WEST POINT – Over the years nothing has distinguished Morgan State more than its brass-kicking band. But as Army head football coach Rich Ellerson prepares his team for its season opener Friday night against the Bears at Michie Stadium, his opponent’s tuba section did not make his to-do list. Doesn’t seem like there’s much more room on that list, anyway.
“There are 10,000 things that you’re trying to cover,” Ellerson said. “We feel like we’ve been practicing for this game forever and here it is, it’s going to be on us on Friday. I still feel like there are so many things that need to be reversed and polished before we’re ready to go out and play. Of course the players don’t necessarily feel that, they’re just excited to keep score. We’re obviously wearing ourselves out on all the things that might happen in a game. You know you’re playing a talented opponent, but you’re not exactly sure where they’re all going to be. What you do know is they’re going to be excited to play, they’re going to be talented and they’re going to be coming out of their shoes and we need to be doing exactly the same.”
Army has seven games this season against teams it played a year ago. In contrast, the Black Knights have never played Morgan State. Good news that Morgan State hasn’t seen Army. Bad news that Army hasn’t seen Morgan State. Right?
“I guess in the early season, I’d rather be in the situation that we’re in,” Ellerson said, “I would rather have that mystery because it forces you to do what you really should be doing in the early season, and that is focusing on your own football team and its strengths and weaknesses. Focusing on doing things that the guys are familiar and comfortable with and ensuring that you have the right people on the field, where you’re less focused on trying to scheme. Usually you’re trying to get the perfect offense or the perfect defense plays for an opponent that you know especially well, and I think that sometimes that you drive your guys a little bit crazy. The guys just really want to play. We’ve gotten ourselves to a point where we know what to do with our eyes and our feet and were anxious to get started. You know going in that they are going to do some things that you haven’t prepared for. Just like you know there are some things that they do that they haven’t prepared for.”
Morgan State finished last season with six straight losses, leaving the Bears with a 3-8 record and a 10th-place finish out of 11 teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Two quarterbacks who split time last season – Robert Council and Seth Higgins – are both back. Council played in all 11 games, passing for 1,115 yards, five touchdowns and was second on the team in rushing. Higgins started seven games as a freshman and five more last season, during which time he completed just under 40 percent of his passes, and failed to throw a touchdown.
Their favorite target, wide receiver Andrew King, led the team with 25 catches for 334 yards. Redshirt freshman running back Lamont Brown is expected to make his career debut. Brown will try to replace the production of last season’s leading rusher, Travis Davidson. Davidson ran for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns during his final season.
The Bears’ pro-sized offensive line may represent a challenge for Army’s smaller, although quicker, front seven. Morgan State’s projected starting offensive linemen average 328 pounds per man. Center Clarence Swain is the biggest of the group at 360 pounds.
“We’re going to be challenged right out of the gate because Morgan State’s quarterbacks’ prowess as both throwers and runners is going to be evident in the first outing and that shows up routinely throughout the season,” Ellerson said. “We’re going to find out that when people use that quarterback legs, they thin you out a little bit and they create space. We are watching last year’s football team and trying to marry that vision with some of the coaches that they have acquired in the off-season and what they’ve done in the past and where the two overlap. We’ve sort of made that our focus. Obviously we look at their personnel and I can tell you that their quarterback personnel is experienced and talented. Both Higgins and Council complement one another. There is a little bit different style of play in both of them, but they are veteran players and they have very talented wide receivers. They have a relatively young offensive line with the exception of their center. Defensively again, they have new leaders and offensively you always have to prepare a little generically and see what you get.”
And as for Army, Ellerson said, “We’ve worked really hard to keep athletic guys on the field. We run well on defense and we’re reasonably healthy. I wish we were perfectly healthy going into the season but we’re not quite. Like I said, we have had a very competitive and combative preseason but we’re gaining on it. The good news is we don’t have guys injured but we don’t have guys who are 100 percent going into this game week. We are better than I thought we would be a week ago, so we will start fixing the equation as we go forward.”
Ellerson did express gratitude the Black Knights are opening at Michie for the first time since 2008, having lost their last two season openers.
“Opening at home, you’re in your locker room, and you’re in your stadium,” he said. “There are some things that are going to absolutely unique about this first game. This is the first time that the Army football team of 2013 has ever stepped on the field and having some things that aren’t new to the guys is an advantage. They will stay focused on themselves and focused on the next snap and they won’t have to deal with those couple of distractions that they wouldn’t have to deal with if they were on the road.”
And as for opening on a Friday night instead of a Saturday afternoon, Ellerson answered with a shrug.
“It comes right before Saturday and we’ll be okay,” he said.