Thursday, December 17, 2015

Army Football Review: Final Thoughts on 2015

I’m gonna use Army beat writer Sal Interdonato’s Navy write-up as my starting place this week.  If you’re a fan of Army Football, I urge you to read the whole article.  That said, the piece below is where I want to start as we consider where this team is headed.

Quick thoughts: Navy (Hudson Valley.Com)
The Black Knights held Navy to a season-low 11 first downs and only four in the second half. Army returns nine of 11 starters on defense and is expected to get back junior cornerback Josh Jenkins and sophomore defensive lineman Andrew McLean, who both missed the season with injuries, to replace the two graduating seniors – cornerback Chris Carnegie and [T.J.] Atimalala, a nose tackle.
Josh Jenkins is arguably Army’s best player, and his absence this past season was good for at least three losses—Fordham, Connecticut, and Wake Forest.  After that, plebe cornerback Brandon Jackson finally got the start, making an immediate impact in Army’s pass defense.  Prior to Jackson’s starting, Army’s secondary was toast.  You will recall that all of the games I mentioned above were close loses early in the season that got away by virtue of breakdowns in pass defense.  Had this team been able to field Jenkins and Carnegie with Jackson in the nickel, I suspect we would now be looking at a berth in a bowl game.
It looks like Army will be losing something like five core contributors to graduation— CB Chris Carnegie, FB Matt Giachinta, T Ryan Alexander, C Matt Hugenberg, and NT T.J. Atimalala.  Other guys contributed to be sure, for example TE Kelvin White and QB AJ Schurr, but the five I listed played big parts in nearly every game.  Atimalala is probably the hardest to replace, though Carnegie also played well in spots, and the O-Line has had trouble fielding healthy players on a continual basis for the past two years.  I give Hugenberg at least some part of the blame for the offense’s problems managing snaps, especially since we saw four different quarterbacks struggle over the course of the last two seasons, but he’s a tough, physical player whose absence will be felt.  The same can be said for Alexander.  Similarly, I wasn’t overly sorry to see Giachinta lose snaps to Aaron Kemper as the season progressed, but he was still the better fullback in the passing game, he was always healthy, and I get the feeling that he was one of the true leaders in the locker room.  That stuff counts for a lot, especially when we consider how hard this team fought down the stretch.
Still, there is absolutely no reason why Army shouldn’t show major improvement next season.  Quarterback Chris Carter returns with a year in the system, two starts under his belt, and a lot to prove.  Meanwhile, Ahmad Bradshaw is a more than capable backup who’s likely to get a few starts given the style of play Army employs with its offense.  Carter is a smaller guy, but he’s quick and elusive, and he’s got a good arm, especially when throwing on the run.  Bradshaw has better speed, and I think he runs a little harder between the tackles, but he’s not quite as good managing the offense, his pitches aren’t as crisp, and he’s nowhere near Carter’s level as a passer, especially throwing on the move.  I was in favor of Bradshaw’s starting this season, and there is no question that he played well at times, but he also had trouble staying healthy.  I agree with Interdonato that Carter deserves to go into the offseason as the starter, but I also think it would be foolish to think that Bradshaw won’t be needed next season.  As a matter of reality, Army needs to keep two guys at quarterback.  The triple-option is hard on quarterbacks.
The team is in good shape at the offensive skill positions.  Aaron Kemper and Drue Harris return at fullback while John Trainor, Jordan Asberry, Nicholas Black, and Tyler Campbell all return at tailback.  Army needs to find another fullback, but Trainer, Asberry, Black, and Campbell can all play, and Kemper played really well when given the chance while Harris showed flashes, especially against Wake Forest.  Of that group, Kemper is the only rising firstie.  Harris, Asberry, Black, and Campbell are plebes.  WR Edgar Poe is also a rising firstie—and Army’s first true deep threat in recent memory.  Consider this: if Carter gets the start next season, Poe has a real chance at becoming the best receiver in Army history!  
Army needs to recruit some new receivers, it needs to replace Kelvin White at tight end, and it needs to find a way to firm up its offensive line while eliminating bungled snaps.  That stuff is not easy to do, but the team is in much better shape than it was heading into this past offseason.
There were fewer plebe contributors on defense, but as noted above, there aren’t a lot of losses, either.  LBs Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf are both rising firsties, as are Josh Jenkins and S Xavier Moss.  S Rhyan England is a rising cow, as is DL John Voit.  Those six guys are the core of Army’s defense.  
Moss and England were probably the most improved players over the course of 2015.  When we look at the differences between the way the defense played in 2014 and the way it played this season, those differences come down two main factors.  First, King and Timpf played lights out.  They were monumentally better than the guys they replaced.  Second, Moss and England brought Army’s safety play up from an abysmal level in 2014 to the point that it was actually one of the team’s strengths by the end of 2015, especially against the run.  This was important because without Jenkins, Army’s secondary was often suspect, particularly prior to the emergence of Jackson at corner.  Army now needs to recruit some depth, and they need to find ways to manufacture a pass rush.  I’m excited to see what this team will look like with Jenkins and Jackson at the corners, King and Timpf stuffing the run, and Moss and England playing as mature, experienced safeties.  Add in Kenneth Brinson at Rush LB and S Gibby Gibson as a situational player in the secondary, and I suspect we will see far fewer breakdowns in pass coverage over the middle of the field.  That by itself is worth quite a lot.
What will 2016 bring?
As of this writing, it looks like Army has another strong recruiting class on the way.  Lots of quality high school players seem to have been impressed with Army’s play against Navy, and more to the point, the better ones see opportunity.  I remember that feeling well.  In considering where I wanted to swim, I knew I could come to Army and be the lead 200 butterflier, and that was a real factor in my ultimate decision.  As it happens, I came in and led my group for three years, until getting mono my firstie year, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.  Even now, when I train young triathletes or teach my own daughters to lift weights, the experiences of being a leader on the swim team inform the way I approach my kids.  As I’ve said many times, this kind of thing is why you go to West Point.  Would-be football recruits see the same thing, and they want what I wanted.  
Good for them.  It is well worth the struggle.

