Army’s summer program starts August 3rd. That puts us about a month out, and since I’ve already started seeing websites and Twitter pages talking about the coming season, now’s as good a time as any to put out some thoughts of my own. I may eventually do a game-by-game breakdown, but for the time being it strikes me that there are too many unknown to make any actual predictions. As one of my old squadron commanders used to say, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” The first thing to do, then, is to figure out what we don’t know. From there we can develop a set of questions that we hope camp can answer, and when we add that to the scuttlebutt from the teams on Army’s schedule (and maybe a little statistical analysis), we can maybe start making some predictions.
Let’s start with the Big One, and no I’m not talking about who’s going to play quarterback.
1. Can Army finally beat Navy?
I’m throwing this one out early because at this point it’s all that anyone cares about. Can we finally beat Navy and put the world’s premier military academy back on the pedestal it deserves in the collective consciousness of the Great American Public? This is West Point we’re talking about. The Long Grey Line may never fail us, but folks who don’t know any better tend to see the football team’s ongoing futility and get the wrong idea about the institution in general. After 14 years, it’s gotten damned infuriating.
We don’t yet know the answer, of course, but we do know that Navy has some advantages. Army lost a lot of firsties last year, and Navy’s quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, is a guy with superior athletic ability entering his senior season. Against that, Army played a close game last time against decidedly imbalanced odds. I thought the Navy side was soundly out-coached, save that they got one fortuitous time out when they really needed it. In the end, they had better athletes, though, and that was the difference.
Last time I checked, Navy was favored by 13 points. I mention it because that’s likely the best line you’re likely to get. If you think it’s going to be a close game—and it very well might be—it’s easy to take Army and the points.
Of course, that still doesn’t answer the basic question of who’s going to win.
|The season starts early and finishes late.|
2. Can Army get consistent quarterback play?
There are two issues here. First is the play of AJ Schurr. Can he stay healthy, and can he make better decisions in the option? If he can do those two things, then he’s the team’s quarterback, and the offense has a good season. Schurr is maybe not the gladiator that Angel Santiago was, but he is fast, and he has a much better arm. I think we can all see that Coach Jeff Monken would quite prefer to be able to throw the ball a little to keep defenses honest. Schurr is the best quarterback on the squad for that.
Unfortunately Schurr hasn’t had a lot of luck staying healthy. This leads us to the second half of this issue, the play of Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw has more speed than Schurr, and he may have more total upside. But he’s still a converted quarterback, and this is his first full season playing in Army’s offense. Can he learn that offense and run it effectively? Can he throw well enough to make Army’s downfield passing a legitimate enough threat?
|Army runs the Triple-Option|
Army’s quarterback needs to be able to run, to make good decisions with the football, and to pass enough to make defenses respect at least the potential of a downfield strike. That is a lot to ask, unfortunately. Army may well have enough athletes, but the real question is: Does it have enough playmakers?
3. How much better will the O-Line play?
Army’s offensive line was a patchwork last season. Well, last year’s plebes are this year’s returning veterans, and on top of that, Army is getting firstie right tackle Justin Gilbert back from injury. This offensive line has the potential not just to be better but to be much better. This is critically important. For as much as Army had some success moving the ball last season, that success was often wholly contingent on the team’s ability to get push up the middle. When fullback Larry Dixon was able to get good yardage on the dive, the rest of the offense ran like a juggernaught. However when Dixon got stuffed, teams often started run-blitzing the intermesh between the quarterback and the fullback, and chaos ensued. Without a legitimate passing game, Army gave away a lot of promising drives in critical situations.
Resolving the problem starts with Army’s interior O-line. That group needs to give the rest of the offense room to work, and they need to make holes for the fullback. This forces the opposing defense to collapse its linebackers toward the middle of the field, which in turn opens up the option on the outside. We saw this work at times last season, even against good teams. For 2015 to be a better year, we need to start seeing more consistency.
4. How good is this defense?
All through the offseason Coach Monken said that the defense was ahead of the offense. That was a dramatic reversal from what we saw last season, when nearly all of Army’s top talent was on offense, and considering the number of times we saw the defense collapse late in games last season, it has me worried.
Okay, Army’s defense looks much better on paper. Two of Army’s best players are cornerbacks--Chris Carnegie and Josh Jenkins--and Xavier Moss did the team a favor by moving to safety, perhaps the biggest need position on the entire team. Early returns on Moss have been good. On top of that, Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King return at lineback--Timpf may well be the best player on this year’s team--and D-lineman John Voit is back as a yearling after a very promising plebe season. Several of Army’s top recruits came in on the defensive side of the ball as well. All of this is very promising.
But. How well can they hold up if the offense struggles? That seems likely early in the season, and Army needs to win its first few games if the team is going to have any shot at a winning season.
5. How much will the plebes contribute?
As I write this, the Class of 2019 is still in the first phase of Beast Barracks. It’s been hot and humid, and it looks like it might rain for the next few days. The new class has almost certainly spent the majority of its time to this point shining shoes, learning to march, getting issued the million-and-one things new cadets get issued when they first report, and memorizing the Definition of Leather and other basic Academy knowledge. Soon they’ll start heading out to the field to do basic Army training, qualify with their weapons, and all the rest. What they won’t do is play football. They may get a few hours once every two weeks to check in with the coaches, meet their teammates, and that sort of thing, but quality training time will have to wait until they are accepted into the Corps at the end of Beast. Meanwhile, Army’s first game is the Friday before Labor Day. As noted earlier, training camp for the rest of the team starts August 3rd.
Army brought in almost eighty football recruits this season, and at some point, a few of them are going to contribute. It won’t be early, but it may well be earlier than ideal, especially for some of the top guys. How much they can add to the team is very much an open question, but it’s one that will tell us a lot about what this team is going to be moving forward.
I spent the 4th of July at a picnic with the West Point Society of Connecticut, and the rumor is that Coach Monken thinks he has a better team, but that he knows he lost a lot of talent at graduation. Similarly, I think everyone knows that the new staff is slowly building a more talented team, but that talent won’t manifest itself this year, even under ideal conditions.
With a year in the offense and a better O-line, we can hope for better play, but this relies on finding a playmaking quarterback who can run the offense and stay healthy. Ahmad Bradshaw has the speed to kill it, but can he make the decisions? Similarly, AJ Schurr has plenty of talent and a decent arm, but can he stay healthy? Similarly, Army has the athletes to make plays on defense, but can they hold up against larger opponents for four quarters of football? We haven’t seen that in awhile.
What is this team going to be?
We don’t know yet, but we may start to get some answers next month.