Army's Growing Pains

Angel Santiago (Danny Wild-US PRESSWIRE)

Fresh off its first bowl win in 25 years, optimism was abounding for Army football fans entering the 2011 season. Army was returning its star quarterback, Trent Steelman, with two full years of experience under his belt. Its star fullback and almost all of the running backs were returning while the prep school had produced a number of talented newcomers ready to contribute.

The rebuilt offensive line looked good in spring practice. Defensively the lack of size was a concern but it was obvious that the team speed had improved.

For the Black Knights the future was now this year. Twenty-seven players have made their first career starts this season. Army has played 19 freshmen this season. That represented the highest total in the nation in the 2011 season. Ten of those19 freshmen have started at least one game this season. That could be the silver lining in this disappointing season. The biggest leap in most college player's performance is usually between their freshman and sophomore years. Look no farther than A-back Raymond Maples who was solid as a freshmen but didn't look like the player that dominated in high school and at USMAPS in 2009. This season, his sophomore year, Maples has looked like the tremendous talent ArmySports.com had predicted he would be in 2010. Raymond is on target for a thousand yard season and has rushed for over 100 yards in five games.

As a freshman, playing football is usually difficult at all college levels. Freshmen have to deal with new coaches, a new way of practicing and must get used to the system. There is more competition on the practice field and more size and speed on game day. Add in the unique academic, time management and social demands of the plebe year at a service academy and it's surprising any freshmen see serious playing time at West Point. In a departure from the past, where other Army coaches fielded senior dominated teams despite at times mediocre play, Rich Ellerson has made it clear that the best players play. Players who are assigned to the JV squad are rewarded with promotions to the varsity when they play well. Kick returner Scott Williams, C-back Stephen Fraser and quarterback Gino DeBartolo were among the players promoted and saw game reps late this season.

The big question is will the defense benefit next season and beyond by playing so many young players? In 2007 service academy rival Navy was figuratively in a similar boat. Navy, like Army, had graduated a senior dominated line-up the year before. Its 2007 seniors on defense proved not to be very talented and were thinned by attrition. Their prep ranks, like Army 2009 defensive line class, were weakened by prep school defections and transfers. Navy had to play a lot of underclassmen and were even worse than Army was this year on defense. The Mids struggled to stop almost all their opponents and allowed a school record 473 points that season. Only a prolific offense that rarely punted and averaged over 39 points per game saved the Midshipmen from losing season. The next two seasons those players came of age on defense and allowed 22 points per game in 2008 and just 19.4 points per game during a ten win season of 2010.

Can Army experience a similar turnaround? There are reasons for optimism. Mike linebacker Geoffrey Bacon has completely recovered from the knee injury he suffered late last season at USMAPS. Bacon was the prep school's defensive MVP last season. Since emerging as a starter he has demonstrated sideline to sideline range and has looked like an impact player. Fellow plebe Hayden Pierce had started since the opener and had impressed at strong safety until he was hurt against Air Force. Free safety Thomas Holloway, after a shaky early season, beat out Tyler Dickson and has emerged as the Black Knights most consistent tackler. The entire starting defensive front line, except for Andrew Rodriguez, returns and should be improved and stronger after an off season of strength and conditioning work.

Still, there are some legitimate reasons for concern. Army is currently playing defensive ends at tackles, linebackers as defensive ends and undersized linebackers in the front seven. There is a need to recruit more size. Ellerson's double eagle flex defense demands speed but this year's unit is a lot smaller than even his FCS Cal Poly teams. The defensive line at the prep school is very good, if they make it to R-day, but like this year's group will probably need a year of seasoning.

The question that won't be answered until next fall is if this year's growing pains will translate into a better Army football team and more victories. Some of the pieces are already in place especially on offense. If the defense and special teams can improve the Black Knights can benefit from the experience they gained and rebound with a winning season in 2012. Time will tell.

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