As of this writing, Interdonato is tracking 42 commits for the incoming class, including a number who’ve chosen Army over Navy and Air Force.  Of course, recruiting commitments are non-binding for the service academies, so we don’t exactly know how many of these kids will actually show up, but there are some real players who’ve said they’re coming.  Almost all of the verbal commitments to the class of 2019 actually showed up on R-Day this past summer, so who knows?  We may be looking at some kind of trend.
As of this writing, 2016 has a 13-game schedule.
Next season opens with a tough game on the road at giant-killer Temple, followed by Rice at home and then UTEP and Buffalo on the road, followed by a home game against Kent State.  Temple is currently 10-3 with the Boca Raton Bowl against Toledo still to play.  Playing at Temple is a tough way to start a new season, but the next three are winnable.  Rice, UTEP, and Buffalo all went 5-7, with Buffalo having perhaps the best season.  None of them had particularly strong seasons, though, and Rice and UTEP both finished below Army in ESPN’s 128-team FBS efficiency rankings.  This does not mean that those games will be easy, especially with Army’s recent history on the road, but if this team is going to take that elusive next step, it needs to start with a win at home against Rice, a road win, and then another win at home against Kent State.  
If Army can go 3-2 over the opening stretch, this team has a legitimate shot at making its first bowl appearance since 2010.  Lafayette, North Texas, and Morgan State are all imminently winnable games, but since Lafayette and Morgan State are both FCS schools, only one of those games will count towards bowl eligibility.  Assuming a 5-3 start that culminates with a win at home against North Texas, Army would then need to find a way to beat Air Force, Navy, or Wake Forest on the road.  I like their odds against Navy, but after fourteen years, winning the Army-Navy game would be an extremely significant accomplishment.
To put it another way, I don’t give this team great odds against Temple, Duke, or Notre Dame at a neutral site, and unless they lose to Lafayette, the Morgan State game is an exhibition.  This leaves a nine-game season in which Army needs to find six victories.  They need to beat the teams that they can beat, and they need to play well on the road in winnable games.  That seems doable considering what we saw last Saturday, but it will still require much more consistent play, especially on offense.  I think it’s an easier way forward than the one Army faced heading into 2015, but there are some very tough games ahead, and Army still needs to learn how to win.

1 comment:

  1. I should note that Army announced a revision of its schedule today, drop pub the Kent State home game on Oct. 1st. That leaves us with five home games and makes the road to a bowl game much more difficult, but I can't say I'm surprised they're going to play a traditional 12-game schedule.