Army football coach Rich Ellerson makes trips around the country to the military bases where his players will be stationed for training during the summer.
Ellerson usually makes those trips to find out what his players will do during their summer training sessions, but an idea hit him when the coach traveled to Fort Benning last spring.
He always has been mindful of West Point’s relationship to the larger Army. One look at Doughboy Stadium confirmed his idea.
One year, an NCAA exception and a bunch of preparations later, Army will hold its annual Black and Gold Game at 2 p.m. today at Fort Benning, the first time in history the Black Knights have held their spring game away from West Point.
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“You know, you come from our football world, you step onto Fort Benning, and it’s the same values, same metaphors,” Ellerson said. “It just made too much sense.”
Fort Benning is expecting a crowd of somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 fans to show up, full of soldiers, family, friends and fans. As with many major Army posts, Fort Benning has a large contingent of former Army football players stationed here.
And rather than play its spring game at home, Army will bring a young roster full of freshmen on the road to simulate the closest the Black Knights can get to an actual game experience.
Provided that Ellerson’s superiors like what they see out of today’s spring scrimmage, Army could make playing at a military base an annual event.
“It’ll feel as much like a game as anything you can do in the spring, with the makeup of the crowd, traveling to the game,” Ellerson said. “My instincts say this is going to be a memorable moment.”
Hamstrung by its youth, the Black Knights finished 3-9 last season, only a year after Army went to its first bowl in 15 years and came away with a victory over Southern Methodist in the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl.
But seven freshmen started for the Black Knights last season, and the team’s won-loss record suffered.
Adjusting to life as a freshman at the U.S. Military Academy is much more difficult than merely moving on to campus at most Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
“A lot of the freshmen that played for us in the fall are still on that developmental track,” Ellerson said. “Their transition and their inculcation is obviously extraordinarily demanding physically, mentally and emotionally.”
The Black Knights do have plenty of experience coming back in the offensive backfield, although not all of that talent is going to be available for today’s spring game.
Senior quarterback Trent Steelman will not play after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee Monday.
But 1,000-yard rusher Raymond Maples, senior slotback Malcolm Brown and sophomore fullback Larry Dixon will be in uniform. The nucleus of the team’s rushing attack in Army’s triple-option should be ready to perform at Doughboy Stadium.
“We’re not going to try to dazzle anybody with the volume of plays and defenses,” Ellerson said. “Our guys know each other pretty well at this point.”
And the Black Knights have plenty of position battles at stake, including one at the bandit linebacker spot that involves Smiths Station product Colby Miller, who has endured injuries.
Miller now has a chance to earn a spot on a young roster looking for more playmakers on defense for next season.
“He’s kind of bounced around some,” Ellerson said. “He’s high on the toughness and the effort scale. Now, we have to see how his instincts are with the game, and that’s part of what this Friday’s about.”