Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Army Football Preview: What to Watch in the Spring Game

This post begins our pre-summer look at Army Football’s 2016 season.  We’ll spend the next few weeks previewing the team’s 2016 season, add Michie Stadium to the NYC and the Area series, and run down the schedule to try to make some predictions going forward.  Army’s Spring Game is this Saturday, so we start with that:
What to Watch in the Spring Game?

2016 will be Head Coach Jeff Monken’s third at West Point.  That’s important because Army fans come into the new season with every right to expect their team to start showing progress following fourteen years of new-universal disappointment.
By the time this season starts, Monken will have integrated two full recruiting classes into his program, with many of 2015’s bumper crop of recruits already battle-tested.  Army brought in a whopping seventy-nine football recruits in 2015 with something like twenty-five seeing actual playing time as true freshmen.  Many more are expected to take the field in the coming year, including some highly touted recruits, and the incoming recruiting class looks to be almost as large and at least as talented.  
With a core group of veteran leaders on defense and a strong cohort of talent in the junior ranks, Army Football has more talent now than it has had since early in the Ellerson era.  This will still be a young team in 2016, but Monken has his guys in the vast majority of his team’s key positions.  With that, many of the excuses of yesteryear are now out the window.  
2016 is the first in a long time that comes with expectations—albeit modest ones.
2016 Army Football Schedule

What to Watch: Quarterbacks

As of this writing, Coach Monken has yet to name his starting quarterback.  Rising cow Ahmad Bradshaw got the start last year but had a tough go of it.  Bradshaw is a converted running back who has speed and power to burn, but who was unable to compete as a plebe for “Academy reasons[1]”, making last year his first in the triple-option.  He ran well between the tackles but struggled at times with the nuisances of the offense and wound up getting hurt before becoming the player his talent indicates he could be.  
A healthy Bradshaw in full command of the triple-option’s misdirection elements would be a formidable presence behind center, but as yet, we’ve not seen that player emerge.  What’s more, Bradshaw’s game relies heavily on his innate athleticism, so when he got dinged last season, the quality of his play dropped precipitously.  Army is never going to have a drop-back passing game, so if its quarterbacks can’t run hard, they really struggle.
Rising yearling Chris Carter came in against Rutgers, played well, and was then very nearly the hero of the Navy game.  Carter has a better arm, a better pitch, and a better feel for the offense in general, but at 5’ 11”, 170 lbs, he’s undersized for D-1 quarterback, let alone a quarterback running the triple-option.  It’s hard to imagine that he could stay on the field through the pounding of a full twelve-game season in Army’s offense, but it’s probably unfair to assume that he can’t just because he’s a little small—especially at the collegiate level.
Reality is that whoever starts at quarterback, both guys are likely to see playing time.  The triple-option is brutal on its quarterbacks, and Bradshaw already has an injury history.  Hell, even a gladiator like Angel Santiago had trouble staying on the field for Army.  In that sense, then, it doesn’t matter who starts for Army.  It matters who can stay on the field and stay healthy.

What to Watch: Center and the O-Line

There are many reasons why Army struggled last season, but the most obvious was turnovers.  Army has struggled more than any team I’ve ever seen with the center-quarterback exchange, losing something like three balls per game to simple fumble-fingeredness.  Now long-time center Matt Hugenberg is graduating, which perhaps presents an opportunity to clean up some of the exchange problems but introduces a new problem at the same time—instability at center.
Army has really struggled the last two years to keep its offensive line healthy and intact over the course of the season.  This year’s squad looks younger and more athletic than did the last few years’, but the loss of Hugenberg is critical because he never missed games.  Though the players around him rotated constantly, Hugenberg was a constant presence on Army’s O-Line, and if the team cannot get more stability out of its new group, it is really going to miss his steadying presence in the middle.
Army also needs to find a way to get more push in the middle of the field, as we’ll discuss in more detail below.

What to Watch: The Fullback Dive

As its name implies, the triple-option offense has three primary elements:  
 -- First read: the fullback dive in the middle of the field.  
 -- Second read: the quarterback keeper, either between the tackles or outside.  
 -- Final read: the pitch outside.
Army had trouble moving the ball with the fullback dive last year, and with that the entire offense struggled.  Defenses were free to focus on the quarterback, resulting in anemic offensive play throughout the season.  Add in trouble with the center-quarterback exchange and multiple injuries at quarterback, and you get a 2-10 season.
In a sense, this is all one issue.  When the dive works, the offense works.  But the dive can’t work if opposing defenses are getting penetration in the center, and this in turn complicates everything—including the center-quarterback exchange.  The triple-option is about timing and variability, but it requires a real threat in the center of the field—what Army officers might term a fixing attack—to hold the defense in place and create opportunities around the edges for bigger gains.  Take away the dive, and it becomes easier to take away the outside running lanes, and then the offense has to punt.
Rising yearlings Cole Macek and Andy Davidson are converted linebackers with high school experience at running back.  Both guys are pounders, and by all accounts they’ve given the offense a spark in the middle, so perhaps Army has some hope going forward.  They’re gonna need it if they want to win more games.

