Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Army Football Preview: How Did We Get Here?

It’s Army-Navy week!

Army comes into this weekend’s Army-Navy game as an eight-point road underdog.  That sounds about right based on performance, but in many ways, this year’s game marks the first creditable Army Football team since 1999.  Though the Black Knights have just sixteen firsties (seniors) on their roster, that small leadership group came into their final year at the Academy with a singular mission.  They would make Army Football great again.  
This has been a monumental undertaking.

It remains a work-in-progress.  Army has scored a few major victories in the 2016 season, but it has also suffered some mind-bogglingly inconsistent play.  This is not unexpected from a team whose core is in its second year of Division 1 college football.  What’s changed is Army’s culture.  Today, Army players go into games expecting to win.  They have more players—and more talented players—than they’ve had in years.  More than that, though, they have faith in the direction of the program.  They have faith in each other.
Army isn’t back.  Despite their 3-0 start, this team never became the juggernaut its start hinted that it might someday become.  After nearly two decades of bad decisions, mediocrity, and losing football, however, the program has finally turned a corner.  Considering where we came from, that’s a great accomplishment all on its own.
How Did We Get Here?
Once upon a time, Army had a football coach named Bob Sutton.  Sutton wasn’t a great coach, per se, but he managed to keep the Military Academy playing something like .500 ball even as the true madness of major college football emerged to become a billion dollar business, as the paydays for pro football draft prospects went from being merely excellent to truly life-altering.  
This was not an easy task.
Sutton succeeded by recruiting beefy players and by playing old school, run-option football out of the wishbone.  He didn’t win every game, and his style was decidedly boring to watch on television, but he had a good record against Navy, and his program looked like it just might break through on a larger stage starting in the early- to mid-1990s.  Army won four Navy games in a row from 1992 to 1996, culminating in a ten-win season that finished with a close loss to Auburn in the Independence Bowl.  For a while there, Army looked like an ascendant program.
Unfortunately, the storied 1996 season led to hubris on the part of the Academy’s brass.  As the ancient Greeks once said, “He whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud.”  Army joined Conference USA in 1998—to decidedly ill effect.  Sutton’s program went 4-7, 4-7, 3-8 in that three years following that glorious ’96 season—with three losses to Navy—and Sutton himself was fired in Philadelphia following that final loss in 1999.  
Army’s brass decided to go in a different direction.  They brought in Todd Berry and—amazingly—tried to implement a West Coast, spread-style offense.  This was suicidal folly.  Army will never have the kind of offensive linemen it needs to pass-protect out of the spread, nor does the Academy have some history of heroic playmaking quarterbacks.  Berry went 1-10, 3-8 (with a miraculous win over Navy in 2001), 1-11, and 0-13.  He was fired mid-season in 2003.
Army next brought in former NFL coach Bobby Ross.  I like Ross, he coached one of my favorite iterations of the San Diego Chargers, and under other circumstances, I think he might’ve succeeded.  However, it’s unclear how seriously he took his position as the Head Football Coach at West Point.  Rumor has it that he saw coaching for the Academy as more a “hobby” than an actual job.  He recruited better players than Berry had, but he and his successor Stan Brock continued to try to run a “pro-style” offense with results that were, at their best, little better than the worst of the Sutton years.
Army needed to go back to option football, this much was obvious, though it was perhaps not obvious to Stan Brock.  The Academy therefore brought in Rich Ellerson, an expert with the option who had familial ties to the Academy and to Army service in general.  Ellerson was well-liked, and for a while it looked like he might make a go of it.  With leftover recruits from the Ross/Brock era, Ellerson went 5-7 his first year and followed that in 2010 with a 7-6 season that saw Army win a bowl game.  He did not beat Navy, however, even with that powerhouse 2010 team, a team that had two players who would eventually go on to become NFL starters.  Moreover, time was not on Ellerson’s side.
Though it was not immediately obvious in 2010, Ellerson was struggling to find recruits.  In fact, his recruiting woes were perhaps as bad as those of any coach in Army football history.  Part of this was perhaps down to the two wars America’s Army was fighting overseas, but a larger part can be laid at the feet of the Academy’s bureaucracy.  
There has always been an element amongst West Point’s leadership that views Corps Squad sports as a distraction from the Academy’s mission.  Ellerson was particularly bad at managing this aspect of the bureaucracy, leading to fewer height/weight waivers, smaller players, and a reduced emphasis on football in general.  This was exacerbated by the reality that the Army itself was struggling with a nascent manpower crisis, and that junior officers were particularly apt to bolt the service.  With real problems besetting an Army at war, Army Football was not, it must be said, the highest priority for the nation’s oldest service academy.  
What would have been a significant challenge instead became untenable.  Among other things, Ellerson made poor use of high school football camps for recruiting, failing a basic test of outreach at exactly the same moment that his players were being dragged away from the football field for all manner of unrelated ancillary bullshit.  Ellerson wanted smaller, faster players for his scheme, but at an academy that already struggled to recruit size, this emphasis created an inadvertent crisis.  Ellserson also had a tendency to put all of his “good” players on offense, leaving his team with a defense that collapsed with alarming regularity in the second halves of games.  Finally, he ran a particularly finicky, precision-based version of the triple-option with players who had neither the talent nor the discipline to make that variant work.  
Everyone liked Rich Ellerson, but he simply wasn’t the man for the particular job.  Following his 7-6 season, he went 3-9, 2-10, and 3-9, with a historically bad loss to Navy in his final year.  This ended his career at Army.
Enter Jeff Monken
Army hired Coach Jeff Monken to reboot its program from the ground up following its loss to Navy in 2013.  
The task looming before Army’s new Head Football Coach was truly monumental.  Ellerson had left his successor a thinly manned team with decent speed but little size and less depth.  Army coaches have always succeeded in getting at least a few three-star recruits on the basis of service—some kids just want to serve their country—but in the wake of the Ellerson era, Monken had a team with no appreciable defense, especially over the middle of the field, a single playmaking fullback in Larry Dixon, and an undersized gladiator at quarterback in Angel Santiago.  Beyond that, Army had—at-best—a smattering of talent.  Cornerbacks Josh Jenkins and Chris Carnegie were playmakers in Monken’s first year, and then-yearling (sophomore) linebackers Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf both proved to be ballers.  Army suffered at safety, however, and if the duo of Santiago and Dixon could reliably score points, especially early, they had trouble holding serve.  In game after game during Monken’s first season, Army got off to a fast start only to collapse in the fourth quarter.  Yes, the Monken era started 4-8, but even in the games that Army won, mostly they just escaped.  Buffalo rallied from an early 38-point deficit and nearly stole Army’s home opener in 2014; Connecticut was down two touchdowns and would have won if not for a last-play pick-six by Carnegie; and Army managed to lose a close contest to Yale on the road off a missed field goal.  Monken’s first season was not a bad showing, exactly, but it was also not a triumphal return to power and glory.

