The first victory of 2012 came in a stunner versus Boston College, a 34-31 triumph thanks to a game-winning touchdown run by quarterback Trent Steelman with just 45 seconds remaining in regulation. Steelman carried Army that day with 141 yards and three rushing scores, although the team did have a total of three players who gained at least 100 yards as the group generated a hefty 516 yards on the ground overall. Unfortunately, the excitement of the BC victory was short-lived because there were setbacks against Kent State, Eastern Michigan and Ball State during the rest of October.
There was one more high point for the Knights from West Point, a 41-21 romp over Air Force in the first step towards winning the coveted Commander-in- Chief's Trophy. Army had a real chance at bringing the trophy back to New York for the first time since 1996, but the squad squandered a golden opportunity when it allowed Navy to score a late touchdown and claim a 17-13 decision in their annual showdown in early December.
Army continued to dominate opponents on the ground last season, racking up a staggering 369.8 ypg running the ball, the top mark among all of Football Bowl Subdivision programs. However, with the squad keeping the ball on the ground as much as it did, it should come as little surprise that Army was the weakest passing team in the country with only 66.4 ypg. Then again, all of that is by design and the Black Knights wouldn't have it any other way.
However, what the team does need to put more emphasis into is stopping opponents from running the ball with reckless abandon as well. Foes generated 232.3 ypg rushing a year ago and you'd think that the defense would be better prepared for that, given that they have to plan for it in practice against their own offense every week, but that's just not the case.
With little push at the line of scrimmage, the undersized Knights logged only 4.83 tackles for loss per outing (94th), and 1.25 sacks (106th).
OFFENSE: First and foremost, the Black Knights need to find a replacement for Steelman at the quarterback position. The new starter has to be someone who is accustomed to running the type of running attack Army generates, but also comfortable in dropping back from time to time to actually pass the ball.
A.J. Schurr figures to be part of the transition, particularly since he appeared in five games a year ago and actually led the squad with two passing touchdowns. Angel Santiago has been on the team a year longer than Schurr and is the only returning player to have started a game at quarterback for the squad, getting the call to battle Rutgers back in 2011.
"It's an ongoing fight," head coach Rich Ellerson says. "Both A.J. and Angel made some remarkable plays during the course of spring practice. Both of them improved with respect to the football and the ball security part of the precision game. We were a little concerned in the early parts of the spring, but we finished feeling good about both those guys."
Leading the charge for the triple option will be Raymond Maples and Larry Dixon. The former enters his final campaign at West Point already sixth on the school's all-time rushing list with 2,489 yards, after leading the way among running backs with 1,215 yards a season ago. Maples scored only two times on 223 carries in 2012, compared to 17 TDs for Steelman, so expect that number to grow moving forward.
Dixon accounted for 839 yards and six touchdowns as an integral part of an Army stable of ball carriers who set a program record with 4,438 yards on the ground in 12 games.
Giving the nearly non-existent passing attack some legitimacy, Chevaughn Lawrence comes back at wide receiver after catching 21 balls for 357 yards, but what he would really like is to get into the end zone this time around.
DEFENSE: Unfortunately, for a unit that had so many problems slowing down the competition a year ago, the defense for the Black Knights boasts just four returning starters. One of those would be Geoffery Bacon who led the team in total tackles in 2012 with 136 stops, 48 more than his closest teammate.
However, while Bacon is capable of cooking up big hits, he is making a position change for the 2013 campaign, moving from linebacker to free safety, but don't think for a moment that his instincts won't kick in from time to time and he won't be roaming in familiar territory.
The departure of Nate Combs at linebacker, and the move by Bacon, means someone else will have to fill the gaps and make up for the 12 tackles for loss and six sacks Combs produced to lead the squad, not to mention his three forced fumbles. The coaching staff hopes Alex Meier can handle the brighter spotlight after making 71 stops a year ago, but he is also coming back from a new injury that might make him a bit more cautious.
"The secondary is a concern, not because we don't have guys back, but because those guys weren't able to take reps this spring," Ellerson said.
That lack of practice time could require the players in the secondary to learn on the job, but assume that Bacon will be comfortable in his new role and Chris Carnegie, who is a returning starter at cornerback, will try their best to keep opponents from exploiting them.
Along the defensive line, there is just a single returning starter in Robert Kough. As good as Kough can be, he finished with 42 total stops and was second on the unit with 9.5 TFL, he cannot take on entire teams all by himself. There are some players who were part-time starters (Clayton Keller and Michael Ugenyi) a year ago and will be expected to be on the field even more moving forward.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Another area that needs to be revamped by the Black Knights is the kicking game. Gone are kicker Eric Osteen and punter Chris Boldt, the former hitting on 3-of-4 field goal attempts a season ago and the latter averaging 38.1 yards per punt.
While Osteen handled kickoffs exclusively for the Knights, he did leave room for Daniel Grochowski to take on more of the field goal kicking in 2012. Grochowski connected on 10-of-16 attempts, his longest coming from 46 yards out, but he also had two kicks blocked.
Second on the depth chart behind Boldt at punter, Alex Tardieu figures to be the logical option this year, even though he didn't see any game action in 2012.
The job of punt returner is still unfilled, but after averaging just 4.8 yards per return a season ago, ranking them 101st in the nation, the Knights can put almost anyone back there and it will be an improvement.
OUTLOOK: Installing a new quarterback is never easy for a team and it will be that much harder for a program like Army that runs an unusual offense (compared to the rest of the FBS). The transition will be tough enough, but not as tough as playing eight straight weeks out of the gate.
The Knights kick off against Morgan State at home and then move to Ball State the first week of September. The Academy will have its hands full with matchups versus Stanford, Wake Forest and high-powered Louisiana Tech. The team finishes out the string with meetings at Boston College and Temple, interrupted by a home matchup with Eastern Michigan.
However, after the battle with the Owls on Oct. 19, Army has four more opponents, but just as many open dates on a schedule that stretches into the middle of December, culminating with the celebrated battle against Navy. The other half of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy takes place at Air Force the first week of November, which means the Knights have to be ready for some potential weather issues in Colorado.
Overall, the Knights will be challenged to match or even exceed their win total from a year ago, but it can be done.