For anyone associated with the Army football program, albeit coaches, players, former players, fans, alumni, etc. ... there is no doubt that 2010 was a very special year as the Black Knights had their first winning season since 1996 and topped it off my beating SMU for the Armed Forces Bowl Championship.
Last year's performance only lead to a heighten level of optimism coming into the 2011 season, despite losing close to 13 starters on both sides of the ball. Not to mention playing what many would argue is an even tougher schedule, along with the need to develop the young talent; which included the incoming freshmen class and the several inexperienced sophomores and even some juniors.
Surely, there has been more anointed expectation of this year's team versus what their 3-7 indicates. But rest assured that the future is bright with this program.
GoBlackKnights.com take a look inside the personnel, especially the youth movement of this team, starting today with the offense.
This offensive group is not far off and if you speak to many on the inside of the program, some would even suggest that the squad is ahead offensively compared to a year ago.
Obviously there are strides to be made and there have been some setbacks through injury to key personnel throughout the 2011 season; such as 3rd year starter Trent Steelman at quarterback and sophomore slotback Raymond Maples, who is just 109 yards away from eclipsing the 1,000 yard threshold.
Through the storm of injuries that have handicapped the Black Knights recently, there has been several rays of sunshine that have emerged ... namely Army's freshmen and sophomores that provide the Black Knight fans something to get excited about.
Just look at the lineup that took the field this past Saturday at Yankee Stadium versus Big East opponent, Rutgers. It was a common occurrence to see the quartet of starters from center Ryan Powis hiking the ball to quarterback Angel Santiago, who would either fake or give the handoff to fullback Larry Dixon and/or deliver the pitch to slotback Stephen Fraser r ... again, all freshmen.
It is clear that Ellerson and his staff have done a solid job in recruiting talent into the program, but let's not forget that they are still freshmen, even though the Black Knights are closing out the 2011 campaign and they have gained substantial playing time.
As such, this group is receiving developmental experience via practice and of course great game day experience, that bodes well for the future of the Army program.
Quarterback Playing at Yankee Stadium
Make no mistake about it, this will be Trent Steelman's team in 2012. However, that does not and will not discount the level of competition that will exist at quarterback, even for the soon to be senior.
For the young guys like Angel Santiago, there is still much to learn and sometimes that mentoring comes from observing the more seasoned player who is in front of you. Case and point is that no one can question Santiago's athletic ability, but surely what the Fontana (Calif.) native has probably already learned and witnessed from just watching Steelman, is that commitment and dedication to get better each year. During those short yardage situations, especially at the goal line, that is an area that Steelman has made his calling card. However, much of his success comes from the behind the scenes work put in by the junior signal caller, where he power-cleans 375 pounds which translates to on the field positive results ... that often escape the younger players.
Speaking of competition, at the prep school there's AJ Schurr, who has all the tools to be a special player for the Black Knights and will be pushing for his place on the depth chart up on his arrival this summer.
Leading the charge out of the slot positions is Maples. If he remains healthy, the sophomore out of Philadelphia will only get better as he career unfolds.
That then takes us to the trio of current freshmen at the slot, with Fraser, along with Terrence Baggett and Trenton Turrentine. Not only will the team be both talented at the slot, but will have quality depth to overcome injuries that have shelved both Baggett and Turrentine for the majority of their rookie season. By all accounts, Turrentine is ahead of schedule with his post surgery rehab after tearing his meniscus.
And let's not forget the talent that is being nurtured at the USMAPS. This a prep squad that recently beat the undefeated Navy prep team, 34-28.
Come summer, you can consider adding prepster Marcus Poling's name as someone who could a depth at an already deep corp of players. If a poll were taken today, there's a high probability that Poling would be the USMAPS' offensive MVP, where he has played both B & A back.
At the fullback spot, it will be the 1-2 punch of frosh Larry Dixon and junior Jared Hassin, who compliment each other well and offer a change of pace that only puts added pressure on opposing defenses. Plebe, Hayden Tippett offers up a 3rd option at fullback should the staff have to reach down deeper.
Even with both Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr graduating this year, this is a position where there is plenty of talent, as well as upside. You have sophomores Jared McFarlin, Anthony Stephens and E.J. Tucker, along talented freshmen Chevaughn Lawrence and Michael Hudson, to name a few.
But within the Army's triple option offense, the prerequisite for receivers getting game time reps, is the ability to be equally as effective blocking on the perimeter and downfield, as one does in their receiving skills.
Obviously an adjustment that many of the aforementioned players are still learning.
If you were to look at the offensive line, there is the combination of the youth movement, along with the more established, but yet returning (2012) talent.
This season has seen Offensive Coordinator Ian Shields perform a juggling act because of the injury when senior right guard Joe Bailey was lost for the season ... yet there is some returning talent that have gained significant experience this season.
Junior Matt Villanti has been at right guard, along with Robert Kava, but it is the 6-foot-3, 278 pound Villanti who has begun to settle into the position. Although there is still room for improvement and consistency from the Katy (Tx) product, he may be a lock at this position in 2012.
Another youngster is sophomore Michael Kime, who started at center at one point this season, but has now been moved over to right tackle.
Playing at a high level presently is incumbent left guard, Frank Allen and then you have center Ryan Powis ... those two players are fixtures.
There are other players like junior Will Wilson who will provide immediate experience and depth in '2012'.
The prep school will have a few players up front, who may be a year or two away, but look for them to start their true rite to passage when they arrive this summer. A few players to consider are Justin Gilbert, who was listed at 6-foot-5, 270 as a high school senior and has done a nice job this season at tackle; Jake Peterson at the other tackle;
Philosophically, this is a program that relies heavily on schemes on both side of the ball. However, what is equally important to that equation is the continuous influx of talent into the program. Because the success of each play, every game and hence the program is when talent meets scheme.
When you look at this season for Army and depending on your vantage, you are surely allowed to ask where is this program going? From this writers stand point, it's truly headed in the right direction. Could there have been more wins in the "W" column in 2011? Absolutely and some that falls on the players and the coaches.
But at the end this day and unlike 2010, there are very few seniors that make up the roster of players who are receiving the bulk of the game day reps.
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