by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There’s still plenty of magic attached to West Point football. All it takes is a trip to the Hudson River Valley on a Saturday in the autumn to confirm as much. There is no more breathtaking venue in college sports than Michie Stadium, adjacent to Lusk Reservoir and looking down to the rest of the historic campus and the mighty Hudson, while providing a view across the tranquil valley to a far-away highway bridge on the Taconic State Parkway, several miles to the east. Michie provides quite a view of it all from the upper deck on the west sidelines, with the cadets in the stands providing all of the color you could ask for on a college football Saturday.

The days of Heisman winners and national contenders at West Point are a distant memory, although it was within our lifetime when Army was able to go out and steal away one of college football’s top coaches, as the Black Knights did in 1962 when heisting state-of-the-art HC Paul Dietzel, who had won a national title at LSU and off a 10-1 season with Bayou Bengals in 1961. An equivalent move today would probably involve luring Nick Saban to the Point from Alabama. But the 4-year Dietzel regime also marked the beginning of the end of an era at Army, as the introduction of two-platoon football, and growing unpopularity of the Vietnam war, made West Point an afterthought for aspiring big-time college football players.

The template for success at Army over the past half century was created by HC Jim Young, a former Arizona and Purdue mentor who arrived at the Point in 1983 and the following year installed the same sort of option offense that had worked for Kenny Hatfield at another service academy, Air Force. While not contending for national honors as they would routinely do in the long-ago Red Blaik years, the Black Knights of the Hudson nonetheless became a bowl-caliber program under Young and continued to effectively punch above their weight with the option under Young’s successor Bob Sutton. Army, however, lost its way early in the last decade when dismissing Sutton and hiring Todd Berry, the former Southern Illinois coach who immediately junked the option in favor of a higher-tech passing game that was not only ill-suited to his existing roster but a bad fit on the narrow recruiting trail in which the Black Knights must traverse. Losing 36 of 41 games caused the Academy to pull the plug on Berry in the middle of a disastrous 0-13 campaign in 2003 that marked the low-water mark of West Point football. Post-Berry, the Black Knights made a mild recovery under veteran mentor Bobby Ross and his protege’ Stan Brock before deciding to go back to the future and hiring option devotee’ Rich Ellerson, whose background included a role as a defensive assistant during the “Desert Swarm” days on Dick Tomey’s staff at Arizona, and a successful eight-year run as coach at Cal Poly, which employed the same sort of awkward triple-option looks as did Young and Sutton’s better West Point teams in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Early indicators are that Ellerson was the right choice, as in just his second season on the job, Army returned to the bowl lineup for the first time since Sutton’s ‘96 team lost to Auburn in the Independence Bowl. Ellerson even delivered a Black Knights' 16-14 win in the Armed Forces Bowl over host SMU, West Point’s first postseason win since 1985 (Peach, over Illinois). Moreover, Army has become a colorful member of the Nike family, with almost as many uniform designs and combos (including a very neat “fatigue” ensemble) as the Oregon Ducks. A deal with CBS College Sports to televise home games and annual games at the new Yankee Stadium (last year vs. Notre Dame, this year vs. Rutgers) have also contributed to enhance the Black Knight gridiron profile. And West Point still has enough cache’ in the Big Apple that its games are carried on big 77 WABC radio out of New York City.

Now that Army football is “cool” again, focus shifts to Ellerson’s ability to keep West Point relevant on the gridiron, not to mention ending a brutal 9-game losing streak to hated Navy and returning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to the Hudson River Valley for the first time since 1996. But with only a handful of soft spots on the 2011 slate, just one game in the last seven on the regular-season schedule at Michie, and significant reloading required along both the offensive and defensive lines, Ellerson has his hands full to get the Black Knights back into the bowl mix again.

