WEST POINT, N.Y. – Rich Ellerson's first season at Army was successful in several ways. The Cadets won five games and were more competitive than they had been in years.
The goal now for Ellerson will be building on the accomplishments of the first year.
Ellerson installed a triple-option attack similar to the one Jim Young used with great success at Army in the 1980s, and the Black Knights responded by going 5-7, a season-ending loss to Navy depriving them of their first bowl berth since 1996.
Ellerson expects more this season, and he's not alone.
"The offense in general has made leaps and bounds since last year," senior offensive tackle Jason Johnson said. "The cohesion level is much better than it was last year. It feels like everyone is on the same page and knows what they're doing. There is a lot more trust in the huddle."
It starts with quarterback Trent Steelman, who last season became just the second plebe to start at quarterback for the Black Knights against Navy and the first Army quarterback, regardless of class, to start 12 games in a season.
The Black Knights averaged just more than 200 yards rushing behind Steelman, who ran for a team-high 706 yards and five touchdowns and threw for 637 yards and three TDs with two interceptions.
One of the biggest questions of the offseason was how effective senior quarterback Chip Bowden would be after recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee.
So far in preseason camp, Bowden, the backup to Steelman for seven games in 2009, has not displayed any ill effects from the surgery.
Bowden has shared reps with the first string with junior Max Jenkins while Steelman nursed a minor knee injury.
Freshman wide receiver Anthony Stephens, a walk-on from Greenville, S.C., also has impressed the coaches and will be called on to help fill the void left by wideout Alejandro Villanueva, who at 6 feet 10 was the tallest player in Army football history.
Villanueva had 34 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns in 2009 after playing offensive tackle the previous year.
"Anthony has been a pleasant surprise," offensive coordinator Ian Shields said. "He just kind of showed up here. His dad went to school here. We knew about him, but he's been better than advertised."
Pat Mealy, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored three times last season, is the top returning running back. Freshman Raymond Maples, Malcolm Brown, Brian Cobbs and fullback Jared Hassin round out the group.
"It has a chance to be an explosive group," Ellerson said.
Kicker Alex Carlton is back after he tied a single-season academy record with 18 field goals in 2009. Though he missed twice against Navy in the season finale and twice more in the annual spring game.
"He got rid of the shanks and went right back to work," Ellerson said. "It looks like he's grown from last year."
The past eight seasons have ended with losses to Navy, which has won 11 of 13 to take a 54-49-7 advantage in the rivalry.