The Savior of the Program?

You will have to excuse Army football fans if they're not quite ready to buy into the growing legend of Trent Steelman. After all, it hasn't even been a year since the last "great option quarterback" – former Mr. Football in the state of Indiana Paul McIntosh - left the Academy program in the midst of a 3-9 season.

Having been burned once before by a "sure thing" recruit, it's not hard to understand why some Army fans are taking a ‘wait and see approach' to Steelman, who despite a fine season at The United States Military Academy Prep School has still yet to actually arrive on the campus of West Point.

These concerns aside, the reality of yet another coaching change at West Point - coupled with continued uncertainty at the quarterback position - have caused many Army fans to look towards the highly touted Steelman as the answer to the program's offensive woes. The Black Knights struggled mightily in their transition to the triple option offense a year ago, finishing 110th in the nation in total offense while losing 24 fumbles on the season (the highest mark in the country.) While Army does return nine-game starter Chip Bowden at quarterback from last season, new head coach Rich Ellerson has made no secret that an open competition exists at the position going into fall camp, with sophomore Max Jenkins and others likely to be in the mix to challenge Bowden.

"We've got Chip and Max bracketed right now, and we'll see how that looks during the summer," said coach Ellerson following spring practice. While Ellerson would later say that Bowden was the "number one" quarterback coming out the spring, he also added that the quarterback competition would "remain competitive" for the fall.

Not only does the quarterback competition figure to remain competitive between Bowden and Jenkins, but coach Ellerson has also hinted at the possibility that either a prep school player or a direct entry recruit could be in the mix for the starting job. During a recent and exclusive interview with ArmySports.com, Ellerson eluded to this possibility, although said that NCAA regulations regarding unsigned student athletes prohibit him from mentioning any player directly.

"I can't speak to [Trent] in particular," said Ellerson, who was careful not to mention the incoming freshmen quarterback by name. "Until [the prep school players] are here on campus they are still recruitable student athletes…but I can speak generically about guys from the prep school and the quarterback position from the prep school, and I will say that that the depth of our team is set up for [Trent] to come in and have a chance to compete."

While Ellerson clearly likes the talent he is brining in from the United States Military Academy Prep School, he warned against putting too much stock in the group of incoming players for the 2009 season. Once again choosing his words carefully, Ellerson explained that any player coming in from the prep school – including a certain and much heralded quarterback – are still relative unknowns given the demands of Army's rigorous summer military training program. Still, said Ellerson, the transition to the new offense will provide opportunities for freshmen to step in and play right away, provided that they are physically and mentally prepared.

"How competitive [Trent] will be or how physically prepared he will be coming out of USMAPS, well I just have no idea," added Ellerson. "But there are a handful of guys coming out of the prep school who will have an opportunity to step in to the middle of the competition because we do not have an especially long line of depth and/or we perceive [our prep school players] to be especially well suited and well prepared for what we are going to ask them to do here."

And in terms of well-suited players, there are probably none more ready to play from the incoming USMAPS class than Trent Steelman.

A former standout at Bowling Green High School in Kentucky, Steelman literally rewrote his alma mater's offensive record book before arriving at USMAPS last fall. Amassing over 7300 yards and 82 career touchdowns both through the air and on the ground in coach Kevin Wallace's spread system, Steelman proved to be nothing short of a winner for the Purples, finishing his prep career with a 34-6 record as a starter. That success only continued once Steelman arrived at USMAPS a year ago, as the Kentucky-bred quarterback transitioned right into Army's option scheme, leading the Cadets to a 7-3 record which including signature wins over Army's JV team and, perhaps more importantly, the Naval Academy Prep School. Named the team's MVP for the 2008 season, Steelman finished the year at USMAPS with over 1000 yards rushing and 800 yards passing.

And while Army fans may have been surprised by the success of both the prep school team and Steelman during last year's campaign, it comes as no great shock to Kevin Wallace, who coached Steelman during the quarterback's four years at Bowling Green. Wallace, who was named the Kentucky Coach of the Year by the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2005, said in a recent interview that the same athleticism and leadership qualities which Steelman showed Army fans at USMAPS were more than apparent during the star quarterback's prep days.

"Trent started three straight championship games as a quarterback, which is something that has been rarely done in the history of this state," said Wallace matter-of-factly. "I don't think you can play QB and have that kind of success without being an outstanding leader. He's very competitive and very intelligent."

Wallace knows that it will take more than just intelligence and a drive to win for Steelman to be successful at West Point however, but said that the incoming freshmen has a special "way" about him which is rarely seen on the high school level. This ability, said Wallace, was not only apparent in Steelman's dual-threat capability as a runner and a passer, but also in his ability to make the entire Bowling Green team better despite playing against some of the toughest competition in the state.

"We played a very difficult schedule and we played a lot of the best teams in this state," commented Wallace. "[Trent] rose to an outstanding level in each opportunity he had to play those types of people…His toughness, his decision making, his fearlessness…certainly these were the things which "branded" our football team an awful lot, to the point where we took on his personality."

Bowling Green's offense not only took on Steelman's personality during his time as a Purple, but it also adapted to his skillset. While undersized at only six feet tall, Steelman's arm strength played a major role in coach Wallace's decision to move away from a traditional veer offense to a more balanced spread offense between the quarterback's sophomore and junior year. This transition, said Wallace, highlights Steelman's ability to connect the mental aspect of the game with the physical aspect, and makes him an ideal fit at quarterback in Ian Shields' option offense at Army.

"I think the offense that he is playing in fits his talent, and it fits his physical and mental makeup," said Wallace, who also said he thinks that Steelman was ‘under-recruited' out of high school because of his size. "He makes good decisions and he's tough; and I think that anytime you are running an option offense the quarterback has to be tough and make good decisions… I think he'll be a good decision maker, and I think he'll be a tough runner and a capable passer."

While he sees no reason to speculate that Steelman will have anything less than a successful career at West Point, Wallace (like Ellerson) cautioned against putting too much on the incoming freshman right away, especially given the challenges that cadets face during their freshmen year at Army. Still, said Wallace, if the Army coaching staff does decide to go with the incoming freshman during his first year at West Point, than it will be for all the right reasons.

"I'm certain those coaches will make the right decision for their football team," said Wallace, who prefaced his comments by clarifying that he had no knowledge of the kind of depth Army has at the quarterback position. "I think that if they ‘give him the keys to the car', than they are doing it for the right reasons. If they do that it's because they see in him the types of positive things we saw in him at Bowling Green."

And while Wallace is unable to say whether or not Steelman will even see the field as a freshmen this fall, he has no doubt that his former signal caller has the mental and physical makeup to weather the storm of expectations that life at West Point is sure to bring.

"He is tough minded, intelligent young man who comes from a very competitive family," said Wallace. "His background is such that he should be able to weather the storm of the difficulties of the life of playing quarterback [at West Point] provide…I think has the physical and mental makeup to succeed at a place which is very difficult to succeed. I mean let's face it; there are a lot of different things that cadets have to face and I think his makeup will allow him to certainly face those things in a positive way."

AdamNettina covers Army football for ArmySports.com. He can be reached at AdamNettina - at - gmail.com

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