Black Knights eager to get 2012 season started
Army will return a total of 32 players who started at least once last season, a number head coach Rich Ellerson is a bit concerned with as his Black Knights begin summer practices with eyes on returning to the postseason.
“They are healthier and they are more mature,” Ellerson said Thursday. “We have an awful lot of sophomores that played too much as freshmen, quite frankly. Some of those guys paid a physical toll for that, but I’m encouraged about how they bounced back.”
Fourteen Army players started at least six games last season and this year the Black Knights return seven players who helped contribute to the nation’s top-rushing offense. Still, Army has a good amount of work to do in order to be more consistent during the season and find a way to win some tight football games. Ellerson likes that his team hung tough with some opponents for the most part, especially against service academy rivals Air Force and Navy. Now Ellerson is hoping those experiences and a solid off-season can help build the pieces for a winning season in 2012.
“We know what kind of an off-season we had. We know what spring felt like. We know we’re better. We have to prove that on the scoreboard.” Ellerson said.
Army’s goal is to get back to the postseason, where a bowl date awaits them as long as they qualify for the postseason. Army will play in the Military Bowl in Washington D.C. on December 27 if they meet the postseason eligibility requirement of six wins. Army has played in just two bowl games since 1989, with the last trip being made in 2010 (Armed Forces Bowl).
“Expectations for us are higher, and they’re very high internally,” Ellerson said. “We’ve got to go to work to take that opportunity and turn it into something.”
If Army is going to reach the postseason it will be led on offense by quarterback Trent Steelman, who is closing in on some Army career records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in his fourth season. Steelman, from Bowling Green, Kentucky, is currently fifth on Army’s all-time total offense record book with 4,128 yards, needing 2,371 yards to break the school record.
Steelman was named to the Davey O’Brien Award watch list, along names such as Matt Barkley (USC), Denard Robinson (Michigan), Geno Smith (West Virginia) and more. As is typical of service academy players, Steelman was quick to deflect the recognition to his teammates when asked about being recognized among some high-profile names. Instead, Steelman is focused more on getting the running game to continue what they have done in the past.
“Last year we set out to be the top rushing team in the nation, and we accomplished that,” Steelman said. Steelman spoke highly of his running mates on the offense as well.
“Larry [Dixon], Raymond Maples, Malcolm Brown and a number of other running backs are more than capable of busting that big play,” Steelman said. “It’s something to see because it’s something Army hasn’t had in a long time. It takes a lot of pressure off me. I can just get under center and play my role and be a distributor.”
Maples recorded the 15th 1,000-yard rushing season in Army history and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. As a team, Army averaged 296.7 rushing yards per game and 27 of the 35 touchdowns scored came on the ground. Ellerson remains confident handing the ball to anyone on the offense, but knows the value of having a proven leader in Steelman leading the team.
“He’s going to have the ball in his hands, and his legs are very important to our offense,” Ellerson said of Steelman. “What we need to do is make sure we can develop and get him to grow without putting him in a physical deficit in the practice environment.”
Army’s 2012 schedule gets underway a week after most schools, with a trip to San Diego State scheduled for September 8. The only other road games for Navy come at Wake Forest, Eastern Michigan and Rutgers. The regular season wraps up in Philadelphia on December 8 for the annual Army-Navy Game. No matter what happens between September and November, Steelman says the focus to finally beat the Midshipmen is bigger than ever before.
“That’s absolutely the goal,” Steelman said of beating Navy. “That’s our goal every time we step on the field. It’s now more than ever, especially being a senior and not having a win against Navy. It’s been on our mind for three years now, and we think we’re in a better position now more than ever to go out and get that.”
“Things are going to happen in games,” Ellerson said. “We just don’t need to do anything silly on the side to set ourselves back.”
Here is a look at Army’s media day, featuring a tour around Michie Stadium.