February 21, 2012

Inside the Huddle: Spring Practice & Backfield Competition

For the first time since this staff has been in place, the coaches will tell you that offensively, there are no locks relative to the backfield assignments. The proverbial feeling is that sentiment runs from three year starting quarterback Trent Steelman to 1,000 yard rusher (2011) Raymond Maples to 1,000 yard rusher (2010) Jared Hassin to Larry Dixon ... all who have performed well in the past.

There is so much talent now, that if you do not consistently perform on a regular basis and secure the ball, along with playing within your role and responsibilities ... someone else can take your job.

As such, you have to start somewhere and as the Black Knights registered their forth spring practice, but their first in full pad inside the climate controlled Foley Athletic Center.

Let's first take a look at how things are unfolding starting at fullback.

Larry Dixon is the starter," shares fullback & special teams coach, Joe Ross as he discussed the rising freshman's football persona. "I love his attitude, I love the way he comes to work everyday. He's the first one there and the last one to leave, he's energetic, enthusiastic, he competes to win in everything he does from like I said, being the first one there, to first one in the drills, trying to win every face to leading in the conditioning. I love his attitude, his desire and leading by example."

Ross was quick to point out that a name that is somewhat familiar to Army fans has stepped up his game and serves as Dixon backup. "Hayden Tippett is #2 right now and he's following Larry's lead," Ross adds. "He's getting faster, bigger and more explosive just within the first 4-5 weeks of our workouts."

"He (Tippett) understands the offense a lot better than last year. He's a powerful - explosive guy. Probably the most powerful and explosive guy we have on our team, in my opinion. He doesn't know his own strength and when he hits you ...." pauses Ross, who leaves the blanks to filled in my the reader's imagination. I've been waiting for him to burst on the scene since his plebe year."

Prop Ross' perspective, the maturation of Dixon and Tippett has allowed the staff to look at utilizing Jared Hassin in a different role, but more on him in a moment.

"Those two are in the same grade if you will," Ross declares. "Larry's a prep school product and Hayden came in direct, although one is going into their junior year and the other into their sophomore year. But they have been in the system the same amount of time, so their maturation is equal, their understanding of plays is equal although Larry might be slightly ahead from starting at the prep school and from all the reps he got as a starter last year."

Of course when a players receives those type of reps, as Dixon did in 2011, the speed of the game is faster, the guys you are playing against are more athletic which really helps and develops yourself when you can get as many of those reps as you can.

So, with that said, where does that leave Hassin? "From my point of view he is still or it's best to say for spring purposes we are practicing him at running back to learn that part of the offense," says the fullback coach w=h know that it will take time to learn the plays, understand intricacies and the blocking assignments. We believe what we will see and what is the staff is hoping for is that once Hassin has that understanding, it will be easier to transition.

The question becomes, can the senior to be, offer effectiveness as a slotback? "Yes he can be effective at that position," shared Ross on Hassin's potential in this new role. "He's fast, he's explosive and he's a great athlete and he can catch the ball. He has all those attributes to make himself a good threat on the perimeter and he's tough & big enough to be a threat inside."

Of course, if the staff had a need to have him at fullback, he could be put back into that role. Hassin knows the fullback position, where he has played it now for two years. Bottom-line is that the staff will be able to rotate him a lot easier.

For this staff, it is clear to see that no matter the tenure, the idea is to get the best players on the field and Hassin's potential versatility could offer such flexibility for the coaching staff.

Albeit spring ball, Hassin is currently running behind sophomore to be Terrence Baggett.

This is not something new under the sun for Hassin, who got a taste of lugging the rock from the slot position last year as the team prepared for the Navy game, as well as the first offensive series of that contest.

Such a transition also is an indicator that the staff is comfortable with Dixon and Tippett at fullback, which then adds more depth at the running back position.


One of the growing concerns with Hassin in 2011, was his inability to hold onto the ball. This effected Hassin more than any other back last year and no matter how much of the slot position his is able to absorb or the value that he offers at fullback, if you aren't able to hold onto the ball, you aren't going to play. And with the depth from quarterback, fullback and the slots, that rule is applicable to everyone.

Head Coach Rich Ellerson has made a big deal about his to the squad coming into spring ball. That everyone would get their chance, but if you continue to fail in securing the ball you won't be in the lineup.

At the other running back position and on paper, you have Trenton Turrentine, who coming back from his 2011 season ending injury, backing up Raymond Maples.

Backfield Diversity

But the truth be known, this is a new day for the Army program. The talent is there, not much separation from top to bottom, whereby you could see Maples & Turrentine start, or Baggett & Turrentine start or Maples & Hassin start. Then you must add Mr. Clutch/Dependable, senior Malcolm Brown to the mix, along with Stephan Fraser.

Others to keep an eye on: With Turrentine, Brown and Jon Crucitti nursing injuries, look for rising sophomores Lawrence Scott and Tony Giovannelli to try and take advantage of the available reps in practice. Both have quality speed, where they have on their track resume, an impressive 10.8 100M time. Both are 'true' freshman last year .... direct admits.

Not to be forgotten is Marcus Poling arriving from the prep school and junior Scotty Williams, who offers a periodic change of pace to the offense.

What makes this group of performers even more competitive and deep is that unlike in the past 3 years, there were unique expectations from running from the 'A' & 'C' slot positions.

That was then and this is now, where each running back could now be called upon to play on either side of the fullback, where they all are now interchangeable and seeing a Malcolm Brown run inside is be as common a trend as seeing him carry the ball on his patenent sweeps.

If there's anything that New York base fans can tell you, is that like New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has demonstrated, it just takes that one opportunity to take advantage of the door being open and to showcase one's skills ... then rest could be in the history books.

For the Black Knights, depth is so obvious, along with the diversity of talent from big & fast backs, to physical runners and explosive guys. Which obviously provides the staff with a variety of options and to transition players into the game without losing anything and keeping players fresh.


Of course you start with incumbent and 3-year starter, Trent Steelman. But you also have sophomores Angel Santiago, Gino DeBartolo and incoming freshmen AJ Schurr and Kelvin White coming from the prep school. Make know doubt it, the competition is there.

The average Army fan may say that there are locks, but if you look at Ellerson's body of work over the years, even last year ... he is not hesitant to play the 'other' guy.

When it's all said and done, it will be how each player compete and ceases the opportunity when given to them.

But when the dust settles, one could almost bet that the three locks for this backfield will be Steelman, Dixon and Maples, but it won't come without responding to the bar being raised relative to the competition that is now in the Army football program's pipeline.

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