Army head coach Rich Ellerson gestures to a referee in December during the second half of a game against Navy in Philadelphia. Ellerson enters his fifth season at West Point with a huge void in his roster — no Trent Steelman. The record-setting quarterback graduated after a stellar career. (Matt Slocum / AP)
WEST POINT, N.Y. — When he took over at West Point four years ago, Rich Ellerson broke with tradition and went with a freshman as his quarterback to lead the Black Knights’ triple option.
All Trent Steelman did in those four years was rewrite the Army record books. He graduated as the only player in school history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and pass for more than 2,000, and among the records he leaves in his considerable wake is the school mark of 45 career rushing touchdowns. That’s two more than the record set in 1946 by Army’s Mr. Outside, the great Glenn Davis, a Heisman Trophy winner.
Last season, Steelman led an attack that rushed for a school-record 4,438 yards. It was just the second time the Black Knights had topped the 4,000-yard mark and the second year in a row (4,158 in 2011). Both marks led the nation.
Big shoes to fill, indeed.
Replacing the 6-foot, 207-pound Steelman as the starter for Friday night’s season opener against Morgan State at Michie Stadium is 5-foot-11, 188-pound junior Angel Santiago, who served as the primary backup to Steelman for two seasons. Santiago has appeared in six games in his Army career with one start when Steelman was hurt. He has rushed 53 times for 174 yards and a touchdown while completing seven of 24 passes for 84 yards.
Santiago and A.J. Schurr, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, have been competing for the starting job, and Ellerson expects both to play against the Bears.
“Clearly, both those guys know what we have to do offensively, and they are both players in their own right,” Ellerson said. “They are not Trent, but they do extraordinarily well.”
Even without the gritty Steelman, Army remains potent on the ground as six of the top eight rushers from last season’s squad that averaged 369.8 yards per game are back.
Leading the way is Raymond Maples, who gained 1,215 yards in 2012, averaging six yards per carry. If he has his third straight 1,000-yard season, Maples will challenge Steelman (3,320 yards) for third all-time at Army behind Mike Mayweather (4,299) and Carlton Jones (3,536). Maples and the bruising Larry Dixon combined for 2,182 yards last season — 1,773 rushing and 459 receiving.
So teams might have to think twice about stacking the box to challenge the run, Ellerson is aiming at keeping opponents honest by improving a passing attack that ranked 120th (66.42 yards per game) in 2012.
“We are going to be a good running football team and we are going to be a dynamic option football team that will create opportunities,” Ellerson said. “The next step forward is in our ability to take advantage of those opportunities on the perimeter.”
Though Army has done extraordinarily well running the ball and gobbling huge chunks of time off the game clock, that has not translated into victories. The team’s collective record the past two years is 5-19 as its defense has been torched time and again.
How bad has it been? Last year, Army rushed for 486 yards, registered 30 first downs, controlled the ball for more than 42 minutes, scored 40 points, and still lost by one point to Northern Illinois, which finished with 515 yards of total offense. The Huskies went to the Orange Bowl and Army went home after losing to Navy 17-13 in the season finale.
The Black Knights finished 2-10.
Clearly, Ellerson expects more from his defense, which finished near the bottom of the national rankings in rush defense (232 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (160.36), sacks (1.25) and turnovers gained (14).
“They are starting to mature, but it’s still a relatively young group,” Ellerson said. “It is certainly a little longer in the tooth than it’s been, so we’re going to see some veteran guys who have played a little more football for us. We’re going to be a little more athletic, and I think we’re going to have a few more weapons on the field defensively.”
The Bears, who play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, are coming off a 3-8 season and were picked to finish 10th in the preseason MEAC poll. They averaged 292.7 yards per game and gave up 402.9.
Quarterback Robert Council is the leading offensive returner. He completed 98 of 192 passes for 1,115 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing 80 times for 302 yards and three scores. Seth Higgins also returns at the position, giving the Bears some experience.
“We’re going into the season with two seasoned quarterbacks,” Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley said. “Those two young men have been doing a great job all camp during the scrimmages of just protecting that football and moving their offense through different transitions.”
Army and Morgan State are meeting for the first time. The Bears play at Division I’s second level and are used to facing at least one FBS team a year. The financial gain from playing up comes in handy.
“As I tell the guys, sometimes you have to go into very unusual circumstances to feed your family, and that’s what we’re doing,” Hill-Eley said. “We are going in, but we’re not going in limp or with any expectations other than winning.
“We’re preparing for them the same way we prepare for anybody else in our conference.”