Six questions for Army spring practice (1-3)

Rich Ellerson put the Army football program on the right track his first year with a generally solid 5-7 rebuilding year. The five victories represented the most wins for Army in 13 years. After a lost decade for the Black Knights, Ellerson and his staff made Army competitive again.

In an effort to restore this once great program Ellerson showed he was a man with a plan. He cut the bloated roster, moved players to positions were he felt that they could best help the team and played plebes, most noticeably quarterback Trent Steelman, over upperclassmen.

Ellerson installed the Double Eagle Flex defense that he made famous in Arizona. With the strength of the team being in the front defensive seven, featuring its two best players Josh Mc Nary and Stephen Anderson, it was a perfect match. Quick end Mc Nary led the team with 12.5 sacks and was selected honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated. Mike linebacker Stephen Anderson was the Black Knights leading tackler until he suffered a season ending knee injury against Air Force. For the year the Black Knights finished 16th overall in total defense. This unit was extremely well coached and finished an impressive third in team pass defense in the nation despite featuring a defensive backfield that had only pedestrian speed.

The offense was another story. Ian Shields, after directing a high powered attack at Cal Poly that averaged 41.8 points per game his last two years as offensive coordinator, must have suffered culture shock last year. Despite some criticisms to the contrary there is nothing wrong with his scheme or offensive approach. Army simply lacked the experience, speed and play makers to make the offense fire. Army finished the season ranked 16th in team rushing at 203.5 yards per game and averaged an anemic 15.3 points per game. In order to have a winning season running a triple option offense Army needs to finish among the top five rushing teams in the nation.

With a full season under Ellerson's belt to implement his system and 18 returning starters spring practice opens February 17. The second season has often proven to be the magical elixir for turning around struggling service academy football programs. Army fans have fond memories of Hall of Fame coach Jim Young installing the wishbone during his second year, in 1984, and leading them to an 8-3-1 record and a bowl win over Michigan State. Paul Johnson was responsible for two turnaround seasons at Navy. He was Navy's offensive coordinator in 1995 hired by new coach Charlie Weatherbie. Johnson implemented his spread option and Navy averaged 20.3 ppg and finished 5-6. The second year as offensive coordinator Johnson's offense average 32.7 ppg and posted a 9-3 record that included a win over Cal in the Aloha Bowl. As a head coach at Navy Johnson after finishing with a 2-10 record his first season took Navy to an 8-5 record and a bowl appearance.

Are the Black Knights poised for a similar turnaround? There are six questions that need to be answered if Army is to experience its first winning season since 1996

1. They're back but are they better?

Last year Army had only one returning starter on the offensive line. The new group featured smaller, quicker linemen. They struggled with the scheme, missed cut blocks and never effectively established the fullback dive. The left side of the line experienced a number of starter changes and never clicked.

With a year of experience and four returning starters this is the area of the team that needs the most improvement. Army offensive line received positive news when it was announced solid right tackle Jason Johnson was eligible to return. Johnson missed last spring semester while recuperating from surgery. Since he didn't play as a freshman and is graduating in December he'll be able to play this fall.

Two other starters you can write in will be center Zach Peterson and Seth Reed. Zach Peterson was consistently rated as Army best lineman. Seth Reed, a converted defensive tackleb did a nice job in his first year in the new role.

The likely left guard contenders are Anees Merzi who can also play tackle where he started the last 6 games, Joe Bailey who started three games before he lost the job last year, Mikel Weich who has size but knee problems and Frank Allen who played on the JV last year. At left tackle 6-6 Mike Mc Dermott and 6-5 former tight end Brad Kelly will battle to be the starter. If neither asserts themselves Merzi will end up as tackle again.

For Army to be a winning successful team they have to be able to run the ball more effectively. It starts with these guys up front executing their blocks and establishing the midline option. It's the most critical area of the team that needs improvement.

2. Finding a Fullback

After Collin Mooney's record setting 2008 campaign the Black Knights experienced a huge drop off in production at fullback last year. In Ellerson's offense the fullback or "B" back is more like a traditional halfback in terms of size and speed. CeDarius Williams was hurt in last season's opener and missed the rest of the season is now healthy. Kingsley Ehie replaced Williams in the opener and started the rest of the year. While he grades out as one of the best athletes on the team it didn't translate to the field. Ehie didn't break many tackles and fumbled too many times so the staff has moved him to defense.

The player to watch and who is expected to assume the starting role is Air Force transfer Jared Hassin. The 6-3, 215 pound Hassin was actually the best fullback in practice last year as he sat out his transfer year.

Army needs Hassin to establish himself as the starter this spring.

3. The Need for Speed at Slot back

Sorry to paraphrase a line from the Navy movie Top Gun in an Army column but speed is needed. Over the last decade Navy has had explosive playmakers like Shun White and Reggie Campbell. Army has had no one of that caliber at slot back or "A" back . "A" backs make plays and at Army last year's slot back starters simply lacked the athleticism and speed needed to generate big plays. Ellerson and his staff are working hard to address this in recruiting.

Of the returning starters Pat Mealy is the best. He is a hard worker, good blocker, runs hard in traffic and lacks only a second gear .He was the only slot back to average over five yards a carry (6.1). Pencil him in as a starter.

The other slot back position is wide open. Jameson Carter's long stride would seem to be a better fit at wide receiver but his inconsistent hands can make him a liability in the passing game. He blocks well and was a big reason for Mealy's 136-yard game against VMI.

Malcolm Brown (5-11 180) is the most talented of the plebes that saw action at slot back last year. However, when put in the starting lineup last year he struggled mightily with the speed of the college game. This spring will give Brown a chance to show he has learned his assignments and just play. Lonnie Liggins is a Pat Mealy clone who also lacks a second gear but should contribute with more practice reps.

The exciting dark horse candidates to emerge as potential playmakers are Greg Cotton and returning slot back Alfred Mc Daniel. Cotton, a 6-0, 195 plebe, was a defensive back that was moved to slot back last year and saw no time from scrimmage. Cotton is one of the fastest players on the team and will get a chance to show this spring if he can translate his speed into production.

Alfred McDaniel had given fans hope that he might be the answer after fall practice before being hurt. The Army track star, who is the two time Patriot League 100 meters champion who had beaten Shun White on the track, showed his rust after not playing since high school and was injured early in year. Mc Daniel is too small to be an every down back but with his speed he could develop into a change of pace home run threat. Top Stories