Like many Army football fans right now, Rich Ellerson can't wait for the season to begin. That was obvious during Tuesday afternoon's press conference Randall Hall Auditorium at West Point.
The Black Knights open their 121st season Saturday at Eastern Michigan. With this being Ellerson's second season, everything seems to be improved from this time a year ago.
It's possible by now they even know now how to spell Ypsilanti. "We're anxious to play and see where we are,'' Ellerson began. "We're all excited and looking forward to see what kind of progress we've made. This is our fifth week (of camp) and it seems like it's been forever.''
Sort of like the last time the program had a winning record (13 years if you're counting).
But with eight starters back on defense, seven on offense and all the kickers still around, there is plenty of optimism to go around.
The team is coming off a good camp, "relatively healthy,'' Ellerson said, and the start of what many folks believe will be a .500 season or better is only a few days away.
So are the answers to some of the questions that remain. And while there aren't many, this team seems ready to prove it can do what needs to be done to be playing a 13th game. "Every school right now is excited,'' Ellerson said.
"There's reason for us to be optimistic. There's tangible reasons for us to be optimistic. But what we're saying to one another right now is that we are completely focused on our goals, and our first goal is to win the next game. There is a time for us to sit back and talk about how the season might unfold and talk about all those games down the road, but we're not going to do that.''
What they are going to do is try and confuse teams on defense with their double-eagle flex, do the same on offense with the triple option - this time with an experienced quarterback, a more flexible backfield and a trio of wide receivers Ellerson said have, "big play ability.''
The defense starts of course with rush end Josh McNary, who last year set a school record with 12.5 sacks. In the preseason he made more award-candidate lists then Denzel Washington. "If you're not talking about him we're not having a very good year,'' Ellerson said. "He's gonna be between the quarterback and all that green grass and he'll get a lot of opportunities. We don't handcuff him from a responsibility standpoint.''
Linebacker Stephen Anderson leads a linebacking corps despite missing the final three games last year with a knee injury. Andrew Rodriguez, who led the team in tackles last season from his Bandit linebacking spot, remains out indefinitely with a back injury.
The secondary is also loaded with experience.
"It's palpable,'' Ellerson said of the defense. "They're very efficient in key positions and there are a lot of guys who have played a lot of football. How we manage things, how we adjust, is unique to our opponents.''
New & Improved
Last year's team at times seemed to help their opponents, and this summer watching tapes, Ellerson said, "they snicker at themselves on how they played early last year, how amateurish they (looked).''
That includes offensive players.
One change should be that sophomore Trent Steelman won't have to carry the ball so often this year with an improved backfield and a more dangerous passing game. While the team averaged 203 yards on the ground and 72 yards in the air, the gap could close this season.
"Frankly, the ball was in Trent's hands more than it should have been a year ago,'' Coach said. "We'd like to spread the ball around a little bit.''
With slotback Patrick Mealy back - he rushed for 673 yards a year ago - and Air Force transfer Jared Hassin going at B-back, Army has a nice package back there. "I can't wait to see him,'' Ellerson said of the newcomer, who hasn't played in two years. "We expect him to be a good player, and he has a chance to be great.''
With plebe Raymond Maples in the mix, this could present a poor man's Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside and that includes sophomore starter Malcolm Brown at the slot opposite Mealy.
How good is the freshman? "We'll find out,'' Ellerson said. "Compared with guys in the system, (he's) not as intuitive and not as natural. But it looks like he has a little magic when he touches the ball. Hopefully in the course of his career and hopefully in the course of this year, that magic, if you will, will come to the fore.''
While Ellerson noted that there will be some new wrinkles on both sides of the ball, he added that the team is essentially the same as far as scheme.
Experience & Youth
The biggest difference is familiarity. "Everyone's more comfortable because they've done this before, they've been around the block,'' he said. "Their reactions are more in sync and they're more trusting. (Steelman) is much more comfortable. Some of the things he focused on and thought about he can do in his sleep.
"A number of guys feel much the same way. They're playing faster. They're reacting quicker. The front part of their brains will be tuned in to situations and opportunities, so, we know we're ahead of where we were.''
Ahead of last year's 5-7 season.
Although the team should be improved, don't make the assumption that a major reason why is depth. "I think when you have a team with this much experience on both sides of the ball and key additions, you necessarily are not going to be very deep. So the more guys we have the more fragile we become. Even if a guy in the wings is athletically gifted, there's nothing like understanding what you're doing and what you're supposed to be doing and be comfortable with it.''
I like my team. I love my team … They get it. They know who they are, they know who they represent, and they appreciate what they take on and the men around them.
- Head Coach, Rich Ellerson
Along with Maples, plebes who could see some early action include d-back Jonathan Crucitti, d-end Quentin Kantaris, Tyler Dickson and Justin Trimble to name a few.
But make no mistake. This is a team that will go as far as its vets take them. If there are any concerns how that will play out, Ellerson will begin to know by Saturday afternoon. "I'm not sure,'' he said when asked about his concerns. "That's why I'm so anxious to play. We have a veteran team and we need to look like that coming out of the gate. We need to start fast.
"I like my team. I love my team,'' he said. "They get it. They know who they are, they know who they represent, and they appreciate what they take on and the men around them. We honestly perceive the West Point experience is an advantage for us. We have our secret weapon, calluses of the West Point experience. It separates you from your opponent.
"As a team we've embraced that principal, and the guys have put their own voice on it. It's not my idea,'' Ellerson said. "It's their idea. It's not my football team, it's their football team. They feel like they're wrestling the staff for ownership. They know what they want to look like, they know what they want that sound to be like, and they're working hard at it.''
They are ready. They are prepared. "As coaches, sometimes you start to 'what-if' yourself into a little bit of a frenzy. 'Have we done this? Have we done that?' At some point,'' Ellerson said, "we just have to let them play the game.''