Defensive Line B+
Senior quick defensive end Josh McNary was on his way to another All-American season half way through the season. After seven games he had 9 1/2 sacks and seemed a lock to surpass his team record 12 1/2 sacks he set in his junior year. Shortly after the Rutgers game McNary injured his hamstring and was never the same player. He was credited with only 1/2 sack , in the bowl game, over the last six games. The injury robbed McNary of his great initial acceleration and burst off the corner. It's a testimony to his toughness that he didn't miss any games. McNary had to leave the Air Force game because of his lack of mobility but later in the year he still was able to make some plays despite not being his usual pass rushing playmaking self. He had a key forced fumble in Navy game and returned a fumble 55 yards for a touchdown against SMU. McNary ended the year with 10 sacks, 46 tackles, 12 1/2 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. It will be hard to replace him next year. Senior nose tackle Mike Gann's, 28 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks, impact didn't often show on the stat sheet because he is the only lineman on the team that played two gap. Gann played with great leverage and consistently did his job well. He had a huge tackle dropping quarterback Kyle Padron on fourth down in the Armed Forces bowl denying SMU of a chance to score before the half. Sophomore Jarrett Mackey played out of position this year. He was really a defensive end playing bandit tackle. Ellerson put Jarrett in the lineup because he is better than any other tackle option and too good of a player to be sitting on the bench. Mackey really grew into role and played better as the season progressed. Mackey finished with 47 tackles, 6 1/2 for a loss, with 4 sacks and forced two fumbles. Mackey weighs only 230 pounds and at times was overmatched at point of attack. As the only returning underclassmen up front it will be interesting to see if the staff moves him back outside to quick end or keeps him at bandit tackle. Defensive Marcus Hilton was solid all year finishing with 38 tackles, two sacks, 4 quarterback hurries and a big fumble recovery versus Hawaii. Army has struggled containing physical running teams that come right at them this year like Temple, Eastern Michigan and Air Force. This season the Black Knights finished ranked 50th in the nation in rushing defense.
If we were just grading Stephan Anderson's play this linebacker grade would be an A+. Anderson was the Black Knight's best defensive player. The team captain was a tough, aggressive, super intense Mike linebacker who read exceptionally well and had sideline to sideline range. Stephen had a complete recovery from last year's knee injury. Anderson led the team with 108 tackles and four forced fumbles. He also had two key interceptions this year stopping an SMU scoring drive in the Armed Forces Bowl and his interception against Duke set up an Army touchdown. Army co-defensive coordinator Payam Saadat said it best when he told Sal Interdonato of the <i>Times Herald-Record</i> following Anderson's 14 tackle performance against SMU, "I've been coaching for 16 seasons and he's by far the most prolific captain I've ever been around as far as his leadership ability on the field and off the field." Anderson will be missed next season. He was the fiery heart and soul of the Black Knights defense.
At rover junior Steve Erzinger worked hard in weight room the past off season but wasn't as productive as he was in 2009. Erzinger had 76 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks and five passes battled down. Erzinger was caught out of position a number of times this year not playing his gap responsibility. Erzinger was also beaten in coverage for touchdowns too many times. Erzinger drew some very costly penalties this year that contributed to losses in the Hawaii and Rutgers games..
The main reason the Black Knight linebackers were not as productive as last year on defense started when whip linebacker Andrew Rodriguez injured his back. Rodriguez missed the entire season and his football career is in jeopardy. Rodriguez was not only one of the best players on the defense he also called the defensive signals and was never out of position. Sophomore Nate Combs was groomed to replace Rodriguez yet he suffered a season ending knee injury on the first defensive series of 2010. Chad Littlejohn spent most of the year as starter at whip linebacker posting 30 tackles and forcing a fumble against Tulane. He played well against Tulane and Eastern Michigan but lacked the mobility and speed to play whip linebacker. In the double eagle flex the whip linebacker needs to be able to cover the sideline since the defense scheme limits running between the tackles and plays often bounce outside. Littlejohn had a chance to make a play in backfield on the opening drive against Notre Dame but was easily outrun by running back Cierre Wood for a huge gain even though he had the angle. Littlejohn was replaced by Bill Prosko in that game. Prosko had the best performance of his career as he posted eight tackles. For the season senior Prosko made 16 tackles. Both Littlejohn and Prosko weren't the answer since while solid tacklers both are better suited to play inside in a 3-4 defense. Special teams ace sophomore Zac Watts proved to be the best solution. Watts recorded 20 tackles and has the athleticism the position demands. Like most young players he made some mental mistakes at times and was occasionally out of position. Watts made the biggest play of his career sacking SMU quarterback Kyle Padron forcing a fumble that Josh McNary scooped up on a bounce and ran 55 yards for a touchdown. Anderson was so good he covered up a lot of flaws in this linebacking corps. Anderson was the reason the Black Knights finished 27th in the nation in total defense.