While Ellerson’s unorthodox spread option (which utilizes two wideouts, rather than a one WR and one tight end) provides the best opportunity for Army to keep opponents off balance and the defense off the field, the severe limitations of the Black Knights’ version limits upside as well. Whereas fellow academy entries Air Force and, to a lesser extent, Navy have at least been able to introduce a sneaky downfield passing element into their similar offensive looks, Army’s option, while ranking 8th in national rushing stats in 2010 at 252 ypg, has also been completely land-locked for Ellerson, ranking last nationally through the air each of the last two seasons, and registering only 78 ypg a year ago. While never to be a staple of the Ellerson offense, the ability to at least offer something of an aerial diversion could at least come in handy for the Black Knights as it has for Air Force in recent years. Junior QB Trent Steelman, who missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery but expected to be in the pilot’s seat for the September 3 opener at Northern Illinois, has the nuances of the option down pat, but is uncomfortable at best with his passing. Wideouts Austin Barr and and Davyd Brooks both have size (6'4 and 6'3, respectively) and the ability to cause damage, gaining better than 15 yards per reception on their combined 29 catches a year ago. But can Steelman get the ball downfield to them a bit more consistently than a year ago?

The departure of four offensive linemen from last year’s starting lineup is not considered a significant negative, since reloading is standard operating procedure for most service academy football teams, and spring work indicated that Ellerson’s new-look forward wall had become cohesive in short order. The tank in the West Point arsenal likely remains punishing 235-lb. jr. FB Jared Hassin, who rushed for 1013 yards in 2010 and provides the necessary dive-option element that can open the flanks for Steelman and a variety of quick-hitting speed backs led by soph Raymond Maples, who gained nearly 6 ypc in limited work last fall. Senior PK Alex Carlton has connected on 75% of his FG tries the past two seasons and hit on 8 of 11 from 40-49 yards as well as his last 11 three-pointers a year ago, and is reliable enough to help the “O” salvage some points for drives that bog down in enemy territory.

Offensive efficiency, however, carries an extra burden at the Point, because the Black Knight defense remains undersized, and the longer it can stay off the field, the better for West Point’s chances. Army controlled the ball an average of 33:23 last season, ranking third nationally, but might have to post similar numbers this season as the defensive front not only remains undersized, but is inexperienced as well. Ellerson’s “Double-Eagle Flex” is a version of Arizona’s old Desert Swarm looks and effectively camouflages lack of size with schemes and an ability to swarm enemy ball carriers and receivers, but compensating for the lack of size in this year’s DL will be even more of a chore than it was 2010, given that only one of the Black Knights' four down linemen weighs over 230 pounds. It’s the smallest defense at the FBS level, by quite a margin.

Army was nonetheless decent vs. the rush in 2010, allowing only 4.2 ypc, but must replace run-stuffing DT Mike Gann, and 266-lb. heir apparent A.J. Mackey sat out spring drills due to injury. Ellerson and co-d.c.’s Payam Saadat and Chris Smeland spent spring implementing several position switches within the platoon, moving jr. Jarrett Mackey from to the Quick End spot to make room for soph Brian Zaineraitis at the hybrid “Bandit” role. The staff is also juggling LBs following the graduation of MLB Stephen Anderson, the team’s top tackler in 2010; sr. rover Steve Erzinger is now plugged into Anderson’s old spot in the middle. Experience on the corners with returning starters jr. Joshua Jackson and sr. Richard King affords plenty of coverage and blitz options, but the concern this fall is that the extreme lack of size on the stop unit will force Ellerson to become overburdened by tricks and disguised coverages to compensate for the absence of heft. Stay tuned.

Summary...We greatly respect Ellerson, who has re-established Army as a dreaded nuisance on the schedule of all of its opponents. And we suspect things will likely look much the same as a year ago for the Black Knights, whose option and ability to keep foes off balance will again make it difficult to summarily dismiss them. Chances for improvement upon last year’s 7-6 mark rest with QB Steelman at least establishing a bit more of an aerial diversion and Ellerson’s continuing ability to camouflage a lack of size on defense. Although David Petraeus, Mike Krzyzewski and other West Point alums won’t be completely satisfied until Navy is beaten and the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is returned to Michie Stadium, back-to-back bowl visits for the first time since 1984-85 are definitely a possibility, and a spot in San Francisco’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl awaits the Black Knights if they can get postseason-eligible again. Curiously, note Army’s subpar 2-8 spread mark at Michie the past two years under Ellerson, although the Black Knights have covered 7 of their last 9 away from home.

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