Rebuilding from the Ground Up
Rebuilding a college football program is not easy.  It’s a zero-sum game with real money at stake.  Money makes people pay attention, and the NCAA makesbillions.  Colleges all over the country chase NCAA revenue, and in some cases, they show little regard for the effects of the chase on their players, their students, or even their overall finances.  
The service academies exist within this dynamic on an even more stringent basis.  They can accept neither fifth-year seniors nor junior college transfers.  All of their players must be high school recruits.  Until this past year, academy service obligations also made pro-football careers virtually impossible.  Perhaps most importantly, every West Point cadet has to pass calculus, chemistry, physics, and many other engineering prerequisites.  This means that the potential recruiting pool for the academies is relatively small.  The academies therefore compete fiercely with each other for recruits, but they also compete with other name-brand schools like Duke, Vanderbilt, and the colleges of the Ivy League.  In many ways, this helps define Army’s schedule.  Army plays Duke, Wake Forest, and Fordham, for example, precisely because these are the schools with whom it competes for athletes.  Similarly, there is a reason why Army made it to a bowl game this year based in part on academics.  The Black Knights have an excellent Academic Progress Rate (APR), finishing slightly ahead of Air Force and substantially ahead of Navy in the most recent academic term.  This isn’t exactly surprising; West Point has always been an excellent school.
In such an environment, success breeds more success, and failure breeds more failure.  With a dozen years of futility in the rearview mirror, Coach Jeff Monken has had a Hell of a lot of work to do.  Put simply, most recruits wanted to play where they think they can win.  With a relatively small talent pool, this makes recruiting, especially high-end recruiting, extremely difficult.  West Point doesn’t offer Basket Weaving, nor does it feel sorry for kids who can’t keep up.
Monken’s first full recruiting class was nevertheless an overwhelming success.  That first class brought in a whopping seventy-nine recruits.  Rush LB Kenneth Brinson was the Class of 2019’s top recruit—he chose Army over Stanford—but CB Brandon Jackson had the biggest immediate impact.  With Jackson at corner, Army’s secondary stabilized, and in fact, defense became the strength of the current team.  Monken only won two games in his second season, but he succeeded in laying the groundwork for future success.  Almost half of his first recruiting class played meaningful football in their plebe year, including twenty-five who saw time in their first Army-Navy game.  His second full recruiting class pulled in another fifty-nine recruits.  Army Prep beat Navy Prep for the first time in a while in 2015, and they won again in 2016.
Things had started to change.
Making Army Football Great Again
Army Football is not a finished product.  This is a team with two very good firstie linebackers, a very good firstie wide receiver, and a converted firstie safety in Xavier Moss.  Beyond that, they have a collection of firstie role-players who provide critical leadership to an otherwise very young team.  They have a cow (junior) quarterback in Ahmad Bradshaw, a cow safety in Rhyan England, and a very good cow rush linebacker in Alex Aukerman, and few cow role-players on the offensive and defensive lines.  Most of the core contributors are yearlings (sophomores).  These include all three fullbacks, most of the slotback rotation, one cornerback, a goodly percentage of both the offensive and defensive lines, the back-up quarterback, and several of the wide receivers.  With the passing of Brandon Jackson, Army’s best cornerback is now a plebe, 2020’s top recruit Elijah Riley.  
Bottom line, this is a team with a Hell of a lot of upside.

Army won six games this year.  They’ve been inconsistent, as young teams are apt to be, but they currently have the 6th ranked defense in FBS college football, putting Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman into contention for the Broyles Award.  They won both their FCS games for the first time in recent memory.  They scored major road wins over Temple and Wake Forest.  They’re headed to a bowl game.  As of this writing, they have sixty-three committed recruits for next season , including a handful of true standouts.
The Heart of Dallas Bowl: Army vs. North Texas
Whatever happens on Saturday, this is a team that’s poised to take a big step forward next year.  They need experience, and they need consistency.  For now, though, they’ve changed the culture, setting themselves up for future success.  Considering where we’ve come from, this is no small thing.

Go Army!  Beat Navy!!!

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