Army is only a handful of years removed from their forgettable losing campaigns — they went 3-9 three straight years from 2006-08 — but heading into the fall, third-year head coach Rich Ellerson has reason to smile.
“The good news, is people aren’t as excited about playing us as they used to be,” Ellerson told ESPN.com earlier this month. “We’re one of those programs now.”
Ellerson has a lot of pride with a corps squad that has grown tremendously in the two years he’s been on the sidelines at West Point, especially coming off a bowl game win over a tough passing game in Dallas last December.
“We expect to win, we expect to be successful,” he said, an echo of the statements he made when taking the job three years ago, when he inherited a team that had three wins and a plebe from Kentucky competing at quarterback.
“That’s the culture the last two graduating classes have articulated and made part of their legacy.”
“The guys expected to [beat Navy], and the guys were clearly capable of being successful, but Navy played better. We really feel like we’re stepping out there and it’s going to be contended. We’re not going to roll those guys, but I don’t think they’re feeling like they’re going to roll us, either.”
Seeing many of those seniors graduate in two weeks is a day I’m looking forward too, although both as a fan and photographer, I will miss seeing many of these guys on the field each Saturday. I think Army fans have reason to be optimistic again this autumn, though, as the program grows and Ellerson has his opportunity to shape it.
“We understand the arrow’s up and nobody has higher expectations for these guys than these guys,” he said. “We know we’re going to be green, but we know we’re going to be athletic. We may go through some growing pains. As we get to the season, we’ll expect to win.”
Athletic being the keyword — at West Point, there’s only a handful of players on the roster that weigh in over 260. Northwestern, Army’s third opponent in 2011, boasts eight 300-pounders, with a few more that are only a couple cheeseburgers short of joining that list. The size difference was noticeable against Notre Dame, and it’ll be Ellerson’s job to mold a team capable of competing with the bigger schools slated to play the Black Knights this fall.
The senior leadership at West Point (and who can possibly replace Steve Anderson, who I love, lists his occupation as a linebacker for “the government”) will include the likes of Steve Erzinger, Richard King, Chad Littlejohn, Antuan Aaron, and, if healthy, Andrew Rodriguez. Erzinger was voted the team’s captain during spring practice.
The running game is the engine of the offensive, with Trent Steelman in his third full season of running the option. Fullback Jared Hassin, who dazzled on a weekly basis in his first season (as a sophomore) will anchor a solid backfield that includes Malcolm Brown, Brian Cobbs, Raymond Maples and the bruising Jon Crucitti. With Pat Mealy graduating, I’d expect to see a wide-spread attack.
Wide receivers Dayvd Brooks and Austin Barr will return, both seniors, with Brooks coming off a spectacularly clutch last-second catch that sealed up the Armed Forces Bowl.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the culture that’s now in place and the prospects for our future,” Ellerson said. “I’d like to win every week. That may not be in the offing, but that’s the expectation.”
Here’s how the 2011 schedule looks:
Sat, Sep 03 at Northern Illinois at DeKalb, Ill. (Huskie Stadium) TBA
Sat, Sep 10 SAN DIEGO STATE West Point, N.Y. (Michie Stadium) 12 p.m.
Sat, Sep 17 NORTHWESTERN West Point, N.Y. (Michie Stadium) 3:30 p.m.
Sat, Sep 24 at Ball State at Muncie, Ind. (Scheumann Stadium) TBA
Sat, Oct 01 TULANE West Point, N.Y. (Michie Stadium) 12 p.m.
Sat, Oct 08 at Miami (Ohio) at Oxford, Ohio (Yager Stadium) TBA
Sat, Oct 22 at Vanderbilt at Nashville, Tenn. (Vanderbilt Stadium) TBA
Sat, Oct 29 FORDHAM West Point, N.Y. (Michie Stadium) 3:30 p.m.
Sat, Nov 05 at Air Force at USAFA, Colo. (Falcon Stadium) 3:30 p.m. ET
Sat, Nov 12 vs. Rutgers at Bronx, N.Y. (Yankee Stadium) 3:30 p.m.
Sat, Nov 19 at Temple at Philadelphia, Pa. (Lincoln Financial Field) TBA
Sat, Dec 10 vs. Navy (112th Meeting) at Washington, D.C. (FedEx Field) 2:30 p.m.
Asked whether he’d prefer having tougher games bunched at the beginning (San Diego State went 9-4 and beat Navy last year; Northwestern recovered from a dreadful start to finish 7-6) or more spread out, Ellerson didn’t side-step.
“I would rather not do that, but these schedules were done years ago,” he said. “I looked at this one when I first got here and we were trying to move some things and couldn’t do it.”
Certainly the end of the season will be four tough tasks — Air Force, Rutgers, Temple and Navy were all losses in 2010.
“The schedules I get asked about are for 2018,” Ellerson said. “I’ll be eating soup up in section 40 by then.”
Of note: Great to see Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand smiling. “I will walk again,” he told ESPN. “I believe that.” … Ellerson participated last week in the New York Yankees/New Era Pinstripe Bowl Charity Golf Tournament alongside Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and former Yankees skipper (and my current boss), Joe Torre… former Army fullback Collin Mooney met with the Packers last month… another former cadet, Caleb Campbell, will have a documentary coming out about his journey from Michie Stadium to the Army to the Detroit Lions, some great preview images in there from Rob O’Sullivan… Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen will be the graduation speaker at West Point’s commencement on May 21, and as a key player in the bin Laden take-down, I’m guessing the Corps will be fairly excited to greet him.