Up from the Ashes for Army

Army football is back, and this time, with staying power. That was the message expounded by West Point's football players and coaches as the Cadets took to the practice field on Monday, donning their Black and Gold uniforms for the first time since the conclusion of spring ball.

With a healthy crowd of local media members in attendance, first year head coach Rich Ellerson made it clear that he isn't dimming his expectations for 2008 just because of the change in coaching staffs. If anything, the bar is being raised.

 

"We didn't want to step back over the summer," said Ellerson, who compiled a 56-34 record in eight seasons at Cal Poly before coming to Army. "We wanted to find another way to take a step forward, and we did that. Now we can take all that good hard work and start putting it into an offense and a defense."

 

That offense and defense will likely look different in 2009 from what they looked like in 2008, as Ellerson brings in his sophisticated ‘Double Eagle Flex' defense and patented triple option offense to the Academy.  While Army's 33 returning lettermen from a season ago are among the lowest totals of returning letterman at any school in the country, the excuse of inexperience isn't one quickly accepted by Ellerson or his staff. Linebacker Stephan Anderson, who was named Army's defensive captain despite being only a junior this year, testified to the high standards which Ellerson has already begun instilling within his players.

 

"[Coach Ellerson] demands a lot, all these coaches demand a lot. One hundred percent perfect is one of our keys to victory. If you give him perfect effort – if you go somewhere wrong or do something wrong, as long as you're going 100 percent full speed – they'll get you back in the right place."

 

Anderson -- who joins six other returning starters on Army's defense -- said that when it comes to the 2009 season, the expectations couldn't be clearer: win.

 

"The bottom line is victory," the 5-foot-10 junior from Damascus, Maryland, said. "[The team] thought about it over the summer, what we wanted to have as a vision for this team…We're excited to turn this thing around this year."

 

Army has not had a winning season since 1996, when Bob Sutton led the Black Knights to a 10-2 record and a bowl game appearance. Despite the program's recent history of losing, Army's players said on Monday that they expect 2009 to be different. Defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi agreed with his teammates, and said that Ellerson "wants us to win at everything we do, and I think that is what is going to help us win in the long run."

 

Ugenyi acknowledged that this isn't the first time that expectations have been high going into a season, but added that he felt this particular offseason was different in terms of an overall cultural change at West Point. It's a change in mentality brought on by hard work and faith in the coaches, added Ali Villanueva, who makes one of the oddest position switches in NCAA history as he attempts to transition from offensive tackle to wide receiver.

 

"We have faith in the new coaches and the new staff," said the massive 6-foot-10, 283-pound receiver from Biloxi, Mississippi. "We're working really hard, and we're seeing progress. We're really confident about the upcoming season."

 

Aside from talk of the new coaches and new systems, much of the buzz coming out of West Point on Monday centered around the school's impending quarterback competition. Chip Bowden, who started nine games for the Cadets in 2008, is expected to continue his spring position battle with sophomore and friend Max Jenkins, as well as newcomer Trent Steelman. Steelman, who led the Prep School team to a winning record and a victory over Navy's Prep team in 2008, has been a hot topic for Army fans, who have been wowed by his athleticism and skill running the option. On Monday, coach Ellerson addressed the quarterback situation, and acknowledged that Steelman – in addition to Jenkins and senior Carson Williams – will have the chance to compete with Bowden for playing time in 2009.

 

"We're right where we left off," Ellerson said in reference to the quarterback competition. "Chip finished spring ball and comes into fall ball as the lead guy. As you know, we've said we're going to keep it competitive. Those positions have to be played better. He's in the front of the line. Trent Steelman is now with us. We want to make sure he has a chance to compete…We have a couple of other guys in the mix that did some good things throughout the spring so it'll be competitive."

 

In reference to making decisions about the depth chart, Ellerson added, "We're going to have to make some choices relatively early on."

 

The Black Knights return to the practice field all this week, with the first day of full pads coming on Saturday, August 8th. The Black Knights will open the season in Ypsilanti, Michigan on September 5th against the Eastern Michigan Eagles, who were recently picked to finish second to last in the Mid-American Conference.

 

Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.


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