What to Watch: The Secondary

Army’s secondary was dreadful in 2014.  With Larry Dixon at fullback and Angel Santiago at quarterback, the Black Knights could move the ball on anyone two years ago, but they simply could not stop passes across the middle of the field.  Time and time again, we saw Army jump out to an early lead and collapse as teams from all over nation discovered the secondary’s weakness and exploited it.
At first, 2015 looked like it was going to be more of the same.  With no one but yearling Rhyan England incumbent at Safety, then #1 wide receiver Xavier Moss volunteered to move to defense—and got torched in the early going.  Cow cornerback Josh Jenkins—arguably the best player on the entire team—got hurt before the season started, and his partner, firstie cornerback Chris Carnegie—who should have been the secondary’s steadying hand—drew Pass Interference after Pass Interference call, particularly at UConn.
Somehow they got it turned around.  Plebe cornerback Brandon Jackson emerged to play opposite Carnegie and took some of the pressure off.  Rhyan England’s play improved exponentially, making him my personal pick as Army’s most improved player overall.  Moss learned his new role.  Gradually, we stopped seeing the late game collapses and started seeing close games lost on turnovers and time-of-possession.  This was real improvement, though it remained frustrating.
Still, Army’s defense was always going to be the strength of the team in 2015, and by the end of the season, they were objectively good.  The secondary was a huge part of the reason why.  
All things considered, this was an incredible turnaround.
Army is going to need a ball-hawking secondary if it’s going to have success in the coming season.  Look at the first five games—at Temple, Rice, at UTEP, at Buffalo, at Duke.  That is not an easy way to start the season.  However, four of those first five will have new starting quarterbacks, and UTEP is introducing a new offensive scheme as well.  Assuming that the offense can hold onto the ball, there should be some opportunities here.  If Army’s secondary can stop Rice over the middle of the field and generate turnovers against UTEP and Buffalo, we could—conceivably—get off to a fast start.
The cliché says that “defense travels”.  Army’s defense is going to need to travel for this team to have any hope of sustained success.

What to Watch: Kicking Game

It’s been awhile since Army has had a lights-out kicker, and this isn’t made any easier by the fact that incumbent kicker Dan Grochowski is graduating.  News out of camp makes the situation sound dire, but is it?  
This is a potentially major issue going forward.

What to Watch: Spring Game

Army’s Spring Game starts at 1:00 pm at Michie Stadium, and it’s free!  My kids and I are going, and I’m thinking about wearing my old Army Swimming jersey just so folks will know who I am.
“Who’s that asshole wearing a swimming jersey to a football game?”
Yeah.  That’ll be me.
If you’re a season ticket holder, then you already know that Coach Monken is scheduled to speak at 11:30, and that there’s a cookout shortly thereafter.  We even get to park in A Lot, so presumably there won’t be that many people.  

I’ve often wondered how many season ticket holders Army has.  I doubt they’ll all go to Saturday’s scrimmage, but I am curious to see how many folks show up.  I’ll put the over/under at a hundred fifty, but it could easily be twice that after last year’s surprise performance against Navy.  2016 has real expectations, and a lot of seasoned fans are buying in after a lot of years of bad performance.  How many will show on Saturday?
With any luck, the Athletics Department will have its new schedule posters printed up to go along with the barbecue.  I finally took my 2015 poster down a couple of weeks ago, but now I’ve got a distinctly empty space down in my basement man-cave.  I need a new poster to balance out the visuals, ASAP.  It’s driving me bananas, so they better have those posters.
That’s all I’ve got.
Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!
See you Saturday.
[1] To my knowledge, the Academy has never made the true reason for Bradshaw’s ineligibility public.  I want to believe that it's Area Tours but it’s almost certainly academics.

That’s fine.  We all know that Academy academics are legitimately tough, but man, Bradshaw would be an instant legend with Old Grads everywhere if he got 100 hours as a plebe for drinking in the barracks or something.

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