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December 16, 2011When it comes to meeting with the media, Army coach Rich Ellerson is more Les Miles than Nick Saban.
Saban, Alabama's coach, is quickly irritated by questions. He doesn't suffer fools. Miles, LSU's coach, enjoys the Q&A interaction and mixes in mirth. If he has to explain things, he takes the time to do so.
But Army's 27-21 loss to Navy last weekend stung so sharply, at times Ellerson was more Saban than Miles following the game. By midweek, though, Ellerson was back to work at his West Point office sounding more like his old self.
Meaning he was more Les Miles than Nick Saban.
"We went through a tough experience this year, but the arrow is definitely pointing up," Ellerson said. "Next year we'll be a little more physical, a little faster and a lot more experienced. We're going to use the pain and frustration from this season. We want to use it to take a giant step next year - not a small step.
"The equation is longer at the service academies to get that finished product, and I would argue our challenge at West Point is more complex than the other academies. But we think we've cracked the code and we have a balance in the equation that wasn't here. The balance to that equation is very fragile, but we're going to be fine. I'm not blinking. We have a lot coming through the door with the classes we've recruited. It's coming. I can see it."
That will be Ellerson's message in a final meeting with his players and assistant coaches despite Army's 10th straight loss to Navy, finishing with a 3-9 record and failing to add a second straight bowl trip to a 7-6 record in 2010.
The Cadets have been taking finals this week before Ellerson meets with his athletes and coaches. The players will hear his message and then hit the offseason conditioning program and the coaches the recruiting trail.
It will be the next step toward Army improving its overall size, strength, speed and quickness that has been lacking in the thin Classes of 2007 and 2008 that were juniors and seniors on the field in the 2011 season.
Nevertheless, Ellerson won't blame the 3-9 record on the junior and senior classes.
"That's not the story," Ellerson said. "We were physically immature from what we will be in the future. But having said that, we were still only a few plays from beating Navy. We didn't win the battle of turnovers and the kicking game. You have to win those to win football games. That was a problem all year for us. We could have won seven or eight games."
Against Navy, Army's defense started five freshmen or sophomores and 12 of the 24 players on the two-deep defensive chart were freshmen or sophomores. Only two defensive starters were seniors.
On offense, Army started three freshman and sophomores and 10 of the 24 players on the offensive two-deep were freshman or sophomores. Only four offensive starters were seniors.
But even with the youth on offense and junior quarterback Trent Steelman 's injuries limiting him to nine games and playing the Navy game less than 100 percent, Army's triple-option still led the nation in rushing with 346.5 yards a game.
Sophomore Raymond Maples rushed for 1,066 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Malcolm Brown (572 yards), freshman Larry Dixon (542) and junior Jared Hassin (450) all return. Steelman (645 yards), Maples and Hassin all had 100-yard rushing days. Dixon had 92- and 93-yard games.
Ellerson has confidence in Steelman directing the triple-option. He said Army's tendency to run the triple option inside more than Navy does outside had more to do with the defense than the Black Knights' talent.
"That's a misunderstanding," Ellerson said. "When you run the triple-option, your opponent decides if the ball gets pitched or not."
Ellerson says Army will be light on seniors again in 2012, but he won't accept that as a reason for failing. He says injuries, turnovers and a poor kicking game exposed Army's flaws.
"The focus will be on details," Ellerson said. "We have to play with more precision and confidence in those things that are unique to our offense. We're going to be more physically mature, but we need to grow that confidence."
The Black Knights open the 2012 season at San Diego State, which won 23-20 last fall at Michie Stadium when Army coughed up eight fumbles, losing three.
"We're still going to have more freshmen and sophomores on the team when we get on the plane for a our first game next year, but the good news is our senior class will have a bigger footprint," Ellerson said. "How we manage and develop that youth within the demands of West Point will be critical."