By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Army Black Knights made some noticeable strides under first-year coach Rich Ellerson. On offense, Army ranked among the
national leaders in the running game, while the defense boasted the nation's
No. 3 pass defense. The Black Knights picked up early wins at Eastern Michigan
(27-14) and at home against Ball State (24-17) to get out to a 2-1 start.
After a narrow 17-16 loss to Tulane on October 3rd, they rebounded with an
overtime victory over Vanderbilt the very next week.
A three-game skid brought the Knights back down to Earth, although they
managed to win their final two games leading into the annual Army-Navy clash.
Needing a win over the Midshipmen to become bowl eligible, the Black Knights
instead fell for the eighth straight time in the series, 17-3.
OFFENSE: Trent Steelman became the first freshman quarterback in Army history
to start every game in a season. His five wins as a freshman also rank atop
school annals. Although he won't rank among the national passing leaders,
Steelman can really hurt defenses with his legs. He led the team in both
rushing yards (706) and touchdowns (five) a year ago, as he became the first
quarterback to lead the Black Knights in rushing since 1997.
Thanks to Steelman, Ellerson was able to effectively deploy his beloved
triple-option, as Army ranked 16th in the nation with an average of 203.6
rushing yards per game. Also returning is slotback Patrick Mealy, who rushed
for 673 yards (6.1 ypc) and three scores on the ground.
The team graduated its top two receivers from '09, leaving behind just two
pass catchers who combined for five receptions a year ago. Four senior
starters return to form what should be a cohesive and effective offensive
DEFENSE: Eight starters return to a defense that ranked 16th nationally in
total defense (304.7 ypg) in the first year in Ellerson's Double-Eagle Flex
system. It is that wealth of experience that has Ellerson excited for the
possibilities in 2010.
"Everybody will be that much more comfortable with the fundamental basic
things that are associated with the defense," he said. "We are much more
comfortable on where to put our eyes and feet. The reactions are coming much
Josh McNary is a disruptive force at defensive end, having set an Academy
record with 12.5 sacks in 2009, which ranked fourth nationally. Senior middle
linebacker Stephen Anderson is back at full strength after suffering a season-
ending knee injury against Air Force last November. He led the team in tackles
in 2008 and nearly did so again despite missing the final two games. The man
who did end up leading the way in tackles, Andrew Rodriguez, is back at his
'whip' linebacker spot.
In the secondary, three starters return to a pass defense that ranked third in
the nation (152.8 ypg) a year ago. Senior free safety Donovan Travis racked up
71 tackles and a team-high four interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Army ranked 104th in the nation in kick return average last
year. Ellerson knows he needs more production there, so he gave the job to one
of his top offensive performers, Mealy. Josh Jones averaged just 5.8 yards per
return as the punt returner, and he will handle that role again unless another
player emerges during camp.
Alex Carlton tied a single-season Army record for field goals made last year,
knocking 18-of-24 attempts through the uprights. But he had a shaky spring and
thus opened the competition with Matt Campbell, who handled kickoff duties.
There will be no such competition at punter, where Jonathan Bulls returns
after averaging 39.2 yards per punt and landing 25 kicks inside the opponent's
OUTLOOK: Ellerson's first season was spent trying to instill a new culture at
West Point, as well as new schemes on both sides of the ball. The result was a
two-win improvement from the previous season, and he is expecting bigger
things in 2010 now that the foundation has been set.
"We made significant strides last season," Ellerson said, "but those were the
first steps towards returning this program to the level at which we'd like it
to be. There is still much work to be done."
The defense figures to be the strength of the team, while the offense should
improve with Steelman entering his second season as the starter. If the Black
Knights can improve one more win, they'd become bowl eligible for the first
time in 14 years. If nothing else, this year's Army-Navy game should be more
competitive than in recent seasons. The schedule provides some additional
intrigue. Army will renew its rivalry with Notre Dame, as the two will face
off for the 50th time in history. The Black Knights will also take on Rutgers
at New Meadowlands Stadium, the brand new home of the NFL's New York Jets and