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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The subject is Army football, but allow us to veer slightly off the gridiron side of that topic for the moment as we suggest a quick refresher for those who might not be completely aware of what the West Point experience is all about.

Too often in our travels, especially in Las Vegas, we run into sports-minded sorts who speak of Army football and its players as if West Point is just another school like one in Conference USA or the Sun Belt, and the gridiron Black Knights just another football program like so many in the WAC or Mountain West.

While there indeed have been some of the trappings (including scandal) of big-time college football in Army’s gridiron past, the West Point experience is something altogether different.

For a better perspective on life at the Point, we suggest readers seek a book called Same Knight, Different Channel, penned several years ago by one of Bob Knight’s former Army hoopsters, Jack Isenhour.

While Knight, as could be expected, is the central focus of the book, Isenhour provides chilling descriptions of life at West Point, especially the “Beast Barracks” experience for plebes upon arrival at the Academy that remains part of the Point’s culture to this day.

Isenhour’s detail of his experience was meticulous, including accounts of discussions such as the following. “The plebes come to West Point all puffed up,” one grad told historian Stephen E. Ambrose. “For in their own towns they generally were the best athletes and smartest students and, in addition, had just won the coveted appointment to the Academy. The cockiness had to be suppressed.”

Consider that none other than Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps the most-honored West Point graduate of them all, even wondered about the sanity of Beast Barracks. “If any time had been provided to sit down and think for a moment,” said the future Allied Commander in Europe and 34th President of the United States, “most of the 285 of us would have taken the next train out.”

If Beast Barracks was a "beast" for Dwight Eisenhower, imagine the toll it takes on the ordinary cadet?

Isenhour also noted that a few days into Beast Barracks during his plebe summer, Brigadier General Richard G. Stilwell appeared before an assemblage of new cadets and asked about a third of them to stand. “That’s how many of you will be gone by June 1966,” boasted Stilwell. June, 1966, of course, was the far-off graduation date for Isenhour’s entry class.

The hazing, so legend goes, helped West Point turn out efficient killers who would not be panicked by the chaos of war. Isenhour noted that during an early version of what was to become Beast Barracks, in the years after the Civil War, upperclassmen forced plebes to perform “exhausting physical exercises” sometimes resulting in “permanent physical damage”; they devised creative plebe menus featuring entrees like rope ends and soap; they even resorted to torture, dropping hot grease on the feet of their charges. All of this accompanied by the singsong recitations for which the Academy would become famous.

For the tormentors, the rasion d’etre for hazing was humiliation. For them the intent was “harassment, ridicule, or punishment,” not to mention payback for what they had gone through earlier. Any less would cheapen the West Point experience. Generations of grads have argued that is through hazing where cadets become familiar with panic and learn to control it, a handy skill in combat.

Hardly part of the football culture, we’d guess, at places such as Florida State or Miami.

Over the years, the Academy has been able to eliminate many of the over-the-top hazing practices like those mentioned above. Such as when cadets could no longer torture plebes by forcing them to drink Tabasco after, as Isenhour noted, the “unfortunately named” Oscar L. Booz died of “tuberculosis of the larynx.”

And then, according to Isenhour, were the “scary guys” of West Point. Officers like the aforementioned Brigadier General Stilwell, or, in the early sixties, a Colonel Robert M. Tarbox, a man, according to Isenhour, “whose mere photo can still be used to fumigate closets.” Tarbox, it was said, “would glare at you like he was unhappy to be sharing the same planet, like he’d ‘out’ you in a second, vaporize you with those laser-beam eyes if it weren’t for all those God-damned rules.”

After enduring that sort of physical and mental torture, Isenhour and his basketball teammates would even look forward to a couple of hours being coached by Bob Knight. And so the experience has gone at West Point for decade after decade.

Within this draconian maelstrom of service academy regimen, athletics has attempted to co-exist for more than a century. Football and basketball coaches have forever tried, and sometimes succeeded, as best they could to protect their prized recruits from the worst aspects of the Beast Barracks experience.

Even so, there have always been, and will always be, the “scary guys” to deal with at the academies.

So, before trashing the next Army football player who fumbles the ball or misses a tackle, consider what the poor chap is being forced to endure at West Point while recruits at places like Florida, LSU, and Southern Cal get the rock-star treatment.

However noble the ideals of the academy, West Point has nonetheless occasionally succumbed to the trappings of big-time football. The “cribbing” scandal in 1951, though a bit pale in comparison to trangressions elsewhere, suspended almost the entire team, including the son of legendary coach Earl “Red” Blaik (left). But this was the same Red Blaik who had also cut numerous corners to get big-time football talent to the Point in the war years, when Army was a national power.

