The optimism for an upcoming season is probably at its highest on days like Wednesday, Media Day for Army, where head coach Rich Ellerson and his top returning players spoke with reporters about what they hope will be a bounce-back 2012 season this fall. “We have expectations, and they’re high,” Ellerson told a group of reporters in the Randall Hall auditorium on a warm August morning. “We have an awful lot of guys who played more football maybe at this point in their careers than they should have. They bring that experience with them.”
Media Day, for those not in the loop, is the first formal step in a team’s new season. For Army, there isn’t a whole lot of media that comes to this event, so it’s usually a pretty relaxed get-together for the outlets covering the program and players re-connecting after a summer spent all over the map. For the players, media day is a chance for the more notable names to get interviewed and speak with local newspapers and TV stations; the rest of the team poses for head shots, films some green-screen video clips, takes a formal portrait out on the field at Michie and perhaps films some promotional clips for game day entertainment.
Among the group of players available to the media Wednesday: senior quarterback Trent Steelman, a four-year starter who is the glue of an offense that led the nation in rushing last season; running backs Raymond Maples, Malcolm Brown, Larry Dixon and Jared Hassin, who all figure to split a ton of carries this season in the option, and legacy captain Jarrett Mackey, who has gained an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA after missing almost all of 2011 when he hurt his leg in the season opener.
Ellerson kicked off the morning with a press conference and spoke about his expectations for a team that returns a majority of its players who started and/or saw action in 2011 — and that note may or may not fill Army fans with optimism considering this group finished 3-9 last season, albeit after being crushed with injuries.
“They are healthier and they are more mature,” Ellerson said of the returning players who were thrust into action last year as freshmen — in 2011, the Black Knights played more true freshmen than any other team in the nation (19).
“They’re more mature than they should normally be. We have an awful lot of sophomores that played too much as freshmen, quite frankly. Some of those guys paid a physical toll for that, but I’m encouraged about how they bounced back. They had a good spring. They’ll use that experience and take it with them which will put us further ahead than we might otherwise be.”
So, making lemonade, as they say.
A lot of the veterans on this team were apart of the 2010 squad that claimed a bowl game win over SMU. Can Army return to those heights and earn a spot in the Military Bowl this winter?
“We have high expectations, and yes, we do have some more guys in the loop that are more physically mature and healthier to start out,” Ellerson said. “We can’t assume anything, but we made some tremendous [strides] through last spring. We’ve doubled down on those gains this summer.”
“Expectations for us are higher, and they’re very high internally. We’ve got to go to work to take that opportunity and turn it into something.”
After Ellerson spoke, it was time for Steelman to take the wheel. Trent, Ellerson said, is the healthiest he’s been in four years, which is great news after he missed time in 2011 which ended his Academy-record streak of games started by a QB to begin his career at Army.
Steelman is the key to the option offense and, baring an injury, will break the Academy record this season for rushing yards by a quarterback (he needs 242). He can also break the USMA record for rushing touchdowns by a QB.
“Last year we set out to be the top rushing team in the nation, and we accomplished that,” the Bowling Green, Ky., native said. “Coming back this year, we not only have that talent, but we have that experience. Larry Dixon has a season under his belt and has a chance to be a very, very special player. Larry, Raymond Maples, Malcolm Brown and a number of other running backs are more than capable of busting that big play. It’s something to see because it’s something Army hasn’t had in a long time. It takes a lot of pressure off me. I can just get under center and play my role and be a distributor.”
This would be a good time to note that Army is sporting some really awesome new Nike Pro Combat uniforms this season — this one is basically the black/home version of the jersey worn by Army during the 2011 Army-Navy Game in Washington last December. Only a handful of teams in the nation dress regularly in the Pro Combat system, and I really like the way they’ve gone with this.
