Team preview: Army
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
Given the fact that he will turn 69 just two days before this Christmas, everyone would have understood if Bobby Ross had stayed in his easy chair.
His legacy is set.
Ross has been a winner at nearly every one of his stops before resigning as the head coach of the Detroit Lions in November, 2000. Ross had built winning programs at The Citadel (1973-77), Maryland (1982-86) and Georgia Tech (1987-91) and took the San Diego Chargers to the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance in 1994 and the Lions to a pair of playoff appearances (1997, 1999).
Ross is a competitor who prefers a difficult challenge to time spent in the easy chair. And he has himself a whopper of a challenge, trying to turn around the fortunes of a once-proud Army program that had won a total of five games over the previous four years before his arrival.
Last year, Ross took inventory of what he had and also reinvigorated Army's ground attack that had been the NCAA Division I-A's worst (63.5 ypg) in 2003. Still, the Cadets won only two ballgames because they couldn't stop anyone. That's right, the nation's future defenders were pretty defenseless, finishing last in the country (117th) in total defense (490.9 yards) and 110th in scoring defense (35.3 points per game).
Ross has changed the defensive scheme from a 4-2-5 alignment last fall to a more conventional 4-3 in 2005. He has juggled his personnel a bit too, converting some safeties into linebackers in hopes of getting more speed on the field.
Ross also initiated a rigorous off-season conditioning program, the benefits of which were evident before spring practice began. That surprised even Ross.
"I really didn't anticipate the progress that we made," Ross said. "We had 44-of-47 [upperclass] players improve upon their bench. The same thing was true for every test that we took. Some people improved by as much as 70 pounds in the bench press. We made great progress there. Our speed is also better."
The other major change is that Army has left Conference USA and is an independent for the first time since 1997. Its 2005 schedule includes games with four teams that won bowl games a year ago in Boston College, Connecticut, Iowa State and rival Navy. The combined overall record from last year for the 11 teams scheduled is 73-54 (.575). "We certainly have our work cut out for us," Ross said. "I think this schedule is as tough as last year."
His hope is that his defense will be tougher too in 2005 and that his rebuilding Army program can continue taking baby steps forward by winning say, four games this season.
Senior Zac Dahman (6-0, 179) has started 23 of the last 36 games at Army and is already the school's all-time leader in pass completions, attempts and 200-yard passing games. Despite Dahman's obvious experience, Ross wasn't ready to proclaim him the No. 1 quarterback.
"Zac Dahman is the incumbent," Ross said. "But it will be competitive, and we'll make it competitive."
However, with four new starters on the offensive line, it's a safe bet Ross will at least open the season with Dahman, who passed for 1,767 yards and nine touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2004. He sits just 462 yards shy of the Black Knights' all-time passing yardage mark, but he's not the most mobile guy on the planet and can be hot one minute, cold as ice the next.
Dahman scrambled and threw better on the run in spring ball, where he did enough to remain at the top of the depth chart -- for now. In 2004, Dahman rarely ran when under pressure, absorbing a sack or throwing the ball away as often as he could.
But, Ross isn't conceding the No. 1 job to Dahman just yet, even though his three challengers at quarterback -- junior Chase Laws (6-1, 201), sophomore David Pevoto (6-3, 211) and junior Connor Crehan (5-11, 207) -- have never started a college game.
Laws, who is No. 2 on depth chart, is much more mobile than Dahman but isn't a consistent thrower yet. But Laws' mobility, particularly playing behind a young line, is a nice plus.
In the annual spring game, Laws led the Gold to a 21-12 win over the Black -- running for 29 yards on six carries and passing for 67 yards. Ross wants to run some option this season and Laws has the wheels and some experience in that offense (he ran it in high school). Laws figures to see lots of meaningful time in 2005.
"Chase Laws shows the ability to make plays," Ross said. The other two quarterbacks are long shots. Pevoto has a cannon arm and good foot speed, but needs tons of practice snaps later this summer to be game ready. Crehan, like Pevoto, has some skills but must show he can master the offense before Ross will call his number. Prevoto and Crehan enter summer drills as co-No. 3 quarterbacks on the depth chart.
After taking over a squad that averaged an NCAA Division I-A worst 63.5 yards rushing in 2003, Ross put an increased emphasis on running the football last fall. His new two-back approach worked as opposing defenses certainly had a hard time keeping up with his Jones -- Carlton Jones (5-9, 197), who blossomed into an elite back after two rather pedestrian seasons as a Black Knight.