“National power” and "Army football" have also not often been often mentioned in tandem since the 1940s, either, when Blaik’s West Point was a powerhouse and featured Heisman winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis (right, with Blaik) in back-to-back years (1945-46). After fading in the post-war years and rocked by the 1951 scandal, Army returned to some degree of prominence (along with Navy, it should be added) with the temporary return of one-platoon football in the ‘50s. Blaik’s last team in 1958 finished the season with an 8-0-1 mark, ranked third in the final polls, and featured Heisman Trophy-winning RB Pete Dawkins.

Army has not finished in the final top ten since and has only received votes in the final poll one time (1996) since 1967, when the Black Knights (then popularly referred to as the Cadets) were among the other teams receiving votes outside of the top ten for HC Tom Cahill, who had an assistant named Bill Parcells on staff and who fashioned a couple of 8-2 teams in ‘66 and ‘67 behind heady QB Steve Lindell. But academy football was on a downward trajectory as the Vietnam conflict continued, and by the early ‘70s Cahill was left with a shell of a program, his West Point coaching career ending in humiliation with an 0-10 mark in 1973, capped by a 51-0 embarrassment heaped upon by none other than hated Navy. The quarterback for the last Cahill edition was the aptly-named Kingsley Fink III. The 1973 disaster was perhaps the low point in Army football history.

West Point football has made brief rallies since, with its best stretch in the mid-to-late ‘80s after respected ex-Arizona and Purdue HC Jim Young (left) arrived at the Point in 1983 and immediately installed the same sort of option offense that Ken Hatfield had earlier put to good use at Air Force. Army's wishbone suddenly became an awkward test for opponents and Young steered the Black Knights to a trio of bowl games through the end of the decade. Young’s best team, in 1985, climbed as high as 19th in the rankings that October and finished the season with a 31-29 Peach Bowl win over Illinois, making Young two-for-two in bowls vs. the Big Ten after beating George Perles’ Michigan State in the short-lived Pontiac Cherry Bowl the previous year, 10-6.

After a 2-9 record in his first season, Young’s teams compiled a highly-impressive 49-31-1 mark over his last seven campaigns (1984-90) before he retired and was replaced by d.c. Bob Sutton, who maintained the option attack and eventually fashioned the best season at the Point in nearly a half-century in 1996, starting the season 9-0 and crashing into the national rankings (peaking at No. 22) behind clever QB Ronnie McAda. The Black Knights qualified for the Independence Bowl, where a late rally fell just short against Auburn in a heroic 32-29 defeat, and finished the season 10-2, appearing in the final polls (at 25th) for the first time since ‘67.

After Sutton’s dismissal, the program endured another barren period under HCs Todd Berry (who unwisely ditched the option), the well-respected Bobby Ross, and ex-NFL lineman Stan Brock (who brought back the option, to little avail) until the 2009 arrival of Rich Ellerson (right), the one-time architect of Dick Tomey’s “Desert Swarm” defenses at Arizona and a successful coach on the lower level at Cal Poly SLO before taking the West Point assignment.

Ellerson, an option devotee, has appeared a good fit at the Point and even took his second team in 2010 to the postseason, where the Black Knights defeated host SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl, 16- 14. With more expected last season, however, Army flopped to 3-9.

There were plenty of excuses, many of them legitimate and injury-related, for the 2011 nosedive. It’s worth noting, however, that Ellerson’s option attacks worked at Cal Poly because they had a viable aerial diversion to go along with an infantry component. So far, Ellerson has not been able to develop even a hint of balance in his Army attacks, especially a year ago when the Black Knights finished last nationally in passing (no surprise there), but a mile behind everyone else, with just 605 pass yards the entire 2011 season.

Still, Ellerson’s option can punish the opposition on the ground, ranking as the nation’s rushing leader last fall with a whopping 346 ypg. But can Army strike just a modicum of balance this fall as have fellow academy and option devotees Air Force and Navy in recent years?

That question seems to be posed every fall, and again the answer is elusive, especially if sr. QB Trent Steelman (left) can’t stay healthy. Which first became a concern last season as a variety of leg injuries tarnished his aura of durability, which continued into spring football (which wrapped up in early March, before any other program in the country), when Steelman sat out the final week after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Steelman missed parts or the entirety of five different games in 2011 after proving a dangerous dual-threat in a healthier 2010 when throwing for more than twice as many yards (995) as he did last fall (424).

Steelman’s ball-handling wizardy, however, makes him the perfect trigger-man for the Ellerson option, and Steelman can head upfield effectively when opportunities present themselves. He’s rushed for 1246 yards and a whopping 23 TDs over the past two seasons, so keeping him healthy in the fall is a top priority. Especially since he’s almost Drew Brees-like in comparison to soph backup Angel Santiago, a speedy and dangerous runner but scatter-armed to say the least (evidenced by only 7 completions in 21 pass attempts a year ago) when forced to put the ball in the air, with passes sailing like Frisbees as they spin out-of-control downfield.

