2012 Spring Preview
- 2012 Independent Composite Schedule & Week Rankings
Independent Schedule Analysis
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After breaking through with a winning season and a bowl victory in 2010, 2011 couldn't have been a bigger disappointment. The players appeared to be in place and the coaching staff seemed to have everything set up for a big year, but instead it was back to mediocrity. The rushing offense worked as hoped for, leading the nation with over 346 yards per game, but little else did in the disappointing 3-9 season. Rich Ellerson is a strong head coach and his system has worked, but Army hasn't become the new Navy as hoped for so far. The defensive front has been banged on too much, the run D hasn't been effective, and the special teams were a major letdown last season. The bigger overall concern after last year was the schedule: it wasn't bad. The Knights lost winnable games against Ball State, Miami University, and a down Navy, and got blown away by Vanderbilt and Temple. Army isn't going to beat the top teams, but with its running game and its system, it needs to be able to take out all the teams its own size.
- The Knights were the first to get spring ball over and done with, ending things in early March. Ellerson always likes to finish early so the players can work and focus on school, and it also allows a little more time for everyone to heal up.
- Ellerson's offenses succeeded at Cal Poly, and elsewhere, because of a passing game, and there wasn't one last year. This spring didn't exactly instill confidence that the nation's worst air attack will start doing much more.
- Army can't lose the turnover margin. Part of the reason Navy has succeeded over the years with its attack is the stinginess when it comes to giving the ball away. Army lost 22 fumbles, and while the four picks don't seem bad, there were only five touchdown passes and 97 total attempts.
- The offensive backfield should be tremendous. QB Trent Steelman had a good spring session but sat out the final scrimmage – Army's version of a spring game – with a minor leg injury. The offense is his to run, but Angel Santiago is ready to step in if needed. Backs Raymond Maples and Malcolm Brown also return.
- Only two starters are gone from the defense, but end Andrew Rodriguez will be missed and Steven Erzinger was a tackling machine who needs to be replaced at Rover. Free safety Thomas Holloway should be in for a huge year and should hover around the 100-tackle mark.
The Cougars' biggest problem could be the carrot at the end of the stick. While leaving the Mountain West might have been the right move financially, it'll likely turn into a killer when it comes to motivations – there's not much to play for. With road games at Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech, finishing the season with fewer than two losses and getting to a BCS game might be a tough get, even if the rest of the schedule is a layup. BYU will go to its contractually bound spot in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl against a Mountain West team, so when all is said and done, BYU is basically playing a bunch of games only to end up back in its former league.
After going 10-3, though, the hope is to be better out of the gate, more consistent offensively, and even more physical on defense. This is a strong-looking Cougar team that could win three of the four nasty road trips while running the table at home, and the attitude throughout this offseason has to center around hitting the 11-win mark and being in one of the high-profile spotlight bowls while forgetting that this could've been a Mountain West title season had the program stayed put.
- With Jake Heaps transferring to Kansas, Riley Nelson, the savior of the 2011 season, is the starter. However, the backup situation is extremely thin. James Lark was the main backup last year, but he didn't show much, while good-looking prospect Jason Munns is trying to get past a foot injury. There's plenty of talent waiting in the wings, and the battle for the 2013 starting job will be fierce, but for now, everyone will sleep better once there's a rock-solid pecking order.
- Spring ball is truly about just getting a few practices in. BYU has suffered a slew of injuries and already has players like linebacker Kyle Van Noy out, but the coaching staff kept things rolling. All the banged up players – including starting linebacker Brandon Ogletree – are expected to be fine by late summer, but the injuries have mounted.
- Shhhhh. The defense is quietly going to be phenomenal. All the focus seemed to go on the offense last year and the quarterback situation, but the defense stepped up its play and carried the team while finishing 13th in the nation in yards allowed and 22nd in scoring D. Enough starters return to expect another strong season, and if the offseason practices have been any indication, the Cougars could be even better.
- However, the secondary has a few holes to filled with top cover-corner Corby Eason and free safety Travis Uale gone. Mike Hague was the top backup behind Uale last year and will get every shot, but he's a former fullback who might need a little time. Jordan Johnson and Joe Sampson got enough work in last year to be ready to go at corner.
- The one huge loss on offense is left tackle, where mainstay Matt Reynolds is done. Throw in the loss of guard Marco Thorson and center Terence Brown, and the Cougars might have to rely on Nelson's mobility early on.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo has made it crystal clear: playtime is over. Navy just wasn't tough enough last year, and that's going to change. That seems to be the prevailing theory this offseason after a disappointing 5-7 season – the program's first losing season since 2002. There were some major gaffes and blowouts, but the losses to South Carolina, Air Force, Rutgers, East Carolina, and San Jose State by a grand total of 11 points, with the 27-24 loss to the Spartans the one that killed hopes for a bowl game. This spring, the goal is to go back to being Navy again and working on doing all the football things right. Run the offense, block and tackle better – the basics. That means this won't be an easy session with the pads on from the start and lots and lots of hitting. The quarterbacks are all fair game, and no punches will be pulled.
