackson has played well and made a terrific interception during Saturday's practice. Jackson has good speed but is a little bit of a long strider and lacks the ideal hips and footwork of a top cover cornerback. He does play with confidence and is a willing hitter. With the loss of Antuan Aaron, the leading candidates to replace him are junior Waverly Washington and freshman Lamar Johnson- Harris. Washington runs well, shown some recovery speed but needs to shore up his technique. Freshman L.J. Harris is an undersized 5-9, 175 pound player but is well built. He has demonstrated some man-on-man coverage skills. Despite his size he is a physical tackler and fearless. Two other very fast plebe cornerbacks, Marques Avery and Marcus Jackson, have struggled and aren't game ready. Avery is very talented but seems to have suffered from beast barracks and doesn't look like the same player he was a USMAPS last year so far. Jackson is fast but was converted to cornerback late last year at the prep school and is still learning the position. In an effort to improve depth the staff moved junior Justin Allen from wide receiver back to cornerback where he played as a freshman on the JV team.
The safety spots are still wide open and are a battle among sophomores. Thomas Holloway has matured physically and has seemed to take a lead over fellow sophomore Tyler Dickson at free safety. Holloway at this point seems to have a better grasp of his assignments and makes fewer mistakes than Dickson who is a better athlete. At Sam safety Reggie Nesbitt is making a run at Lyle Beloney who won the job this spring. Nesbitt intercepted a pass during Saturday's scrimmage and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. Nesbitt was originally thought to be the heir apparent at Mike linebacker to Stephen Anderson but when he didn't play well in the box and the staff moved him to safety which appears to be a better fit.
The good news is the talent level of the new defensive backs is an improvement over the past. The bad news is Army's experienced defensive backs have been decimated with only Jackson remaining. Army's season could depend on how quickly the new starters are ready to contribute.