Army football no longer a pushover

Things are different around West Point entering this football season. For the first time in over a decade, people are expecting something from the Army football team. It's not like the Black Knights, coming off the program's first winning season since 1997 and first bowl win since '85, are going to be in the running for the national championship.

But now, instead of being listed among the worst teams in the nation, they have respect, and the chance to keep on moving up that respect ladder.

People have always applauded the effort of the undersized program. Now, folks can start appreciating the results.

But winning for a second straight year won be easy for Rich Ellerson, who enters his third year of rebuilding this program. There were key losses, and the schedule opens at Northern Illinois, winners of the Humanitarian Bowl last year, and then has home games against 2010 bowl teams San Diego State (winners over Navy in the Poinsettia) and Northwestern.

Quarterback Trent Steelman, who has started every game in his two years at the academy, had his left shoulder repaired and is again ready to lead the offense. As fall camp wore on, an interesting twist may have emerged for the option attack, as 6-5 freshman Jared McFarlin became more and more of a weapon.

But the run game is clearly the key for Army, with fullback Jared Hassin one of the best around at this attack.

The defense has to replace key parts Josh McNary and Stephen Anderson, among others, with tackle Jarrett Mackey and Steve Erzinger key figures, the latter moving from rover to middle linebacker to replace Anderson.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Army enters the season having lost 11 straight games in the Commander-In-Chief's series with Air Force and Navy. The last win was over Air Force in 2005 and the Black Knights have lost nine straight to Navy.

--CB Antuan Aaron, who started 24 games over the past three seasons, was told by doctors he will miss his senior season with a neck/back injury.

"I have mixed feelings," Aaron told the Middletown Times Herald-Record. "But at the end of the day, I'm counting my blessings. I'm blessed that I walked away from it. I could have been something unfortunate like (Rutgers') Eric LeGrand. It's tough because I don't get to play my senior year but at the same time, I'm walking. I'm talking and doing just fine. I'm going to keep going on and try to teach these guys below me everything that I know and have learned."

--FS Thomas Holloway has risen from the depth of the depth chart into a starting position.

"Thomas has steadily improved himself from the time that he's walked on until now," co-defensive coordinator Payam Saadat said. "He's matured physically. He's not that thin, scrawny football player, who just showed up to West Point. He plays the game very smart. He knows how to be in the right spot at the right time. Thomas is balancing the scales. What you may think he lacks in athleticism, he makes it up with his ability to understand the defense."

--Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Army Chief of Staff, addressed the team after the final fall scrimmage.

--The Black Knights are ticketed to play a team from the Pac-12 Conference in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Should the Pac-12 not have enough bowl eligible teams, that bowl has agreements with the MAC, ACC and WAC to provide a replacement team. Army must record six wins prior to its annual showdown with Navy Dec. 10 in order to be bowl eligible.

--Both Army and Navy, two of nine programs selected, will wear new advanced uniforms manufactured by Nike, in the game between the two academies at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

SERIES HISTORY: Army leads Northern Illinois, 1-0 (only meeting, 1992, 21-14 Army).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Rugged quarterback Trent Steelman leads an offense that should provide fireworks. "I'm so excited for this offense to get trolling under the leadership of Trent Steelman at quarterback, who has two years of experience under his belt," says fullback Jared Hassin, Army's top weapon. "He's going to be a great guy to have leading and making plays." In the opener, the Black Knights face a defense that lost six starters and is playing its first game under a new coordinator.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: This will be a work in progress as the Black Knights look to replace so many key parts. The Northern Illinois offense is liable to throw the ball more with running back Chad Spann gone and quarterback Chandler Harnish more than capable, running a spread offense installed in the spring.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We want to build on the momentum that we generated last season. Last season was a great season as far as a stepping-stone of where we want to be. I think everybody's excited to build off that momentum, but we do realize that we have a tough schedule ahead and we have a lot of gaps to fill. Last season was last season and we need to build and progress for 2011." -- LB Steve Erzinger on his 2011 Black Knights.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Army at Northern Illinois, Sept. 3 -- This is a tough way for Army to try to get its second straight winning season underway. NIU has a new coach, Dave Doreen, but is coming off an 11-3 season that ended with a loud win over Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl and is at home for the opener. The Black Knights are 10-point underdogs in most places. KEYS TO THE GAME: As in most Army games, the success of the option attack, and the ability of the opposition to handle it, is a key. But this opener also brings the first look at a revamped Army defense, which has had to replace so many key parts. The defense faces a spread offense in Week 1.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Trent Steelman -- Army has played 25 games over the past two seasons and Steelman has started all 25, regardless of how banged up he might have been. He's coming off non-throwing shoulder surgery and is good to go from the start. Steelman ran for 721 yards and 11 touchdowns and threw for 995 yards last year.

FB Jared Hassin -- "The Assassin" is the key to the triple option attack and he is a handful to deal with. He became the second sophomore in Army history to rush for 1,000 yards and tied a program record with four straight 100-yard games.

LB Steve Erzinger -- The senior moves from rover to middle linebacker to replace tackling ace Stephen Anderson and battled through a bruised foot in preseason camp. A true leader on the defense.

WR Jared McFarlin -- The freshman is a 6-5 target and may force defenses to think pass more against Army.

ROSTER REPORT:

--K Alex Carlton, now a senior, came on strong at the end of last season, making his last 11 field goals. His 33 FGs are third all-time in the program.

--CB Jon Crucitti continued to impress the coaches. "Some athletes have world-class speed. Others have world-class strength. Jon Crucitti has world-class adaptability that's the best I've ever seen," says coach Rich Ellerson. "He can pick something up at the drop of the dime."

--Freshman C Ryan Powis on the expected contributions of the freshman class: "We've been hearing that we'll have a good impact initially and throughout the years. We kept being told not to ease up because we think that we might not play for a few years. We knew we had a chance to make an impact right away."

--Freshman FB Larry Dixon was also opening eyes in camp. After playing at Army Prep last year, the 5-10, 225-pounder appears to be the perfect guy to spell Jared Hassin and give the Knights a quality fullback on the field at all times. This kid was a 5,000-yard rusher in high school.

--WR Austin Barr was not cleared to practice in the preseason because of injury.

--CB Richard King, thrown out of the academy after an airport confrontation with members of singer Patti LaBell's entourage, was reinstated as a cadet but isn't expected to play football in his senior year. He said he suffered a concussion in the skirmish.

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