WEST POINT – And the winner is...
“Frankly, Angel was more productive and was better with the football,” Army head football coach Rich Ellerson said of Angel Santiago, who beat out A.J. Schurr for the starting quarterback position. “Both of those guys have a tremendous upside, both as throwers and runners. Coming out of spring we felt that A.J was a tad ahead but Angel, frankly, through the preseason camp has just made fewer mistakes. He has done a good job of taking care of the ball and making good decisions with the football. He has operated the football team well. They both have done good things, but the consistency is what has separated Angel.”
Santiago will have his chance to prove it when the Black Knights open their season Friday night against Morgan State at Michie Stadium. And although Ellerson boasts that each quarterback can both throw and run, it is Santiago whose strength is generating a run-oriented offense. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Santiago is stepping into the well-worn shoes of Trent Steelman, whose four years of record-setting play was based overwhelmingly not on his arm, but his legs. Army has led the nation in rushing the last two seasons, but during that time has a collective record of 5-19. Which means, in part, that as great as the running game has been, it’s still easier for the opponent when it knows what’s coming.
“I think the next step forward for us as a football team is to be able to complement the running game with some throwing,” Ellerson said. “We’re really excited about the development out of the receivers, both of our young quarterbacks who deliver the ball out there, and I think there’s where the next step is going to come. The running game is what it is. It will become more explosive, and it will become more dynamic when we can back off the secondary a little bit and make those guys pay for some of the extraordinary measures folks have gone to with their secondaries in run support. There are some opportunities in the passing game. We’re not sure of course what they’ll look like on Friday, but as games unfold and the season unfolds, we are going to be a good running football team and we are going to be a dynamic option football team that will create opportunities. The next step forward is in our ability to take advantage of those opportunities on the perimeter.”
Which could mean the team’s primary offensive weapon, running back Raymond Maples, may have a greater opportunity to not only find a hole, but keep running through it without the opposing secondary waiting just yards off the line ready to strike. Last season Maples rushed for 1215 yards – 33 less than Steelman. He enters his senior year sixth all time on Army’s rushing list. A similar statistical season would move him up to second all time. But, once again, it will largely depend on what production Santiago can generate.
“I think the difference was noticeable from our spring ball to fall ball. He is much more confident and consistent as a quarterback,” Ellerson said. “He eliminated that part of the game where he got lost or was unsure about where he was supposed to be or where the ball was supposed to go. Something clicked in the last few months where we’re having zero of those moments where you’re scratching your head. He’s very poised, very much in control, very comfortable with what we’re doing. I’ve always felt that Angel feels better when you turn the lights on and leave the coaches on the sideline. That was very evident of him when he played early on in his career. What I think has happened now is maybe he’s less bothered by the voices in the practice environment and he’s practicing like you’ll see him play on Friday.”
And if not Ellerson has not written off the possibility of Schurr re-entering the picture. Neither he nor Santiago have extensive Army experience. Santiago played five games as a freshman – once as a starter when Steelman sat out with an injury -- rushing for 162 yards and passing for 84. Last season, he appeared in only two games – against San Diego State and Wake Forest – compiling only 12 total-offense yards. Schurr, now a sophomore, played in four games a year ago, accumulating 47 yards.
‘Well, Angel has been with us a long time as well and has started some games and has played some football for us,” Ellerson said. “He and A.J. have competed fiercely for this first opportunity, and that competition will continue to go on. I don’t think we’ve seen the final chapter in that. Clearly both those guys know what we have to do offensively, and they are both players in their own right. They are not Trent, but they do extraordinarily well. They have a veteran football team around them, and it’s going to be exciting to see those guys try to move that outfit up and down the field.”