Jones, a senior, will be back for another run at the academy single-season rushing record. Jones came close to the mark in 2004 as he rushed for 1,269 yards last season -- the second best total in school history and just 69 yards shy of Mike Mayweather's 1,338 in 1990. Jones set a single-season school mark for rushing touchdowns (17) as the Cadets improved their ground production by more than 100 yards in one calendar year to 175.9 yards per game. He's also a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield, having snared 68 balls in his career.
"Carlton Jones is an excellent football player," Ross said. "He is a tough individual who can gain the tough yards inside and he has the speed to get to the corner as well. Carlton fits our system extremely well. We are expecting another big season from him."
Jones might have to fight harder for yardage in 2005 with four new starters along the offensive line and with bruising fullback Tielor Robinson deciding to transfer to another school after realizing that a military career wasn't for him. Robinson will be missed. He put up 704 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns last season, including five scores in a 48-29 win over Cincinnati on Oct. 9.
Replacing Robinson as the Cadets' No. 1 fullback will rugged sophomore Mike Viti (5-10, 242). How tough is Viti? We're talking old-school tough. Viti was running 5K races by the time he was five and was a junior black belt in karate by eight. Viti, the son of a diesel engine mechanic, played football at perennial Pennsylvania football power Berwick, a program that is run by the all-time winningest high school coach in Pennsylvania (George Curry) and has captured six state titles.
Viti had Penn State, West Virginia and Maryland sniffing around until he tore the ACL in his left knee as a senior at Berwick. Thinking it was just a sprain, Viti played in four more games with a brace and then went 24-0 as a heavyweight wrestler before the knee gave out again for good and he had surgery.
Viti was injured again last October, hurting his right knee. But he soldiered on because he didn't want to miss the Army-Navy game. A postseason MRI revealed he had no cartilage left in his right knee -- leaving him with two choices (a career-threatening meniscus transplant or playing without meniscus). He'll play without meniscus, throwing his body into linebackers to open up holes for Jones and getting only the occasional carry himself.
Converted wide-out Scott Wesley (5-11, 202), a senior from Pine Bluff, Ark., made an impressive transition to tailback and will spell Jones on occasion. Wesley's determined running on kickoff returns last season convinced Ross to try a position switch in spring ball and it worked reasonably well.
Senior Seth Gulbsy (6-1, 209) is a part fullback, part tailback and will see time at both spots. Gulsby rushed for 120 yards on 31 carries last season and also caught two passes for 13 yards. With Robinson gone and Viti's knees a question, Ross envisions the versatile Gulsbsy being an important cog in Army's running attack in 2005.
Senior Jared Ulekowski (6-3, 244) had a strong year at tight end last season, but will rotate between tight end and fullback in 2005. Uleskowski has soft hands (his 25 receptions were fourth-best on the team last year) and is a crushing blocker.
One of the school's top five all-time pass catchers, Aaron Alexander, has graduated, but the receiving corps still has quality and numbers.
On the outside, senior Jacob Murphy (6-2, 206) and sophomore Jeremy Trimble (6-0, 212) are both proven weapons. Despite missing time with an injured shoulder, Murphy still caught 26 balls for 357 yards and two touchdowns. His size and experience make him the logical choice to take over Alexander's role as the Cadets' go-to receiver.
Trimble adds an extra dimension to Army's offense with his speed. He averaged a whopping 17.5 yards per catch last season, snaring 20 balls for 349 yards and two scores.
Serving as the primary backups at wide receiver will be junior Walter Hill (6-0, 190), sophomore Corey Anderson (5-8, 161) and a pair of juniors who are back after missing the 2004 season with injuries in Blaine Cooper (6-0, 204) and Bruce Brown (5-10, 179). His average yards per catch was good, there just simply weren't enough catches last year by Hill, who caught just five balls for 89 yards in 2004. He'll back up Murphy. Anderson is the size of a middle school kid, but he can run and will be inserted into three wide receiver sets on obvious passing downs.
While both Cooper and Brown were both chomped by the injury bug last year, they are completely different types of receivers: Cooper is a possession receiver, while Brown is a speed merchant.
Cooper missed all of last year with hamstring and back injuries, but is healthy again and will back up Trimble. While not blazing fast even before the injuries, Cooper has sure hands. Brown saw action in the first two games last year and caught four passes, including a 60-yard touchdown grab against Louisville, before his season ended becaue of a leg injury.
Whether he's lined up at tight end or as an H-back, senior Jared Ulekowski (6-3, 244) is one of Army's best weapons. Last fall, Ulekowski caught 25 passes for 272 yards with a touchdown as the team's fourth leading receiver. He can block, too -- he'll be used a bit as an H-back in the backfield, so backup tight end Tim Dunn (6-5, 243), a bruising blocker, can also get on the field.
