July 5, 2012

Countdown to Camp - Top 10 Returning Starters

GoBlackKnights.com's Countdown to Fall Camp includes a look at Army's Top 10 returning starters for the 2012 season.

Actually, as an example of Army's improved talent and depth, you could call it a Top 12 since a dozen players are mentioned in the 10 capsules below.

On offense, Army's triple-option features all four starters returning. The foursome combined for 26 touchdowns and led the nation's No. 1 rushing offense (346.5 yards a game). Quarterback Trent Steelman is a fourth-year starter and running back Raymond Maples is a 1,000-yard rusher. Up front, there are three returning starters in the offensive line.

A key to Army's success this year, though, will be defense. The Black Knights have improved their size in the trenches and are counting on the return to form of defensive end Jarrett Mackey. He is back after he was lost in the 2011 season opener for the year with a knee injury.

10. Senior OG Matthew Villanti (6-3, 278).

Starting experience: Villanti started the final six games in 2011 while gaining experience in all 12 as well as all 13 in 2010.

2012 Outlook: Villanti, playing right guard, is one of three returning starters in the gut of the offensive line along with center Ryan Powis and left guard Frank Allen. Villanti may be ready to reach his full potential and thus held onto his No. 1 status at right guard despite missing most of spring drills with an injury.

9. Sophomore C Ryan Powis (6-0, 257).

Starting experience: Powis enters his sophomore year after breaking into the starting lineup for last season's final eight games.

2012 Outlook: More strides are expected from Powis as a sophomore since this is only his third year of playing center. He'd never snapped a football until he was converted to center at the USMA Prep School in 2010. He said he began to feel comfortable at the position once he emerged as a starter. He expects more of himself this season, especially with the familiarity of lining up between two returning starters at the guard spots. Powis has tremendous upside and will be a mainstay on the offensive for the next three years.

8. Senior DE Jarrett Mackey (6-1, 240) and Senior DE Zach Watts (5-11, 203).

Starting experience: Mackey and Watts are combined here since they are listed as co-starters on the depth chart entering fall camp and Mackey is coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. Mackey missed spring drills while rehabbing his knee and Watts got most of the work. In last year's season opener, Mackey made his 14th straight start before suffering his season-ending injury. Watts ended up shifting over to replace Mackey and starting all 12 games.

2011 Stats: Mackey finished 2010 with 47 tackles, 6.5 TFL and 4.0 sacks. Watts had 26 tackles 2011, but he was tied for second in TFL with 6.5 and tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.0.

2012 Outlook: A case could be made for listing Mackey as the Black Knights' No. 2 returning starter, but he may need time to regain his 2010 form. After he missed spring drills he wasn't running full speed straight ahead until April and didn't add cutting drills until May. But he is expected to be at full strength by the start of fall camp. The coaching staff had high expectations for Mackey last year when they moved him to rush end in 2011 to replace Army career sack-leader Josh McNary. His respect among his teammates is such that he was named Army's Legacy Captain despite missing nearly all of last season. While sidelined, McNary made a point of being involved in team meetings and encouraging teammates in practice and games. Watts is undersized, but he's gritty. He takes a page from the movie script "Rudy" every game -- not just the season finale with the subs.

7. Senior CB Josh Jackson (6-0, 182).

Starting experience: Jackson has started 20 straight games and 22 overall for his career.

2011 Stats: His 40 tackles ranked sixth on the team and he had one interception. He also had 15 punt returns for 55 yards and returned his lone pick 36 yards.

2012 Outlook: As Army's top cover defender, he is the No. 1 field corner after playing both field and boundary corner the last two years. Jackson said he wants to use his experience to make more plays on the ball and interceptions. If the run defense is improved and forces more passing, he should have more opportunities. Opponents were able to stick to the ground last year and avoid third-and-long situations.

6. Senior RB Malcolm Brown (5-11, 181).

Starting experience: Brown has started 19 games the past three seasons.

2011 Stats: 81 carries for 572 yards with three TDs; seven receptions for 163 yards with two TDs.

2012 Outlook: Only injuries have prevented Brown from more playing time and production. Army's coaches are focused on keeping him healthy, but they are committed to keeping him at A-back rather than highlighting his receiving skills by shifting him to wide receiver. He is Mr. Clutch & Mr. Dependable, despite fighting the yearly injury bug.

5. Senior OG Frank Allen (6-4, 275).

Starting experience: Allen has 25 straight starts at left guard the past two years.

2012 Outlook: When a team leads the nation in rushing (346.5 yards a game), somebody has to be opening the holes up front. Allen returns with experience and 14 added pounds from last year's 261 playing weight.

4. Sophomore MLB Geoffery Bacon (6-0, 207)

Starting experience: Bacon emerged as a starter for five games as a freshman and played in all 12.

2011 Stats: He was third on the team in tackles with 60, including 2.5 TFL.

2012 Outlook: Bacon bounced back from torn knee ligaments at the end of his 2010 season at the USMA Prep School to finish his first West Point season as the starting middle linebacker. He was a safety in high school before his conversion to linebacker and feels he's ideally suited for the MLB role in Army's defensive scheme since he sometimes slips into a safety role. He expects improved play this year with the experience he gained.

3. Sophomore FB Larry Dixon (6-0, 238).

Starting experience: Dixon finished the season with five starts as a freshman and played in all 12 games.

2011 Stats: 87 carries, 542 yards, 5 rushing TDs; 1 reception, 25 yards.

2012 Outlook: Dixon is the offense's first option at fullback and he firmly established his role as a returning starter after bursting upon the scene last year with a per-carry average of 6.2 yards. He's added 18 pounds over his playing weight a year ago. His emergence led the coaches to shift Jared Hassin, a 1,000-yard rusher as a fullback in 2010, to running back.

2. Junior RB Raymond Maples (6-1, 218)

Starting experience: Maples has 11 career starts after starting nine of 10 games in 2011.

2011 Stats: 146 carries, 1,066 yards, four rushing TDs; one reception for 5 yards.

2012 Outlook: Maples set a West Point record of 7.3 yards per carry and seeks a second straight 1,000 yard season as a returning starter as the C-back running back. Maples also added 18 pounds from a year ago. Actually, Maples is one of two 1,000-yard rushers on the depth chart, which is another sign of improved talent and depth in the Black Knights' offensive backfield. Jared Hassin (6-3, 228) gained 1,013 yards as a fullback in 2010, but he has been moved to running back and is listed as Maples' backup. But he also will continue to see spot duty at fullback.

1. Senior QB Trent Steelman (6-0, 207).

Starting experience: Steelman returns as a fourth-year starter with 34 career starts despite missing three games as a junior with injuries. 

2011 Stats: 132 carries, 645 yards, 12 TDs rushing; 24 of 45 for 424 yards passing with three TDs and two interceptions.

2012 Outlook: Steelman's 12 rushing touchdowns led the team and he was second in rushing yards with 645, but he might have flirted with 1,000 (he gained 721 as a sophomore) if not for injuries that forced him to miss three games and limited him when he was on the field late in the year. Against Navy, he scored while dragging his leg behind him into the end zone. He's the first Army quarterback with career totals that top 2,000 yards rushing (2,072) and passing (2,077). As goes the senior quarterback, so goes the Black Knights' offense in 2012.

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