- Junior Trey Miller is a near-lock to take over for Kriss Proctor at quarterback, and he's going to see everything and the kitchen sink. Live reps, live reps, and more live reps. That's what the speedy Miller and the other quarterbacks will face as they'll have to be used to taking some big shots and they'll have to be under fire from the start. They're live, and they need the practice.
- Expect more passing. It's not going to be back to the days of Ricky Dobbs when there was more downfield passing than normal, but Miller has a decent arm and will throw more than Proctor did. Faster than Proctor, Miller should add more pop to the attack.
- The Midshipmen can ill-afford to lose defensive linemen, and now they'll have to scramble after some key departures. End Jabaree Tuani and nose guard Jared Marks need to be replaced. Joshua Jones was expected to step in to Tuani's starting spot, but he left the team leaving a hole to be filled by the much lighter Collin Sturdivant. Hurting the depth on the end is the loss of Jamel Dobbs, who missed the Army game to end last season and isn't with the team any more.
- The problems at defensive end are the last thing the defense needs after being so lousy last year at getting into the backfield. Navy came up with a mere 12 sacks and just 50 tackles for loss. That's nothing new, the Midshipmen have had a pass rush in years, but it would be nice to have some sort of a pass rushing threat.
- Part of the reason for the live reps this spring is the O line; it needs work. Three starters are gone including center Brady DeMell and the entire right side, and that coupled with the new parts in the backfield means it's going to take every practice to get the timing down.
Cincinnati's Ben Mauk finished 2007 as the nation's 11th most efficient quarterback. Tony Pike had a huge 2008 and a phenomenal 2009 for the Bearcats. So why can't Brian Kelly seem to able to settle his quarterback situation? Mauk and Pike were decent talents, but Kelly's system and coaching helped make those two into stars, and that doesn't seem to be working so far in South Bend with too many mistakes and too many turnovers at the worst possible times. Irish quarterbacks have thrown 33 interceptions over the last two seasons. Considering Kelly's Cincinnati passers were air-tight with the ball, the mistakes have to stop. The quarterback who can be the most consistent this offseason will probably get the first shot at the job.
There are issues on the offensive line, receiver, and defensive back, but not of them seem to be a concern with the quarterback situation on the front burner. With Dayne Crist long gone to Kansas, and with Tommy Rees so mistake-prone last season, the door is wide open for sophomores Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix to show what they can do, while star recruit Gunner Kiel might have too much talent to keep on the sidelines. It's going to take more than just the spring to decide who gets to run the attack, and Kelly can't miss. He's not on any sort of a hot seat, and he can survive one lousy year, but his tenure might hinge on which young passer he chooses to go with.
- The quarterback situation will be fine – all four options are good ones. The bigger problem could be replacing Michael Floyd as the go-to star receiver. The Irish have some nice complementary targets, but Theo Riddick is more of jack-of-all-trades playmaker and T.J. Jones is more of a good No. 2 than a dominant No. 1. Tight end Tyler Eifert will likely be the best midrange receiver, as long as he's not in much hot water after a recruiting issue and a tweet to a prospect, but he's not Floyd. No one on the Notre Dame roster is.
- Harrison Smith grew into a leader and a star for the defensive backfield, while Jamoris Slaughter was a nice part of the puzzle at the other safety spot. Even so, the Irish should be fine at safety with a little bit of time, but corner is another story with Robert Blanton and Gary Gray gone. Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson were the prime backups last year, but they need more time and they'll be pushed by Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown.
- At least on paper, Notre Dame has the toughest schedule in America and it might not even be close. The home opener against Purdue wouldn't be a problem if the team wasn't coming off a trip to Ireland to kick the season off against Navy. Considering BYU – who also has a brutal slate – should be terrific, it's not going out on a limb to suggest the Irish will play five likely ten-win teams – the Cougars, along with Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma – in a six week span. The other game in that mix is against Miami. Oh yeah, and there's still the date at USC handing over the team's head.
- The punting game needs work. A lot of work. The Irish finished 102nd in the nation averaging just 34.55 yards per boot, while the return game averaged a pathetic 3.69 yards per try. The spotlight will be on Ben Turk to get more blast on the balls, while there will be an open casting call for punt returners.
- The offensive line will undergo a shuffle to find the right pieces to fit on the right side and at center. Christian Lombard was the backup right tackle last year, but he'll likely see more time at guard, while Tate Nichols will spend the spring at right tackle. Mike Golic Jr. could play center or guard, while center Braxston Cave is coming back off a foot injury and won't return to the mix until this summer.