Freshman Justin Larson (6-5, 238) is a young pup to watch at tight end. Ross expected Larson to be a factor last year, but his weight dropped to 208 pounds after the academy's "Beast Barracks." But, Larson has regained that weight and then some with time well spent in the weight room.
The biggest reason Ross will lose sleep between now and the season opener will be his completely made-over offensive line. The new-look front will be put to the test early as Army's week two opponent, Boston College, features one of the fiercest pass rushing ends in the college ranks in Mathias Kiwanuka.
How bad are things along Army's forward wall? Army returns just one starter from last year's unit that paved the way for the nation's 36th best ground game and allowed only 17 sacks.
That lone returnee is junior Pete Bier (6-4, 282), who had off-season foot surgery but has recovered. Best moved from right guard to center so he can make all the line calls and make sure everyone knows their assignments.
The line has a solid anchor in Bier, but lots of question marks too. Only one other lineman on the roster saw time last season, sophomore Jonathan Connon (6-5, 295) who played 10 snaps against Connecticut. Connon is penciled in as the team's starting right tackle.
Junior Miles Murray (6-2, 280) replaces Bier at right guard. He's fast and athletic, but he's an unproven commodity as are sophomore Matt Weisner (6-2, 270) and mammoth junior Nathan Collier (6-6, 294), the projected starters at left guard and left tackle, respectively.
Senior Regan Tatford (6-4, 285), who missed all but one game last season because of injury, is also in the mix at the guard spots. Tatford saw action in 12-of-13 games in 2003, mostly on special teams. Other options for Ross include smallish sophomore tackle Ray Zelenak (6-2, 255), converted senior defensive tackle Dan Evans (6-2, 281) at left guard, and freshmen Steven Westbrook (6-4, 250) at either guard or tackle. Juniors Zac Maodus (6-3, 269) and Greg Arrowsmith (6-1, 272) will back up Bier at center.
Hoping to instill some confidence in his kickers, Bobby Ross had current New Orleans Saints kicker John Carney come to West Point during spring ball to work with them. Carney, you might recall, kicked for Ross with the San Diego Chargers.
But, Carney's pointers don't figure to help this group all that much.
Austin Miller (6-2, 207), who will be a junior in 2005, started last season as the Cadets' No. 1 kicker and looked good early, making four of his first five field attempts. Miller eventually lost the starting job to junior Justin Koenig (5-10, 176), who wasn't exactly the second coming of Carney either. Koenig connected on only one of his three field goal tries.
Neither grabbed the job by the throat in the spring, so they'll continue battle with senior Joe Riley (5-10, 208) and junior Robert Stoegbauer (6-1, 194) in August. Stoegbauer had an extra point blocked in the annual spring game, which didn't help his cause.
Steady performers Will Sullivan (50 tackles in 2004) and Trey Landry (32 tackles) have both graduated, but the Cadets have some experienced players returning as they shift to a 4-3 scheme.
Senior defensive tackles Seth Lotts (6-3, 243) and Doug Meyer (6-5, 263) have both started at one time or another during their time at West Point. Lotts finished with 24 tackles, while Meyer had eight stops in eight games in 2004.
Yet another senior, Tommy Ryan (6-2, 275), is equipped to play either tackle or end. Ryan sat out all contact drills in spring ball because of off-season shoulder surgery. Ryan (12 tackles in 2004) will be ready to for the Sept. 3 opener.
Juniors Alex Clamon (6-4, 253), Wes Stewart (6-2, 287), Travis Prikryl (6-3, 272) and sophomore Tony Fusco (6-1, 295) will provide quality depth at tackle.
Junior Cameron Craig (6-3, 247) and promising sophomore Brandon Thompson (6-3, 244) will man the starting defensive end spots. A two-year starter, Craig led all Army defensive linemen with 51 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss. Craig is a potential disruptor from his right end spot, as his team-best four sacks and two forced fumbles last year show.
Thompson had nagging injuries last season and started just once. But, he's healthy again and the former all-state player should enable the Black Knights to put more pressure on the quarterback -- something they struggled to do last fall.
Ross likes to keep fresh troops in the game at all times, so sophomores John Wright (6-2, 248) and Evan Williams are expected to back up Craig, while junior Peter Harrington (6-4, 253) and sophomores Shane Zinszer (6-2, 257) and Bob Landeg (6-2, 246) are behind Thompson on the depth chart at left defensive end.
