October 2, 2009

Army Football: Top Ten Surprises

1. ALI!!!: The initial surprise occurred in the spring when 6-foot-10, 280 offensive tackle, Ali Villanueva was moved to wide receiver. The follow-up surprise with this story has been Villanueva's development. In his first game of season, the senior and co-captain surely looked uncertain in his new role, but his study progression has been evident over that past two games where his catches were absolutely clutch. In the Ball State game, his 2nd quarter 3rd & 20, on his back acrobatic catch was clutch. That reception was followed by a 24 touchdown catch that gave the Black Knights the 17-10 halftime lead and give the Black Knights much needed momentum. In the Iowa State game, he was also very impressive in catching the ball, and clutch as well. As Coach Ellerson predicted, he is becoming a redzone match-up nightmare for defenders.

2. Donovan Travis: The emergence of free safety Donovan Travis as a defensive playmaker, has given the Black Knights a defense performer with star like talent on each level. Josh McNary (defensive line), Stephen Anderson (linebackers) and Travis (defensive backs). Travis is currently 10th in the nation with 3 interceptions, one in which was returned for a game winning score against Ball State.

3. "The Black Swarm": With the installation of Ellerson's Desert Swarm' defense, the overall play of this group has been a pleasant surprise ... where one could argue that their success is ahead of schedule. Currently they are ranked 32nd in the nation in total defense. Although there will be more answers than perhaps questions as the team goes into the deeper and more competitive part of their schedule, thus far they have emerged as a solid unit. Or as the team has shared with GBK.com about their preference as their nickname, they have emerged as the "Black Swarm"

4. Recruiting: Although the jury is still out recruiting how effective Ellerson's first full recruiting season ... and of course there are always the question marks until you reach Signing Day. However, the caliber of talent that Ellerson and his staff are going after is very impressive. Although that have yet to pull in any 3 or 4 star recruits yet, there are several in the recruiting pipeline and many will be making their way to the West Point campus for official visits.

5. Gamebreaker????: Surprised, but yet some level of disappointment and that is the fact that there has not been a running back to emerge a pure game breaker. Or as Coach Ellerson stated in his recent press conference, "We're never going to feel like we've arrived, but there's no doubt that we don't have a lot of magic, if you will, with the guys touching the ball right now." With last week's move of leading rusher Patrick Mealy from slotback to B-Back, that typically leaves the slot role to Jameson Carter, Alfred McDaniel, Ian Smith, Lonnie Liggins and Malcolm Brown who should be getting his first career game reps this season as he returns from his injury. Of this group, Carter has been the most effective from a stats point of view, but again, that "magic" that you would want to see from this position has not been there. In fairness to Liggins & Brown, they are now getting their opportunity and there is no internship with this role. The bottom-line is that someone has to step up and out, and it has to start with the Homecoming game this weekend against Tulane. With Kingsley Ehie returning back to the B-Back spot, look for Mealy back at slot. To his credit, Mealy has been the most productive, but is not a genuine home-run hitter.

6. Trent Steelman: Coming out of the Spring, the money was on Chip Bowden running the offense and Max Jenkins backing him up. There were whispers on the Hudson that a freshman coming up from the prep school could make a run for the starting spot. But could that be true? A whole new system, and learning it in a short period of time while having just completed Cadet Basic Training only weeks earlier? It was true, and Steelman came out and led the Black Knights to an opening day victory at Eastern Michigan - the first time in the modern era that a freshman has led Army to an opening day victory. Though dinged up a bit, Steelman has shown progression and has led Army to a 2-2 record this season. Against Iowa State, he started to show that he can be more effective through the air as well. A lot of upside on this one.

7. Not-So-Special Teams: Though not expected to be the strongest part of the team, very few thought the team would struggle this much. Kickoff and punt returns are among the bottom 20% in the nation, placekicking is inconsistent at best, kickoffs are yielding too good of field position for the opposition, and punting is hit or miss. There is not one key area of the special teams play that is a bright spot right now - and the Black Knights could really use one.

8. The Youth Movement: It's not just Trent Steelman that has made a mark on the field from the freshman class. Defensive end Jarrett Mackey has seen significant playing time, as has cornerback Josh Jackson. Add to that, both Brian Cobbs and linebacker Kyler Martin are making their presence felt on special teams. On offense, slot back Liggins received his first game day action against Iowa State, and fellow slotback Malcolm Brown will dressing for the first time this season against Tulane. All of the aforementioned frosh at some point during this portion of the season have been on the two-deep.

Add 16 sophomores to that list, and you quickly see that the youth on the squad has been making a solid impact. With the way they are progressing; don't be surprised to see more of these guys getting great numbers of reps on Saturdays throughout this season. This weekend's game against Tulane will see defensive tackle A.J. Mackey step in on the 2 deep for the injured Broghan Carnes.

9. Don't Drop It: So it's not the best record in football, but Army is a +.5 in the turnover margin this season, ranked 44th in the country. To put that in perspective, Army was 117th in the country last season with a -2.33 margin. That's a difference of almost three turnovers a game. Couple that with the clock management that Army has been able to hold, and it becomes a bit more clear why they are not letting up huge points in each game. There is no doubt that the offense is struggling, but they are holding on to the ball much better.

10. No Second Half: One would think that a triple option based offense would wear down an opposing offense and open up the scoring in the second half. Not for this year's Army team. Army has outscored their opponents 50-34 in the first two quarters of each game this season, only to be outplayed 63-30 in quarters three and four. Even that up and Army's record might be a bit better than their current 2-2.

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