Army needs to improve all areas of the kicking, coverage and return teams if it is to avoid some of the costly mistakes that plagued the team last year. Coach Rich Ellerson doesn't usually focus his attention on special teams until they return for camp in the summer. The focus this spring was mostly on position players with an eye on evaluation and skill development. Even though special teams weren't featured this spring a few trends that developed last year are a cause for concern. Based on what we saw this spring Rich Ellerson and special team coach Joe Ross have their work cut out for them.
Junior Alex Carlton (No. 39) won the placekicking job after Matt Campbell struggled with extra points in last year's opener. Carlton started well hitting seven of his first nine attempts until he missed a last second 37-yard field goal that cost a victory against Tulane. Carlton rebounded with his best performance the following week against Vanderbilt when he hit all three field goal attempts including a season long 51-yard field goal. His last field goal, a clutch 42-yard field goal in overtime, gave Army the upset victory. Carlton hit seven of his next eight attempts over the next five games and had the coach's confidence. Against Navy Carlton had his worst game at the worst time hitting only one of three field goal attempts. The last attempt he missed badly on a 32-yard field goal with Army down 10-3 that took the air out of the Black Knights. Carlton looked disconsolate on the sidelines.
It seemed like just a bad game because Carlton seemed resilient if not always clutch. However, Carlton struggles continued this spring. In the Black & Gold game Carlton made a 32-field goal and missed from 32 and a 21-yard chip shot.
In his post spring practice assessment Coach Ellerson was rather blunt in his assessment of Carlton.
According to Army athletic communications Ellerson said. " I think, frankly, that Alex took a little bit of a step back. He did not have a strong spring and we need to get to the bottom of that. That position becomes competitive, and the good news is that it is Matt Campbell is over playing baseball now, but that will be very competitive again going into training camp along with some other freshman. This could be a real opportunity for him to grow. I had great confidence in him coming out of last year, but as he evolved as a kicker, this became a bit of a crisis and a crisis can breed change. There are some positive changes he can make and hopefully that will be the outcome."
As coach Ellerson stated senior Matt Campbell (No. 19) did not practice this spring but will get the chance to compete this fall. Campbell had won the placekicking job last year but lost it with an awful performance in the opener against Eastern Michigan missing two of three extra points. In 2008 Campbell hit all fifteen of his extra point attempts and eight of twelve field goal attempts. Campbell doesn't possess a big leg. He hit seven of eight attempts inside the forty-yard line but only one of four attempts outside the forty.
Sophomore Eric Osteen (No. 37) hit his only field goal attempt from 27 yards out in the Black & Gold game. Army has two freshman kicker slated to attend West Point this fall who may join the competition.
Senior Jonathan Bulls (No. 18) had a shaky first year as Army punter. Bulls averaged only 39.2 yards per punt last year. He had one punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. Bulls had another short line drive punt returned for a touchdown by Air Force. He also made two costly decisions to run the ball. Against Duke in the fourth quarter with Army down only one score Bulls decided on his own to try to run for the first down. Since it was fourth-and-24 he needless to say came up a little bit short. That decision flipped the field in Duke's favor and greased the skids to a loss. Against Tulane the Black Knights were holding a two-point lead, Bulls was standing near midfield with five plus minutes left and he dropped a perfect snap. He compounded the mistake by not punting even though he had time. He ran for just two yards. That mistake gave Tulane great field position and led to the game winning field goal.
Bulls had a few bright spots in his game. Despite the ugly looking rugby punting style, he used it to limit returns late in year. Bulls did a solid job directional kicking as 25 of his 72 punts pinned Army's opponents inside the 20-yard-line. Jonathan Bulls had a solid spring and Rich Ellerson expressed his confidence in him. Sophomore Chris Boldt will back him up.
Slot backs Pat Mealy (No. 5) and Malcolm Brown (new uniform No. 9) are right now scheduled to be kickoff return men. Mealy was back on kick returns last year and was mostly used as a blocker. He had four returns for 47 yards with a long of eighteen yards. In 2008 Mealy averaged 24.2 yards per return on twelve carries. Mealy will probably be the blocker like last year with faster Brown taking Hunter's role and handling the bulk of the returns.
Junior Josh Jones (No. 29) handled the punt returns last year. Jones returned 18 punts for 105 yards with a long of 19. Jones doesn't offer much flash or quickness and won't remind anyone of Jeremy Trimble. What he brings to the table is good hands and the ability to catch punts. Don't discount that because in Stan Brock's last season Army lost acres of yardage because their punt returners were unable to consistently make even fair catches often allowing the ball bounce and roll twenty yards. Jones had only one muff which was recovered by Mario Hill against Tulane. Senior Richard King (No. 8) right now is slated as the backup. King is a lot faster and athletic than Jones but you have to wonder if after missing last year due to a concussion if returning punts is the best idea. King is really needed at field cornerback.
Army's coverage teams have struggled mightily the last few years. That trend unfortunately continued under the new regime. Army's punt return teams allowed two punt return touchdowns and allowed ten yards per return. The main culprit has been the overall lack of team speed, which Ellerson is attempting to address in recruiting. Backup quarterback Chip Bowden was unfortunately injured when he was put on the coverage teams to provide more athleticism. As mentioned early the use of the rugby style punt, while ugly, did help limit returns.
Matthew Campbell handled kickoffs and does not possess a very strong leg. He had 47 kickoffs with only one touchback. His often-short kickoffs frequently led to the Black Knights giving up field position. One kickoff was returned for a touchdown. Cornerback Richard King, an accomplished soccer player, with a strong leg was also looked at on kickoffs this spring. Don't be surprised to see one of the freshman kickers win this job.
There wasn't a huge focus on special teams this spring. Look for the competition to heat up when the Black Knights return from summer camp.
Army's Alex Carlton (39) kicks a field goal as teammate Jonathan Bulls (18) holds during the first half against Navy. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)