In 2010, Army updated its look and removed the classic three stripes on the sleeves from the 2009 uniform that was a retro touch to the glory days of the 1940′s. I personally loved the retro ones and didn’t care for those modernized jerseys as they kind of looked like vests with the solid sleeves. Now, the players will wear these cool Dri-Fit 3/4 t-shirts under the jersey that incorporates the program’s classic gold and white stripes. The shoulder patches have a reversed American flag (military members wear flags on their uniforms with the stars facing forward, and in the U.S. Army, flag patches are worn on the right sleeve, hence the reversed flag) and the Academy’s crest.
The jersey numbers are now a stenciled military style and the “A” logo gets front and center on a new all-black neck line, which I prefer over the old one.
Another thing I like about these is it moves the U.S. Army division/unit insignia patches back to the right chest of the uniform rather than on the right sleeve, which is where it went from 2010-11. I think it adds a great, unique splash of color to the uniforms, at least in photos. Later on in here, I’ll explain how I used this look to create Army’s workout apparel for this season.
“Trent comes out of the spring very healthy,” Ellerson said. “It’s probably the healthiest he’s ever been, frankly. It’s obviously a difficult job. He’s going to have the ball in his hands, and his legs are very important to our offense. What we need to do is make sure we can develop and get him to grow without putting him in a physical deficit in the practice environment. Things are going to happen in games. We just don’t need to do anything silly on the side to set ourselves back.”
Here’s a neat shot of a reporter taking video on a little wireless device during the Steelman presser:
Afterward, Trent sat in the hot seat and recorded some trivia questions that will be played during home games at Michie. These made for easy photos since a group of other players would camp out in the first few rows of seats in the auditorium and laugh it up as their teammate struggled to focus on reading the prepared trivia stuff:
Again, it was a pretty loose environment and writers/TV crews would just grab players for interviews. Here’s the Times Herald-Record’s Sal Interdonato talking with Steelman:
Eric Osteen takes over for Alex Carlton as the place kicker this season after serving primarily as the team’s kickoff specialist in 2011:
Maples (below) will start opposite Brown in the backfield this year, with Hassin probably seeing more snaps on third and fourth downs. Dixon takes over as the primary fullback.
Here’s Larry doing an interview:
Outside the auditorium, the players lined up in this long hallway to get their headshots taken. This hallway is next to the gym/workout room in Randall Hall and sits directly above Army’s sprawling football locker room, which is on a lower level. Rooms on the left are dedicated to each area of the team, with big projector screens, etc.
Josh Jackson gets in on an interview:
Here’s Frank Allen:
Mike Ugenyi sits down for some trivia:
Meanwhile, one of his teammates couldn’t resist recording the moment himself:
Here’s Jarrett Mackey, healthy and proudly wearing the “C” on his jersey bestowed to him by last year’s team.
Mackey is set to graduate in December 2013, not uncommon with Army — Steve Anderson, Mike Gann and Jason Johnson all took a similar route following season-ending injuries in recent seasons:
Here’s backup QB Angel Santiago doing a phone interview. Santiago played well last season when Steelman went down and Ellerson wanted to mix things up alongside senior QB Max Jenkins:
Over in the green screen room, Dixon poses for a video that will be shown during games at Michie:
Here, Ellerson sits down with New York Times reporter Joe Drape, who is coming out soon with a book about Army’s 2011 season called “Soldiers First.” The book features a few of my photos and should be out soon!
As I mentioned before, and maybe I’ll do a longer post on this later, I got to design the players’ Nike workout apparel this season. Here’s running back Jared Hassin showing off the primary grey Dri-Fit workout t-shirt. I designed it to flow with the Pro Combat stenciled look the team will be going with this year — it also includes a reversed flag patch on the sleeve, although it’s a subdued version, which is what soldiers in combat would wear. I had a lot of design ideas, and in the end, we had to keep the concept simple, clean, professional and within the program’s look. What do you think? I also designed a hoodie, shorts, a coach’s workout shirt and a travel jacket:
Army held its first practice a few hours after media day ended, although I wasn’t able to stick around for that — read a recap of the walk-through here. Expect some more posts and photos to follow as the season approaches! To end, a few photos of the smiling JJ: