This is Part 10 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We move this week to the Falcons’ Week 10 opponent – service academy rival Army.
Coach: Rich Ellerson
2009 Record: 5-7
2009 vs. AF: Air Force 35, Army 7
2009 in a Sentence: The Black Knights just missed becoming bowl eligible under first-year coach Ellerson, but their return to the triple-option offense and performance during the season provided hope that the struggling program might eventually rise.
Off/Def Starters Back: 8/8
Roster Report: Army’s defense was fairly stingy in 2009, ranking 16th in the country in total defense (304.7 yards allowed per game) and 35th in scoring defense (21.9 points allowed per game).
The Black Knights will have to replace a pair of defensive linemen, including tackle Victor Ugenyi, but they should be strong up front with the return of senior defensive end Josh McNary and senior defensive tackle Mike Gann.
Undersized (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) but speedy, McNary is on watch lists for several awards heading into 2010 after compiling 22.5 tackles for losses, including an Army-record 12.5 sacks, last season. According to the Times Herald-Record, McNary missed spring drills following shoulder surgery.
As for Gann, Sal Interdonato, the Army beat writer for the Times Herald-Record, wrote on his Black Knights blog that the tackle “is the defense’s heart and soul and will be the key if Army’s defense is going to better its No. 16 national ranking from last year. Right now, he’s the only player on the roster that can create havoc in the backfield as well as engage with two or sometimes three offensive linemen.”
Army also returns three starting defensive backs and its entire starting linebacker corps from the 2009 squad, including leading tackler Andrew Rodriguez (85 tackles) and senior Stephen Anderson, who had 83 tackles despite missing the last three games of the year with a knee injury he suffered at Air Force. Also look for contributions from senior Kingsley Ehie, who moved to linebacker from fullback.
Eight starters return from an offense that ranked 16th in the country in rushing in 2009 (203.6 yards per game) but last (120th) in passing (71.8 yards per game).
One huge plus for the Black Knights is experience under center. Quarterback Trent Steelman became the first West Point freshman to start every game of a season in 2009, leading the team with 202 rushes, 706 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. He also completed 54-of-110 passes for 637 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The experience he banked in 2009 showed in the spring.
“Trent is much more comfortable in a leadership role and much more comfortable running the offense,” Ellerson said in the Black Knights’ post-spring release. “The reactions and decisions that go along with that position are all so much more intuitive for him.”
Army didn’t get much from its fullbacks in 2009 (two rushing touchdowns and no runs of more than 26 yards), but that could change with sophomore Jared Hassin expected to jump in as the starter. If the name rings a bell, there’s a reason. Hassin initially came to Air Force, but he left in August of 2008 (barely into his freshman year) after practicing some with the varsity that month. He sat out last year.
“We have been waiting to get Jared into the mix,” Ellerson said.
Army returns both its starting slot backs from last season – seniors Patrick Mealy (673 yards, three touchdowns, team-high 6.1 yards-per-carry average) and Jameson Carter (238 yards, two touchdowns) – and could get a contribution from sophomore Malcolm Brown. And up front the Black Knights have four linemen back who started in 2009, and all are seniors.
The biggest question mark for Army offensively is at receiver, where just two players who combined for five catches in 2009 return.
Like on offense and defense, Army will have experience on special teams – the Black Knights’ 2009 starting punter (senior Jonathan Bulls), starting place kicker (junior Alex Carlton), starting long-snapper (senior Carson Homme) and kickoff specialist (senior Matthew Campbell) all are slated to return.
Fast Fact: Army’s offense scored just 18 touchdowns in 12 games in 2009.
What Caught My Eye: Only four of the coaches on the Army staff are West Point grads. Juxtapose that with Air Force’s staff, which includes 10 Air Force grads.
I continue to think having a bunch of grads on staff is the way to go for a service academy. It’s huge especially for recruiting because the guys selling the place actually went through it. I’m not quite sure why some coaches at Air Force haven’t followed Calhoun’s lead on this.
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: Air Force, minus-7. The Falcons have owned the Black Knights of late, winning four straight and 12 of 13 in the teams’ series. Army will be better and will play the Falcons at home, but Air Force still should be the favorite.
Final Thought: Since going 10-2 in 1996, the Black Knights have suffered through 13 losing seasons. During that time they went 35-115. And in 10 of the seasons they won three or fewer games.
But this could be the year the Black Knights creep above .500 and become bowl eligible. Only four of the teams on their 2010 schedule had winning records in 2009 (Temple, Rutgers, Air Force and Navy).
When Ellerson was hired, Army athletic director Kevin Anderson told the Associated Press that if Ellerson couldn’t turn the program around, “I don’t know if there is a coach who can.”
I think Ellerson can. In his first season he re-installed the triple-option and put a focus on defense (and a solid ground game with a stingy defense seems to be the formula for service academies). Army might be a year away from a major breakthrough, but I see the Black Knights as a program on the rise.