Rich Ellerson enters his fourth season as Army head football coach. After leading the Black Knights to their first winning season in 14 years in 2010, Army struggled through a miserable 3-9 campaign last season. It was the worst season in Ellerson's 12 year college coaching career. If Ellerson hopes to rebound both he and his staff have to address five key areas of concern. Note: The class mentioned on all player listed below reflects their status this coming fall.
A Cure for fumbleitis
The Army staff has to work with the skill position players on ball security this spring. The inability of the Black Knights to protect the football neutralized the effectiveness of the nation's best rushing offense last season. Army lost more fumbles than any team in the nation. The Black Knights fumbled an incredible 36 times and lost the ball 22 times! This was a radical reversal from the 2010 season when Army was one of the best teams in the nation in turnover margin. Jared Hassin lost his starting fullback job due to his fumbling five times and losing the ball four times in keys spots. Hassin is a talented player but his fumbling has killed Army's chances in the last four games against the other service academies. Army fumbled an unbelievable eight times while losing by just three points in a close loss to San Diego State. Army's fumbling problems weren't just a result of it being a young team playing freshmen. Experienced quarterback Trent Steelman fumbled 12 times in his 9 starts. Protecting the ball is critical this fall.
Hold that Line
Last season the Army defensive line struggled most of the year. The Black Knights' defensive line was undersized and at times over-matched at the point of attack. The Black Knights defensive line especially had problems against the bigger offensive lines of teams from the MAC. Army was blown out on the road by all four MAC opponents it played this season by a combined 174-89 margin. The Black Knights allowed 43.5 points per game against the MAC. This fall Army's defensive line returns three starters. The staff has recruited well upfront the past two seasons and has some talented players at the United States Military Academy Prep School joining the program. A few of the 2011 prep players and incoming direct admits could help immediately but improvement from last year's starters is a key to success in 2012.
Quick end Zach Watts could return to whip linebacker but that's to be decided. He was the best player up front last year. Defensive tackles Holt Zalneratis and Jacob Drozd are good athletes and they should benefit from the experience they received as starters. A.J. Mackey returns for his senior year and except for the Temple game his play improved in the second half of the season. His brother, defensive end Jarrett Mackey, should be ready to return this fall. Jarrett suffered a serious knee injury in the opener last year and left West Point to rehab. He returned this semester but will miss the spring game. If he is healthy by the opener that would be a huge benefit. Jarrett Mackey is easily Army's best defensive lineman.
An Impact player at Wide Receiver
Army tried to replace the slow but experienced senior duo of Davyd Brooks and Austin Barr last season with sophomores Jared McFarlin and Anthony Stephens but the passing game struggled. The two soon to be juniors Jared McFarlin and Anthony Stephens should get another chance this spring of regaining their starting positions. McFarlin had an excellent debut when he caught 4 passes for 35 yards and a touchdown in the opener. Jared later suffered a concussion and caught only one pass over the last nine games. McFarlin has talent, can run and offers excellent size at 6-5. He just needs to mature physically and become more consistent. Stephens (2 receptions for 54 yards, 1 TD) runs good routes and can get open but drops too many passes. Sophomore Chevaughn Lawrence (1 reception, 9 yards) played in eight games as a plebe. Lawrence was Angel Santiago's go to receiver at the prep school in 2010. He is a tall, physical receiver who will go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. Lawrence uses his size and leaping ability well and can make an impact this fall. With the logjam at running back versatile Jon Crucitti might be used as a receiver. He is a very good blocker and the staff tried him at receiver during spring practice last year.
Two New Tackles
Last year the Army offensive line did an outstanding job. The Black Knights led the nation in rushing for the first time since 1998. The 2011 team averaged over 346 yards per game as they ran for a school record 4,158 yards. It was the first time in school history that the team exceeded 4,000 rushing yards in a single season. What was impressive about this accomplishment is that Army achieved this milestone despite so many injuries. The interior of the line is expected to return but the staff has to replace both tackles. Senior Derek Bisgard (6-1, 253) entered last season not healthy and after starting the opener played in only five games the rest of the way. Derek moves well and should contend for a starting spot again.
Junior Michael Kime (6-2, 246) is the other leading candidate to start. Kime made a late rush to beat out Will Wilson and super plebe Ryan Powis for the starting center job in the opener last year. Kime was hurt in that game but later in the year started at tackle one game. Other tackles in the mix are seniors Tom Houser (6-3, 240), Ben Jebb (6-5, 246) and junior Dan Whitaker (6-3, 258).
Getting a kick out of special teams
Army needs to replace the inconsistent Alex Carlton who graduated. Carlton made just three of six field goal attempts last season as it was obvious the staff had lost confidence in him. Senior kicker Eric Osteen and junior Billy Fisher will battle this spring. There should be more competition this summer from incoming plebes both direct and from the prep school.
The Black Knights need to upgrade their kickoff returns. Scott Williams was Army's best return man last season but while usually reliable he lacks speed. This is an area that the staff may be able to upgrade from incoming plebes or the returning bevy of running backs. They need to improve the production here. Punt returner Josh Jackson catches the ball well but didn't get a lot of running room last year. He should handle punts again.
Captain Steve Erzinger seemed like he played almost every defensive snap since Rich Ellerson was hired. It will be interesting to see who replaces him. Justin Trimble, who played pretty well last year at middle linebacker before being injured, is the leading candidate. Kyler Martin, who did a solid job filling in at strong safety in for Hayden Pierce after he was injured, is another possibility. There are a number of options here with the team having a glut of strong safety types on the roster. It will be interesting to see who emerges to win the job.
As always ArmySports.com doesn't include any depth chart analysis or projections on the current prep players or direct recruits until R-day. Spring practice offers players a platform to demonstrate their talents. We will keep our readers updated with weekly posts.