Defensive Backs C
When reviewing Army's defensive backs the sum is much better than the parts. They finished 23rd in the nation in pass defense. They weren't that good. Army's defensive backs have rather pedestrian speed and were exposed at times this year in one-on-one matchups. This season they allowed a 57.2 percent completion percentage with 22 touchdown passes while picking off 14 passes. Senior free safety Donovan Travis had a shoulder problem early in the year which limited his playing time and his absence (he played hurt but only on passing downs for a few games) caused problems for Army's pass defense coverage. Once able to play full time Travis resumed his ball hawking ways. He intercepted a team high 5 passes and defended another six. Travis ended the year with 60 tackles. Travis was Army's best defensive back and understood and thrived in this system. He showed good range and was a solid tackler despite average speed. Travis ended his career with 11 career interceptions. Sophomore Josh Jackson won the boundary cornerback position in week two before eventually being moved to field corner. He started at field cornerback, the most demanding position in the flex defense, against VMI and played there the rest of the year. Jackson is the fastest cornerback on the team. Josh had a rough game in his first start against Hawaii. Like many first year starters he needs to shore up his techniques. Jackson tends to bite hard on wide receiver's double moves and has been caught spying in the backfield and sitting on a route only to be burned more than once. Jackson has good speed but is a little bit of a long strider and lacks the ideal hips and footwork of a top cornerback at this point of his career. He has the talent to improve. Josh plays with great confidence and is a willing hitter. He finished the year with 33 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception he returned 38 yards against SMU. Jackson's best play this year was on his final play of the year. Josh had a huge hit on SMU wide receiver Darius Johnson stopping him well short of the first down and forcing SMU final field goal attempt that was wide. Antuan Aaron missed the opener then started the year playing field corner after playing boundary cornerback in 2009. Generally regarded in preseason as Army's best cornerback Aaron's play was generally solid but he gave up a number of big plays. A nagging hamstring cost him his starting job. Aaron appeared in nine games. He posted 27 tackles, had a sack on a blitz and defended two passes. Richard King was bounced in and out of the lineup a few times this season before ending the year as starting boundary cornerback. King seemed overmatched at times and plays smaller than his listed size but has decent speed and cover skills. King can, at times, lack ball awareness and has trouble, like against Temple, with bigger more physical receivers. King does seem to have a nose for the ball and did pick off four passes this year. He kept Notre Dame's Michael Floyd out of the end zone which is no easy feat. King held Navy's talented wide receiver Greg Jones in check holding him to two catches. King did an excellent job on bump and run coverage on one play beating Jones for position for an end zone interception. Senior SAM safety Donnie Dixon was a two year starter and a solid player. He was often a liability in coverage simply because he wasn't that fast. Dixon gave up long touchdown passes against Duke and Navy not because of poor technique but simply because he was outrun and didn't possess any deep recovery speed. Dixon played best when he was near the line of scrimmage in run support. He had 12 tackles against Air Force and had a sack and quarterback hurry against Rutgers when used extensively on the safety blitz. This year Dixon posted 45 tackles, an interception, a sack and had 6 passes defended. Jordan Trimble played okay at safety when called upon. He had his best game early in the year when against North Texas when he recorded an interception and nine tackles. Trimble had 38 tackles, an interception and returned a lateral for a touchdown against VMI. It was a mistake by the staff to use him at cornerback against Air Force. Trimble was caught out of position twice and gave up two long touchdown passes. Senior L.B. Brown played nickel back and showed good quickness in making 16 tackles but his lack of size didn't make him an ideal cover guy.