If need be, tackles Ryan and Clamon could slide over to end too.
All three starters are gone from last year, including hitting machine Greg Washington (team-best 149 tackles in 12004). Washington was dominant enough that he was invited to the East-West Shrine Game at season's end.
While rebuilding his linebacking corps this spring, Ross put a premium on speed. To fill that need, Ross has moved a number of former defensive backs into the linebacking corps, including senior Taylor Justice (5-11, 212) and sophomore Charlie Rockwood (6-2, 214). Both made the shift easily, with Rockwood the likely starter at strong-side linebacker and Justice in a battle with junior Barrett Scruggs (6-0, 209) for the No. 1 weak-side linebacker job.
Justice is just happy to be back on the field. In November 2003, Justice tore an ACL and shredded the meniscus on both sides of a knee during Army's 34-6 loss to Navy in Philadelphia. Justice refused to quit and after months and months of painful rehab, he's back on the field. He missed all of 2004.
Rockwood was one of the stars of spring drills, hitting anything that moved. He'll likely start at the Sam linebacker ahead of junior Luke Pell (6-0, 212), a backup strong safety last season. Scruggs has a nose for the ball too. He recorded 18 tackles and two quarterback sacks in limited action last season.
Junior Cason Shrode (6-2, 246) looks like the man at middle linebacker -- that is, if he can make the quantum leap from reserve player (21 tackles in 2004) to star this season. He played well enough in spring ball to hold off the challenges of senior special teams ace David Clamon (6-2, 227) and sophomore Marcus Millen (6-2, 228). Keep an eye on Millen, though, because he's tough and has good bloodlines. Millen's dad Matt was a long-time NFL player and is now president and CEO of the Detroit Lions.
Long-time starting corners Jonathan Lewis and Delente Brewer (62 combined career starts) have departed, a fact that forced Ross to do some juggling in his last line of defense. To ease that blow, Ross shifted starting free safety Dhyan Tarver (5-11, 186), a senior he has called the hardest hitter he has ever coached, to cornerback.
It was a gamble, because Tarver, who is on the preseason watch list for the Ronnie Lott Award, had 83 tackles last season (second-best on the team). The move worked out, as Tarver easily adjusted to his new home -- giving Ross a nice luxury, a sure tackler on the outside. He hopes the switch will cut down on the number of big plays the Black Knights allowed in 2004.
Fellow senior Ray Stith (5-9, 176) will start at the other corner spot. Stith registered 38 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups last fall in Ross' now-junked 4-2-5 scheme. Stith and Tarver should be helped by the move from the old scheme that featured a heavy dose of man-to-man coverage to the more conventional 4-3 defense that will feature lots of zone coverages.
Sophomore Caleb Campbell (6-2, 233) is an emerging star at strong safety. He started the final half-dozen games in 2004 and was fifth on the team in tackles (54) as a freshman. Campbell has a ton of natural ability and figures to be one of Army's leading tacklers in each of the next three years.
Junior Randy Chasten (6-2, 205) hits like a linebacker, but has fine coverage skills. Those traits will serve him well at the back of Army's defense, which surrendered 21 touchdown passes a year ago.
Junior Sean Grevious (5-10, 173) and Chris Grevious (5-10, 177), twin brothers, will serve as the backups to Stith and Tarver, respectively. Sean had 11 tackles and is the Cadets' only reserve corner with any significant experience. But both brothers have bulked up considerably during their time at West Point and should be reliable in nickel and dime packages.
Senior Rob Davis (5-11, 201), who split time between football and baseball in 2003 and 2004 but is now committed to football, will back up Chasten at free safety. Davis got noticeably stronger and faster during the winter. Sophomore Jordan Murray (6-0, 200) will serve as Campbell's understudy at free safety.
Neither sophomore Owen Tolson (6-2, 200) nor senior Tom Dyrenforth (5-10, 188) distinguished himself at punter during spring ball. Dyrenforth averaged 36.9 yards per punt last season. Tolson has a strong leg, but he didn't help his cause when he had a punt blocked for a touchdown in the annual Black-Gold spring game.
Senior Scott Wesley (5-11, 202) will remain the Cadets' primary kickoff return man after returning 54 kicks for 1,248 yards (23.1), including a 97-yard TD return against Tulane. Wesley so impressed Ross that he'll likely be the Cadets' primary punt return man in 2005, too. Something has to be done to inject some life into a unit that averaged just 4.9 yards on its 88 punt returns last year. One of the top two quarterbacks, either Chase Laws or Zac Dahman, will be the team's holder. Both have performed that task in past years.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
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