Ellerson had trouble keeping all of his running backs healthy in spring, when the Black Knights did something different by playing their spring game at historic Doughboy Stadium in Fort Benning, Georgia. No fewer than 10 backs missed late February and March work due to injuries. Still, none of those maladies figures to linger into the fall, and Ellerson returns 4032 rush yards and 31 TDs from last year’s option, led by punishing 6'1, 218-lb. jr. slammer Raymond Maples (right), who had a breakout soph campaign (1066 YR).

Regional sources are also adamant that while this isn't the second coming of Davis and Blanchard, it might be the deepest corps of RBs in recent West Point annals, with Maples, HB Malcolm Brown (7.1 ypc) and power-packed 238-lb. FB Larry Dixon (6.2 ypc in ‘11) all having coast-to-coast potential. Dixon (left, in the snow vs. Fordham last fall) was good enough to unseat former 1000-yard rusher Jared Hassin, who could prove another big-time threat if beyond the back problems that slowed him a year ago.

Army’s receivers are blockers first, and the returning wideouts caught all of four passes last fall, but if Steelman (or Santiago) ever decide to go upstairs, wideouts Patrick Laird and E.J. Tucker at least have the speed to chase down the long balls. Three starters are back along another small but quick and disciplined OL that paved the way for the option to gobble the yards a year ago.

Ellerson, however, is hoping that his attack curbs the turnovers that helped wreck things in 2011. The Black Knights cannot survive another 22 lost fumbles that contributed heavily to a -9 TO margin, a poor 108th-ranked in the country.

Considering that Ellerson’s defense started six freshman last season and lost top DE Jarrett Mackey (right, vs. Rutgers in 2010) to an early knee injury, the stop unit wasn’t as bad as many expected it to be. Still, Army gave up seven TD passes of 36 yards or longer and was a bit ginger vs. the run, with foes banging for nearly 200 rush ypg (ranked 100th nationally) and almost 5 ypc.

Eight starters return, but Ellerson likely misses those few who moved on, including 2011's top tackler, rover Steve Erzinger, and jam-up LB Andrew Rodriguez. Rugged NT A.J. Mackey, who started all 12 games last season, left the program (scary guys, perhaps?) in spring.

Ellerson knows, however, that the Black Knight "D" isn’t going to overpower anyone. Indeed, it might be the smallest in the FBS ranks, with no projected starter weighing in at as much as 250 lbs. (DT Richard Glover the “heavyweight” at 247).

A.J. Mackey’s abrupt departure leaves the DL a bit thinned, but the return of his brother Jarrett from injury and the move of former DT Holt Zalneraitis to his more-natural DE position should at least provide Ellerson’s defense some pressure from the edge.

After the departures of Erzinger and Rodriguez, the new spiritual leader of the platoon is likely to be sr. LB Nate Combs (shown taking back a fumble for a score vs. Fordham in the snow last season), who will look to pick up where he left off in last December’s Navy game when making nine tackles and two sacks. Ellerson also made some subtle lineup switches in his back seven, moving safeties Thomas Holloway (to LB) and Tyler Dickson (to CB) to new positions.

The 2012 schedule is manageable, with nothing remotely close to a ranked team on the slate which includes seven games (much better than the mere four last year) at historic and picturesque Michie Stadium. Ellerson, however, is well-advised to start showing some progress in Commander-in-Chief battles vs. hated Air Force and Navy, having lost all six vs. the Falcs and Mids the past three years. If you want to really make a West Point alum like Mike Krzyzewski or Gen. David Petraeus mad, remind them that Army hasn't beaten Navy since 2001. Should Ellerson get the Black Knights bowl-eligible, they have a spot waiting for them at D.C’s RFK Stadium in the Military Bowl.

Pointspread-wise, Army reversed some recent trends a year ago, covering all four of its Michie dates after dropping 8 of 10 vs. the number as host in Ellerson's first two seasons. But after covering all four as a visiting underdog in 2010, the Black Knights were 2-6 as a dog away from West Point last season.

Summary...We'll give Ellerson the benefit of the doubt a year ago, and assume that Steelman's injuries took the starch out of the offense. At some point soon, however, Ellerson is going to have to beat either Air Force or Navy (preferably both) if he wants to make his assignment at West Point an extended one. The defense, with eight starters back in the fold, should not regress any from a year ago. And with the ground game likely able to churn for gobs of yardage once again, just a mild aerial diversion from Steelman and a reduction in costly fumbles could make Army more "Navy-like" and a decent bet to get to the Military Bowl.

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