Posted by Adam Jacobi
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at the service academies -- Army, Navy, and the Air Force Academy -- who all began spring practice yesterday.
Spring Practice Question: Who's going to take the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 2011?
To say there has usually been a talent disparity among the triumverate of military academy football programs is, to say the least, an understatement. If the outcomes of football games were random events, then the odds of the three teams splitting their series at 1-1 apiece would be one in four. In practice, only four times since the inception of the trophy 39 years ago has that happened. Which program is superior changes, of course -- Air Force leads the series, but with only a plurality of trophy wins instead of a majority -- but rarely is it the case that all three teams are on equal footing coming into a season.
We may be at such a situation, though. 2010 marked the first instance in college football history that Army, Navy, and the Air Force all reached bowl games in the same season. Will the trio repeat the feat in 2011? It's quite possible.
Air Force comes into the 2011 (pardon the expression) flying high, and it's easy to see why: the Falcons beat took the C-i-C trophy for the first time in eight years last season, besting Navy 14-6 and walloping Army 42-22. Better yet, QB Tim Jefferson is back for his senior season after rushing for 15 touchdowns and throwing for 10 more. He's the linchpin of the offense and one of the best option quarterbacks in the nation.
The Air Force offense is hardly a one-man show, of course, and it's no surprise that four different players notched over 100 carries on the season in 2010. Tailback and human/waterbug hybrid Asher Clark is also back; Clark led the Falcons in rushing yardage and added five more rushing TDs.
Still, it'll be interesting to see how Air Force's ground game changes with the addition of Des Kitchings as running backs coach and running game coordinator. Kitchings was most recently at Vanderbilt for three seasons, and he was brought in to replace Jamel Singleton, the longtime Air Force assistant who recently joined the staff of incoming Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson this offseason. There probably won't be sweeping changes or anything -- this is still Troy Calhoun's team, after all -- but this is our first opportunity to see how Kitchings addresses the Falcons' ground game and what changes he might implement.
While the current Commander-in-Chief's Trophy holder is Air Force, this rivalry has belonged to Navy for the majority of the decade; the Midshipmen swept the three-pronged rivalry for the seven prior seasons, and even despite losing to the Falcons in 2010, Navy still went 9-4 and earned a bowl bid. This is still a very strong program, in other words.
Unfortunately for Navy, the impossible task of replacing Ricky Dobbs begins this week. Dobbs was arguably Navy's best quarterback since the days of Roger Staubach ('63), and though Dobbs didn't live up to his preseason Heisman hype as a senior, for crying out loud, the man had Heisman hype. Senior-to-be Kriss Proctor appears to be the best bet to replace Dobbs, but if Navy sees a solid spring from Trey Miller, there could be some drama at the QB position.
Where Navy really needs to excel this spring is on defense, however. The Midshipmen struggled at times in 2010, giving up 23 points and almost 400 yards per game, and now that defense needs to replace six starters. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recently restructured some of his defensive assistants' responsibilities; perhaps that will help the Middies' middling D.
As for Army, for once, the Black Knights are no slouch, having reached their first bowl in 13 years last season: a stirring (if sloppy) 16-14 upset of SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Cadets return starting quarterback Trent Steelman... sort of. Steelman will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery last month. It's on his non-throwing shoulder --the left -- so even if rehabilitation goes slowly, it shouldn't drastically affect his throwing motion.
That said, in 2010, Steelman ran the ball 197 times (which isn't even counting the option plays where he pitched the ball and absorbed contact) to 133 pass attempts, so it's not like he can hide a bum shoulder by hanging out in the pocket all afternoon. The Black Knights will look to depend on Steelman in the fall, so it will be extremely interesting to see how the offense handles not having its leader in the saddle during these spring sessions.
The Black Knights' new team captain is linebacker Steven Erzinger, replacing graduating linebacker Stephen Anderson (so many linebackers; so many Steves) who held the title for the last two seasons. Army technically ranked 29th in total defense in 2010, but a closer look at the yards given up per play actually puts Army down at 84th in the nation, so the defense wasn't so much "good" as "not on the field very much." Erzinger's first task, without doubt, is to get his guys into that "good" category if the Cadets want a shot at the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.