Army Roadblocks to Success

Hope springs eternal during the month of August, especially for teams with new head coaches coming into the season. And while Rich Ellerson has already made his mark on helping to renew the enthusiasm around the Army football community, it remains to be seen if hype alone will translate into more wins come October and November.

Kevin Anderson and Rich Ellerson may be well on their way towards installing a culture of winning at West Point, but we can't soon forget that we are talking about a team which hasn't had a winning season since 1996. Army's tradition of losing (as bad as that sounds) is going to take more than fancy preseason press conferences and talk of new systems to overcome, especially given the fact that the Black Knight bring back just 12 total starters from a year ago. With those factors considered, perhaps it would be best for Army fans to remember that turning a program around is a process, not an instant fix.

So what are the biggest obstacles to success for Ellerson and his team heading into 2009? Today we take a look at seven factors which figure to slow Army football's attempted resurgence this coming year, paying special attention to the ways in which Ellerson and his staff will have to address them. While it's unlikely that the Black Knights will be able to overcome all of these obstacles, keep in mind they don't necessarily have to, and even if the team is able to address some of the pressing concerns this season it could help the program improve in the long run. In no particular order, here are the seven biggest roadblocks to success in 2009.

Personnel: Perhaps the most pressing and pertinent of all the challenges that Ellerson will face in 2009 is the question over whether or not the Black Knights are equipped to run both the Triple Option offense and the Double Eagle Flex defense. As we saw last year, running the triple option with pro-style personnel isn't exactly conducive to success, while Army's defenders will have to show that they're athletic enough to fit into the adaptable (but speed oriented) scheme on the other side of the ball. Typically speaking, it takes a coach 2-3 years to get the right personnel in place to run his system, and given that Army will only be in year two of the transition away from a pro system, it may be unrealistic to think that all the pieces are in place for the offense to operate as effectively as it should.

Learning Curves: Which brings us to our next roadblock. While you have to admire the attempt by Tim Walsh and Stan Brock to bring the option back to West Point last year, the reality was that it was an ill-executed attempt which did not do much in terms of bringing players up to speed on actual option football concepts. In other words, any presumed advantage of going from year one to year two in an option system has been mitigated to a certain extent, with Rich Ellerson and Ian Shields having to re-teach elements of their version of the offense. This is going to take time for Army's offensive players to absorb, especially on the offensive line, where the Black Knights must break in four new starters. Defensively, the change in schemes may not be "complicated" (remember, it's sophisticated) but it's still a change in schemes, and will take a period of adjustment from Army's players.

Inexperience: So what does a team do when its personnel aren't lined up and ready to win with the system in place during year one? You've likely heard the term "building year" by now, and as cliché as it sounds, it's true; Army may very well end up playing a high number of underclassmen (particularly plebes) due to the nature of the offense. After all, a number of the incoming plebes (from both USMAPS and high schools) were brought in from option offenses, and have been identified as individuals who will "fit" the system for the future. While beneficial in the long run, inexperience isn't usually conducive to winning in college football, especially when rivals Air Force and Navy return field-tested players who've had the benefit of playing within their respective systems in game situations.

Depth: Another factor closely related to the change in systems, concerns over depth are especially relevant at a service academy, where the number of FBS "caliber" players is often much smaller than that of other FBS schools. While the triple option goes a long way towards equalizing the talent disparity between Army and many of its opponents, don't forget that option offenses often carry the unfortunate side effect of being intensely physical for the skill position players involved, with injuries all too common. Consider that Navy has lost its starting quarterback at one time or another each of the past three years while running the offense, with a serious hamstring injury to Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada perhaps derailing what could have been a historic season in 2009.

Mentality: You've heard it before; winning teams have a ‘winning mentality.' While it's tough to define what exactly a ‘winning mentality' is, it's not hard to see that Army has had anything but over the last twelve seasons. From turning the ball over in close game situations to coming out flat against service academy rivals, Army's football players have too often bought into the perception that they just can't compete on a high level. Of all the challenges Rich Ellerson and his staff will face in 2009, this is the one which he is best equipped to address immediately.

Turnovers: We've been harping on it all summer. Army, or any team for that matter, cannot win on a consistent basis if the team continues to fall so egregiously behind in the turnover department. Running a double-digit turnover deficit (which the Black Knights have done in each of the past three seasons) is tantamount to asking for a losing record in today's college game. Rich Ellerson has spoken at length about the renewed emphasis during spring ball in securing the football and working to take it away when on defense, yet it remains to be seen if the Cadets can show any real improvement in game situations.

Navy: With a schedule featuring the likes of Texas A&M, Rutgers, and Vanderbilt, it may sound somewhat ironic that Navy should represent one of the greatest challenges to Army football in 2009. Yet when you consider that the Black Knights have now lost seven straight to Navy, you have to count the Midshipmen as a major roadblock to any attempt to rebuild the West Point program. Beating Navy in 2009 would not only prove that Rich Ellerson can succeed where Todd Berry, Bobby Ross, and Stan Brock failed, but it would go a long way towards swaying potential recruits away from Annapolis and signifying the idea that Army football is back and ready to win for the future.

Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments, questions, and feedback. If you would like to ask a question for an upcoming mailbag segment, please feel free to drop him a line at AdamNettina[at] Top Stories