Special Teams B+
Army punter Jonathan Bulls rugby style directional punting wasn't often pretty but was highly effective as he averaged 38.9 yards with 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Bulls' final punt went 57 yards and helped the Black Knights win the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Army's punt coverage was outstanding allowing an average of just 3.7 yards on 22 punt returns. Other than against Temple the kickoff coverage was solid allowing just 20.4 a return. The Black Knights have done a great job of forcing special teams turnovers. Special teams ace Zach Watts made a number of big plays blocking a punt against Rutgers that set up a touchdown. Against Tulane Watts had a tremendous game with four tackles on kickoff returns. Watts made the tackle on three consecutive kickoffs and forced a fumble and then recovered it setting up an Army field goal.
Junior kicker Alex Carlton struggled early this year hitting just 4-of-11 and seemed on the verge of losing his job. Carlton then closed the season nailing 11 consecutive field goal attempts. Carlton converted 15-of-22 attempts this year. Carlton's 15 field goals were the third best total in school history. Matt Campbell kickoffs traveled an average of 60 yards and he hit four touchbacks. Campbell made six tackles for the coverage unit. Josh Jackson showed good speed on both punt (7.3 yards per punt return) and kickoff (20.1 yards per return).
Rich Ellerson and his staff have changed the losing culture at West Point. This team now plays smart, avoids turnovers and expects to win. He did a terrific job giving the team time off for Christmas break while still having the team ready to play and win the Armed Forces Bowl. Offensive coordinator Ian Shields totally revamped his double slot option offense with a new winged T look that saw points per game increase from 15.3 per game in 2009 to 26.6 per game. The double back, half bone set took better advantage of Army's personnel. The Black Knights running backs lacked the overall speed to get outside. Shields did a great job with misdirection and mixing up the pitch and dive back. The new "fly" sweep series was very effect early in the year but struggled after Malcolm Brown was hurt against Rutgers. Defensive coordinators Payam Saadat and Chris Smeland's defensive unit pitched the first Army shutout in five years against North Texas. Despite pedestrian speed the defense played solidly as they finished 27th in the nation in total defense. It will be interesting to see how effective this defensive scheme will be in a few years after they recruit more players with the speed to play in it and excel. Early in the year they did a great job moving Josh McNary, when he was healthy, around so teams couldn't effectively double team him.
Most Valuable Player on Defense: Mike linebacker Stephen Anderson. Team leader and best player.
Best first year Defensive Starter: Bandit tackle Jarrett Mackey. Mackey is quick, rangy with good lateral quickness. Undersized and playing out of position this year, his play improved rather than seeing him wear down. It will be interesting to see whether the staff keeps Mackey at bandit tackle or moves him outside.
Best Defensive Play: Stephen Anderson leaping over the line of scrimmage against Air Force to stuff quarterback Conner Deitz on fourth down. It was a highlight reel move that was the epitome of Anderson's desire and determination to win. .
Best Defensive Game by a Player: Stephen Anderson had more than a few games worthy of mention but Josh McNary was a one man wrecking crew against Hawaii. With Army down 21-0 and the defensive backs seemingly overmatched against Hawaii's Run and Shoot, McNary almost singlehandedly got the Black Knights back in the game. McNary was unblockable and had three sacks for 31yards lost and forced a fumble that set up a Black Knight touchdown. It was an amazing performance.
Most Disappointing Defensive Breakdown: Easily the Rutgers game. Navy and Hawaii were tough losses where the defense had their chances to make plays but both of those teams were better than Army. Rutgers was a game where Army's defense dominated almost all aspects of the game. They somehow managed to lose in overtime because of defensive breakdowns, stupid penalties and some highly questionable calls by Big East referees. Army posted an Academy record 8 sacks in the game with a tremendous defensive effort. The Black Knights held Rutgers to just 65 yards total offense including only 24 rushing yards in the first half. Army let the Scarlet Knights back in the game with dumb penalties like Steve Erzinger who had a costly roughing the passer penalty that nullified a Donovan Travis interception. It was a very bitter defeat made worse by the serious neck injury suffered by Rutgers defensive end Eric Le Grand.
Best Special Teams Performance: Near the end of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl after SMU narrowed the lead to 16-14, the Mustangs forced Army's offense into a three-and-out series at their own 11-yard-line. The Mustangs had all the momentum. Bulls punting from his own end zone then boomed a clutch 57-yard punt which forced the Mustangs to start their last drive from their own 38-yard-line. Bulls was the main reason that SMU kicker Szymanski's last field goal attempt was from 47 yards and not a lot closer.